Amazing Florida Honey Bees
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.