Bees: They work hard for the honey at the Early Street Community Garden in Morristown

Beekeeper Tammy Toad Ryan shows children a frame containing honeybee combs. Photo by Kevin Coughlin.

It’s no secret that honeybees make honey. But you might be surprised by how specialized these insects are at their trade.

And it’s important work: It’s estimated that honeybees are responsible for one-third of the U.S. food supply, through their pollination of plants.

Last week, adults and children gathered at the Early Street Community Garden as beekeepers Tammy Toad Ryan and Shaun Ananko described the honeybee social structure and honeymaking process, while treating brave visitors to a look inside their hive.

Honeybees normally build their hives in a hollow vessel. As social insects, they work together in a highly structured order. A hive can consist of as many as as 60,000 bees in summer and 25,000 in winter. There is one queen.  Most are  workers, and about  five percent are drones.

The Life of Her Royal Highness

The queen is the largest bee in the hive because she is full of eggs! When she is only seven days old, she will fly from the nest and mate with the drone(s), who supplies her with sperm for the rest of her life.

During her two- to five-year lifespan, she will lay as many as 2,000 eggs per day. If she lays fertilized eggs, females will hatch. Unfertilized eggs will yield drones.

The queen will only venture from the hive twice: Once when mating with the drones, and once when swarming occurs.

Swarming occurs when the bees form a new colony. Swarms may be alarming to see, but they are rarely aggressive unless provoked.

As the queen’s name implies, she is only fed royal jelly, a secretion from the glands of workers. She has a stinger without a barb and can use it as many times as she likes!

The Bachelors

The drones are medium-size male bees, easily recognized by their large eyes. Their sole job is to mate with a new queen, if one is produced. Their large eyes help them to recognize the queen in the flight swarm. They only live about eight weeks and have no stinger.

The Busy Life of the Girls

When a worker bee is one- to three weeks old, she is called a nurse bee and her job is to work in the hive doing comb construction, brood rearing, tending to the queen and drones, cleaning, temperature regulation and defending the hive.

In the summer the temperature inside the hive is 95 degrees Fahrenheit, which the bees maintain by clustering together and fluttering their wings. In the winter, hive temperatures cool down, but only to about 85 degrees.

When the worker is four- to five weeks old she becomes a field bee. Field bees forage outside the hive for nectar and pollen needed to feed larvae, the baby bees.

The worker bee’s body contains parts that are specialized for certain jobs. On each hind leg is a pollen basket for carrying pollen back to the hive. She has a honey stomach for storing and transporting honey, and special glands that make beeswax.

The life of the summer worker is four- to six weeks, while a winter worker can live four- to six months. She has a stinger with a barb. Once used, the insect dies, as the barb is torn out of her abdomen.

Food for Thought

Beebread is the main source of food for most honey bees and their larvae. It consists of pollen, nectar (or honey), enzymes and microbes that are gathered and produced by worker bees.

Royal jelly also produced by the worker bee is fed to the queen larvae and to adult queens. It is the workers who decide to make a new queen, if the old one has been killed or is weak, by feeding only royal jelly to the larvae destined to be queens.

All larvae are fed royal jelly for three days and then are fed beebread. Larvae that are fed bee bread become drones or workers.

The Honey Making Process in a Nutshell

The worker bees gather nectar that is stored in their honey stomach. It mixes with enzymes and microbes and is regurgitated into the honeycombs. The final process consists of the workers fanning the honeycombs with their wings to evaporate excess water, turning the substance into honey, which the bees use in the winter season as a source of energy.

The Mysterious Decline of the Honeybee

When beekeeper Tammy Toad Ryan was asked about the recent decline of the honeybee, she said there are many causes. Two of the main ones are:

  • The increased use of chemicals,  such as neonicotinoids,  that are sprayed on flower and vegetable gardens to kill insects. These chemicals attack the nervous system and would explain why many honeybees do not return to their hive.
  • Mites have been found on honeybees at an astounding rate, causing their demise.
Oliver Aung, 4 1/2, of Morristown intently watches honeybees at the hive. They are being fed sugar water as a supplement due to an inadequate supply of bees caused by a failing queen. Photo by Kevin Coughlin.

Getting within 15 feet of a beehive made me realize how important honeybees are– not only to make honey, but as pollinators of flowers and vegetables.

And it was amazing to learn how hard these insects really work to make the honey we enjoy–and to recognize their importance in the balance of nature.

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