The Honeybee

Being aptly named for their collection of large amounts of nectar and pollen, Honeybees are the only species of bee that have the ability to produce and store large amounts of honey; as well as being the only bee species that exist on every continent with the exception of Antarctica. Being used for their crop pollination services, honeybees have also been domesticated to produce honey, wax, and pollen for harvesting by beekeepers. Although many different species have evolved over thousands of years in different regions of the world, there is only one main species used today in modern apiculture. The most widespread species is known as the Western Honeybee (Apis mellifera) which has spread over the last 600 years from its geographical origin in Africa and Europe during the period of European colonial expansion.

Unlike their bee cousins, Honeybee colonies are perennial meaning that they do not hibernate and instead overwinter during the months when there is little to no forage available. Two particular life history characteristics allow Honeybee colonies to exist year-round; first, storing large amounts of honey as a food source against lean times; and second, the creation of new colonies by the process of swarming. This allows the colony to potential be immortal as individual honeybees are replaced when they die.

Honeybee Seasonal Activity

Honeybees are a eusocial member of the Hymenoptera order of insects, having evolved a highly structured social order within colonies. At the height of the forage season, in mid-summer, a healthy hive may comprise of 20,000 to 50,000 individuals. Each colony typically contains one fertile queen, hundreds to thousands of fertile males known as drones, and tens of thousands of usually sterile female workers. Every individual member, at each stage of a honeybee’s life are specific tasks to continue the proper functioning of the hive.

The Worker Honeybee
Honeybee on EchineciaThe most common and easily recognized member of a honeybee hive is the worker. They are medium in size, 12mm to 15mm long, mostly coloured brown with black and yellow abdominal bands, and have fuzzy hairs on the thorax. Workers typically make up over 90% of each colonies population, and perform a variety of tasks throughout their lives. Worker honeybees are sterile females that have a lifecycle of about 45 days from birth. At each stage the worker will perform different tasks including: nursing the larvae (baby bees) by feeding them a mixture of pollen and honey; tending to the queen, ensuring that she is feeding and laying eggs; cleaning the hive and building honeycomb; guarding the hive from intruders; and collecting nectar and pollen from nearby forage. 

The Drone Honeybee
Drone Bee in FlightMale bees are called drones and identified by their big round bodies and their large eyes. Typically drones make up 10% of a colonies population and their only job is to mate with queens from other hives. If they do have the opportunity to mate with a queen, they will die immediately. If they do not have the opportunity to mate, than they can live up to 90 days, or be kicked out by the workers prior to overwintering.

The Queen Honeybee
Honeybee queenQueen bees are the matriarchs of honeybee colonies, secreting pheromones unique to the individual that helps communicate information to the workers, and the condition of the queen. This scent helps control swarming, inhibits the development of ovaries in the workers, indicates if the queen is fertile, and cues for workers to take care of her. Having the task of laying eggs her entire life, the queen will lay at a rate of around 1,500 eggs each day during the spring and summer. The queen can be distinguished by her elongated abdomen and small wings and will not leave the hive unless leaving for her mating flight at the beginning of her life or when part of a swarm looking to nest elsewhere. A honeybee queen can live up to 4 or 5 years, however it is recommended that she be replaced every 1 to 2 years to ensure that the colony has a healthy and fertile queen.

Threats to Honeybees and Other Pollinating Species

Today beekeepers have to grapple with the presence of major honeybee diseases, in particular is the bee mite known as Varroa destructor which is one of the likely contributors to the phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). In addition, the widespread use and exposure to pesticides, insecticides, and herbicides not only threatens the life of the individual bee, but also the survival of the hive with the contaminated nectar and pollen being shared throughout the hive. The problems of disease and potentially toxic environments are only exacerbated by the lack nectar-rich forage areas year-round, and the movement of bees around for pollination services. Though migratory beekeeping can be successful in terms of greater productivity from the hives, it can be very stressful for the bees making them more susceptible to disease.

As Western Honeybees are an introduced species to Vancouver Island and much of the world, it is important to not wholly rely on them for their pollination services, and not forget that other species play an important role in pollinating our food crops and native plant species. With this, honeybees should be looked at as partner with other pollinators in the pollination services they provide. To overcome these major threats posed to the honeybee, and other pollinating species is to support your local small scale beekeepers and organic producers. Through the establishment of healthy and sustainable areas, with a great diversity of forage crops and flowers year round, we can work to overcome the threats posed by disease and commercial monocultures.