For centuries, beekeepers have raised honey bees, harvesting the sweet honey they produce and relying on them to pollinate crops. In fact, honey bees pollinate an estimated one-third of all the food crops we consume. Here are 15 fascinating facts about honey bees you might not know.
1. Honey Bees Can Fly Between 15—20 Miles per Hour
At a top speed of 15-20 miles per hour, honey bees are not the fastest fliers in the bug world. That’s because they’re built for short trips from flower to flower, not for long-distance hauls. Their tiny wings must flap 12,000 to 15,000 times per minute just to keep their bodies aloft for a flight home to the hive—usually at a clip of about 12 miles per hour—when fully loaded up with pollen.
2. A Colony Can Contain Up to 60,000 Bees
It takes a lot of bees to get all the work done—from 20,000 to 60,000 in a hive. Here are some of their chores:
- Nurse bees care for the young.
- The queen’s attendant workers bathe and feed her.
- Guard bees stand watch at the entrance of the hive.
- Construction workers build the beeswax foundation in which the queen lays eggs and the workers store honey.
- Undertakers remove the dead.
- Foragers bring back enough pollen and nectar to feed the entire community.
3. A Single Worker Bee Produces About .083 of a Teaspoon of Honey
For honey bees, there’s power in numbers. From spring to fall, worker bees must produce about 60 pounds of honey to sustain the entire colony over the winter. At a rate of .083 (or 1/12th) of a teaspoon per bee, it takes tens of thousands of workers to get the job done.
4. Queen Honey Bees Store a Lifetime Supply of Sperm
The queen bee can live three to five years but her biological clock ticks a lot faster than you might think. Just a week after emerging from her queen cell, the new queen flies from the hive to mate. If she doesn’t do so within 20 days, she loses her ability and it’s too late. If she’s successful, however, the queen never needs to mate again. She retains the sperm in her spermatheca (a small internal cavity) and uses it to fertilize eggs throughout her lifetime.
5. A Queen Honey Bee Can Lay More Than 2,000 Eggs a Day
Just 48 hours after mating, the queen begins her lifelong task of laying eggs and is such a prolific egg layer, she can produce her own body weight in eggs in a single day. An average day’s output is about 1,500 eggs and over the course of her lifetime, a queen might lay up to 1 million eggs. As you might guess, she has no time for any other chores, so attendant workers take care of all her grooming and feeding needs.
6. Honey Bees Uses Complex Symbolic Language
Outside of the primate family, honey bees have the most complex symbolic language on Earth. Theses insects pack a million neurons into a brain that measures a mere cubic millimeter—and they use every one of them. Worker bees perform different roles throughout their lives. Foragers must find flowers, determine their value as a food source, navigate back home, and share detailed information about their findings with other foragers. They communicate this information with hive mates through an intricately choreographed dance.
Karl von Frisch, a professor of zoology in Munich, Germany, spent 50 years studying bee language and earned the Nobel Prize in 1973 for his groundbreaking research on the waggle dance. In addition to dancing, bees use a variety of odor cues produced by secreted pheromones to communicate.
7. Drones Die Immediately After Mating
Male honey bees (a.k.a. drones) serve only one purpose: to provide sperm for the queen. About a week after emerging from their cells, drones are ready to mate. After they’ve mated with the queen, they die.
8. A Hive is a Constant 93° Fahrenheit Year-Round
As temperatures fall, the bees form a tight group within their hive to keep warm. Workers cluster around the queen, insulating her from the cold outside. In summer, workers fan the air inside the hive with their wings, keeping the queen and brood from overheating. You can actually hear the hum of all those wings beating inside the hive from several feet away.
9. Beeswax Comes From Special Glands on a Bee’s Abdomen
The youngest worker bees make the beeswax, from which workers construct the honeycomb. Eight paired glands on the underside of the abdomen produce wax droplets, which harden into flakes when exposed to air. The workers work the wax flakes in their mouths to soften them into a pliable construction material.
10. A Worker Bee May Visit Up to 2,000 Flowers per Day
A worker bee can’t carry pollen from that many flowers at once, so she visits between 50 to 100 flowers before heading home. She repeats these round-trip foraging forays throughout the day, which puts a lot of wear and tear on her body. A hardworking forager may live just three weeks and cover 500 miles.
11. The Hive Controls the Types of Bees That Emerge
They say you are what you eat and nowhere is that truer than when it comes to honey bees. The type of bees produced from honey bee eggs relies wholly on what the larvae are fed. Larvae that become queens are fed only royal jelly. Bees that are fed fermented pollen (bee bread) and honey become female workers.
12. A Hive Can Produce an Emergency Queen
If a hive loses its queen the results can be disastrous, however, if the queen has laid eggs within five days of her demise, the hive can create an “emergency queen” by swapping out what some larvae are eating. By replacing beebread and honey with an exclusive diet of royal jelly, a new queen can be created. Beebread and honey shrink the ovaries of worker bees, so an emergency queen won’t be as successful as one fed on royal jelly from day one but if there’s no other option, a less than perfect queen can step up to the task.
13. It’s a Woman’s World
Male bees come from unfertilized eggs and comprise only about 15 percent of the population of a colony. The presence of drones, however, is the sign of a healthy hive, since it indicates that the colony has plenty of food. Even so, males are ejected at the end of a season because they’re a drain on resources. That’s because the only thing drones do is eat and mate. Unlike the female bees, they don’t have any other jobs—and ironically, they don’t even have a stinger.
14. The Queen Aims for Genetic Diversity
On her mating flight, the queen will gather sperm from 12 to 15 drone bees to ensure the genetic health and diversity of her colony.
15. Bees Are the Ultimate Neat Freaks
Bees that maintain the hive work diligently to keep it clean. The only bee that defecates inside the hive is the queen, and there are designated bees that clean up after her when duty calls. In general, honey bees are so conscientious, in fact, that they’ll do whatever it takes to die outside of the hive if at all possible so their corpses won’t contaminate food or pose a threat to nursing young.
By Debbie Hadley | Thought Co.