Busy as a Bee

By Mariah Quintanilla

August 15, 2016

Being a social bee doesn’t mean flying to bars every Friday night and talking about honey with other bees. For honey bees, sociality means that there is a strict hierarchy, or monarchy rather, governing the inside of a hive.

Dale Cooney, an urban beekeeper in Logan Square, explained the intricate social hierarchy of honey bees. He took a beekeeping class at Garfield Park Conservatory six years ago, and now he manages four honeybee hives of his own.

Every bee has a specific role, and those roles change as the bees age, said Cooney.  There must always be a queen in the hive. She has a robust body, resembling the male drone bees, but with a longer abdomen. The queen produces pheromones that control the entire colony, and also lays 1,500 to 2,000 eggs every day that will develop into a new brood of female workers.

“If the queen dies,” said Elina L. Niño, and apiculture specialist at the University of California, Davis, “suddenly workers will start rearing new queens within a few hours of queen loss.” In a managed colony, however, “Beekeepers will keep track of this, and would likely end up introducing a new, already [egg] laying queen,” said Niño.

When inspecting his hives, Cooney says he’s mainly looking for eggs—evidence that the queen has been there within the past three days. Trying to spot the queen is often too difficult when she is wandering among 50,000 other bees, he said.

The female worker honey bees usually constitute over 95 percent of the hive, and transition through specific jobs as they get older. During the first three weeks of a worker’s adult life, she is considered a “house bee.”

“They’re just housekeeping,” said Cooney. The first job for a young house bee is cleaning the hive and comb.

After a couple of days, she becomes a nurse bee, in which time she feeds the older larvae first and then the young. “Some of them might be part of the queen’s court, where they’re feeding the queen,” he added.

After her nursing career ends, she passes through a number of jobs—caring for the queen, building the comb, ventilating the hive, converting nectar to honey and guarding the hive—before her main duty becomes gathering nectar and pollen from flowers.

The drone’s only role in the hive, said Cooney, is to try and mate with the queen during a mating flight. Since he lacks a stinger and wax glands, and has no way of collecting pollen or nectar, yet eats more honey than a worker, he is often considered a liability to the hive.

If a drone doesn’t get a chance to mate with a queen during the first mating flight, said Niño, the drones will try mating again in their six-week lifespan.

If they survive until the winter without mating, explained Cooney, “They get pushed out to die out in the cold. If any of them fly back in, they’ll bite their wings off and drop them off the edge,” he said.

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