Published on February 6, 2013 by Amy
Honeybees probably originated in Tropical Africa and spread from South Africa to Northern Europe and East into India and China. They were brought to the Americas with the first colonists and are now distributed world-wide. The first bees appear in the fossil record in deposits dating about 40 million years ago in the Eocene. At about 30 million years before present they appear to have developed social behavior and structurally are virtually identical with modern bees.
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Description. A small social insect, up to 3/4 of an inch long, living in colonies with 1 queen, tens of thousands of workers and a few hundred drones. The abdomen is striped orange-yellow and the head, antennae and legs are black. Its 4 wings are translucent.
Anatomy varies by caste. The workers (sterile females) have specialized parts for their various functions — e.g., baskets on their hind legs to collect pollen and stingers to defend the hive. The drones (males) and queen (egg-laying female) are specialized for reproduction.
Life Cycle. The queen bears all the young in a hive, using sperm gathered in mating flights in her first days of life. When she stops laying eggs, around age 2, workers move an existing egg into a special cell to produce a new queen. On hatching, the new queen kills the old. Drones (males), which develop from unfertilized eggs, live 1 month in spring or 3 months in summer. They die upon mating. Any drones still alive in fall are barred from the nest. Workers (sterile females) do all the work of the hive, with jobs determined by age. They live 20-40 days in summer and 140 days in winter.
Habitat and Distribution. Honeybees build hives in hollow trees, caves and other semi-protected openings, including buildings. They keep their hives at a constant temperature of 92-93 degrees Farenheit. Honeybees are distributed worldwide.
Behaviors. When a hive’s population gets too large, it produces a second queen and divides. One group stays put; the other leaves with 1 queen to find or build a new hive. The process is known as “swarming.”
To build their honeycomb, bees scrape wax off their abdomens.
To communicate the location of food sources, they “dance.” The round dance says to circle near the hive. The waggle dance says to go farther, with orientation indicating direction and frequency of vibrations indicating distance.
Food. A mixture of honey and pollen called “bee bread.” Queens are fed a slightly different mixture called “royal jelly.” It’s similar to bee bread but the proportions are different.
Threats. Few wild honeybees are left in the US and the number of managed colonies has fallen by half since 1940 to 3 million. Concern is high because honeybees are essential for pollinating both wild plants and crops.
While honeybees suffer from pesticides and habitat loss, the biggest threat is mites, which wipe out entire colonies. The only defense is chemicals, though attempts are being made to breed mite-resistant honeybees. Other predators include toads, robber flies and wasps. Bears often destroy hives to get honey.