NA­TURE'S NOTE­BOOK

Amaz­ing Florida Honey Bees

Times of the Islands - - Departments - BY WIL­LIAM R. C OX

Honey bees (Apis mel­lif­era) were brought to Florida from Europe in colo­nial times. To­day they are cru­cial to Florida’s $120 bil­lion agri­cul­ture industry as they pol­li­nate can­taloupes, cu­cum­bers, squash, av­o­ca­dos, pep­pers and wa­ter­mel­ons. They also gen­er­ate more than $30 mil­lion of honey in Florida.

Truly so­cial in­sects, honey bees are found in do­mes­tic hives and wild colonies. A colony con­sists of one queen, hun­dreds of males (drones) and 30,000-40,000 daugh­ters (work­ers). The work­ers are one-half-inch long, while the drones and queen are three-quar­ters to one-inch long.

The work­ers en­gage in sev­eral tasks de­pend­ing on their age. When they are less than two weeks old they clean the cells of the hive and first feed the older lar­vae and even­tu­ally lar­vae of all ages. Their main role dur­ing this time is as nurse bees.

The job of older house bees is to meet the field bees at the en­trance to the hive. The house bees take the nec­tar col­lected by the field bees and dis­trib­ute it to the cells of the hive.

The con­ver­sion of nec­tar (sweet plant se­cre­tion) re­quires both chem­i­cal and phys­i­cal change. Nec­tar is 30 to 90 per­cent wa­ter and the bees phys­i­cally re­move the wa­ter. They ma­nip­u­late the nec­tar in their mouth parts and then place small drops on the up­per sides of hive cells and fan the cells with their wings to re­move the ex­cess wa­ter. Honey con­tains only 18.5 per­cent wa­ter. To chem­i­cally change the nec­tar the bees add the enzyme in­ver­tase from their sali­vary glands. In­ver­tase con­verts the dis­ac­cha­ride sugar su­crose found in nec­tar into two monosac­cha­ride sug­ars: fruc­tose and glu­cose.

Worker bees can also be pollen col­lec­tors or propo­lis col­lec­tors. Pollen-col­lect­ing bees de­posit pollen pel­lets in empty cells where the pollen ma­tures into bee bread. Propo­lis (plant resin) is col­lected from tree buds to fill crevices and seal and var­nish hon­ey­combs. It is stored on the propo­lis-col­lect­ing bees.

Honey bees can start build­ing the wax hon­ey­combs when they are 12 to 15 days old. In their third week worker bees start their flights for ori­en­ta­tion and defe­ca­tion. Older house bees serve as guards at the hive en­trance. From three to six weeks old the work­ers for­age for wa­ter, propo­lis, pollen and nec­tar for the colony. Nec­tar is brought back in the high­est quan­ti­ties, while pollen is sec­ond and propo­lis is last.

Drones do not for­age on their flights as they are only in search of vir­gin queen bees. Their first flights oc­cur at close to eight days, and they are sex­u­ally ma­ture at 12 days. They rest for 75 per­cent of their life span, which is no more than eight weeks. Af­ter mat­ing, the drones are of no use to the colony and are ei­ther killed or starve to death. Af­ter a queen emerges from its cell it will mate within six days with sev­eral drones, each on sev­eral mat­ing flights at drone con­gre­ga­tion ar­eas. Dur­ing this mat­ing se­quence she will re­ceive and store an ad­e­quate sup­ply of five to six mil­lion sper­ma­to­zoa for the rest of her life of two to five years. The queen will start lay­ing eggs ap­prox­i­mately a week af­ter mat­ing. Her stu­pen­dous egg-lay­ing chore re­sults in more than 1,000 eggs per day. The sin­gle queen of the colony de­ter­mines the num­ber of worker bees and drones dur­ing egg lay­ing. Master bee­keeper Keith Coun­cell rec­om­mends that no at­tempts be made to ex­ter­mi­nate the bees as this con­tam­i­nates sur­viv­ing bees and makes them very ag­gres­sive (239-839-4479, swbees.com).

AF­TER MAT­ING, THE DRONES ARE OF NO USE TO THE COLONY AND ARE EI­THER KILLED OR STARVE TO DEATH.

Wil­liam R. Cox has been a pro­fes­sional na­ture pho­tog­ra­pher and ecol­o­gist for more than 35 years. Visit him on­line at wil­liam rcox­pho­tog­ra­phy.com.

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