"Tales from the Hive"
Bees have been busy for millions of years now, and they're not about to stop anytime soon.... Foragers still return from the fields with nectar.... While guard bees still watch and wait.
There's treasure in this beekeeper's hive, and all are sworn to protect it with their lives.
Suddenly, an intruder comes flying in. A wasp, hoping to capture a bee, and feed it to its hungry grubs.
The battle begins in earnest.
The wasp is larger, but the bees make up in numbers what they lack in strength.
They sting the invader relentlessly.
For the individual bee, it's a suicide attack. The bee's stinger and part of its abdomen will be ripped from its body when it pulls away.... But the defense of the colony is the only thing that matters.
Paralyzed by venom, mortally wounded, the wasp is unceremoniously dragged to the edge of the hive...and dumped.
Just an ordinary day of birth, death, sex and violence. And it's not even noon yet.
Ah, spring. After a long winter, it's time to get outside and drink your fill of nectar.
If you're a honey bee, this is your field of dreams.
Bees get almost all of their food from flowers.
Attracted by the bright colors and sweet smells, the bee thrusts its body and long, straw-like proboscis deep inside the flower and sucks up the sugary nectar at the bottom.
Pollen, the bees' source of protein, is also on the shopping list.
While the bee is gathering nectar, pollen collects on the small hairs of its body.
To carry it safely, the bee stows it away in sacks on its hind legs.
A bee can carry its own weight in pollen and nectar, and still fly... barely.
Some food will fuel the bee's own activity, but most will be saved for the communal hive.
As soon as they return, the foragers prepare to unload their cargo. Other workers are waiting to help them.
A full load of nectar fills nearly half of a bee's abdomen.
The foragers bring up the nectar from their stomachs into their mouths. Household bees then suck it out.
As the nectar is passed on, from one bee to another, it's processed by enzymes in the bees' bodies.
The nectar is then tipped into storage cells. It takes about five days for it to thicken and ripen into honey.
When the process is complete, the honey cell is sealed with wax, like a lid on a jar—to be opened when needed.
Pollen is stored separately, in other cells.
Later, it's mixed with honey, and used, for the most part, to feed the young.
The bees pack it down to make room for the next load—and the next.
Together, the dark pollen cells and lighter honey cells make up the bees' pantry.
The search for nectar and pollen lasts as long as the light does.
The flowers are not just being charitable. By luring the bees, they get them to carry pollen from one blossom to another.
A flowering plant can't reproduce unless it gets pollen from another flower of the same type. Without bees, most would die.
When a scout bee discovers a rich new source of food,it must tell the others how to get there.
This is the waggle dance. Pay close attention.
To learn the location of the nectar,watch how fast the bee waggles its body, listen to the sounds it makes, and remember the speed, direction, and number of patterns in the dance.
It's the bees' version of a map.
Directions are always given in relation to the sun—to the right of it, the left, or dead ahead.
Success at last.
Mmm, nice nectar....
It takes the nectar from five million flowers to make one pint of honey.
Each bee may visit hundreds of blossoms in a day and work a twelve hour shift.
They make about ten journeys in a day, with each trip lasting roughly an hour.
Today, just like yesterday, there is no rest for the weary.
Most worker bees live for only about a month. They simply wear out.
There's a constant need for replacements, so feeding and raising the young takes up much of the hive's energy.
There are three types of bees here: the female workers, the male drones, and the queen.
The workers are the smallest. But they do all the work of the hive, from nursing the young to foraging. Every few days, they take on a new job, running through all of them in the course of their lives.
The drones, who are medium-sized, mate with the colony's queen—their one and only job. They don't forage for food. They don't even have stingers to protect themselves.
The queen has only one job, too, but it's the most important of all. She must lay the eggs for the next generation of workers, drones, and even her own replacement.
But first the queen must mate, and to do that, she must leave the hive.
She sets off on her first mating flight when she's about a week old.
She must join a gathering of drones at precisely the right moment.
When the queen appears, she's immediately surrounded by the males, who follow her unique scent.
Each of the dozen or so drones who get to mate with the queen dies in the act.
The queen flies back to the hive immediately, her body carrying the sign of success... what's left of the male.
She'll make a few more mating flights in the coming days, / and then have enough sperm in her body to fertilize eggs for the rest of her life, which may last from one to four years.
It's now time for the beekeeper to pay his respects to her royal highness.
But he comes with an ulterior motive.
A mated queen can be sold to another beekeeper who wants to establish a new colony. Such valuable property needs to be marked, like the brand on a steer.
Every day, the queen will lay about 1500 eggs.... Two hundred thousand in a year.
It's a tough job, but someone has to do it.
The queen's royal scent prevents the female workers from laying eggs themselves.
It takes a few days for the eggs to grow into larvae.
They are then bathed in a special food, brought to them by workers.
During its first day, a larva eats so much, its weight increases five-and-a-half times. / In six days, its weight increases 1500 times.
The larvae then spin cocoons and pupae develop inside, until they emerge two weeks later as adult bees.
The queen only stops laying eggs when the weather grows colder, in November.
Each bee makes the metamorphosis from egg to larva to adult in about three weeks.
And there's little surprise about the newborn's sex, since every worker is a female, and almost every bee is a worker.
In a colony of tens of thousands, only a hundred bees are born male.
The dome-shaped covers of their brood cells provide extra space for their larger bodies.
Worker bees act as midwives to assist them.
But a worker herself has to fight her way out of her brood cell unaided. No coddling allowed here.
Soon the worker will follow her well-ordered behavioral cycle, beginning with cleaning her own cell.
The males, on the other hand, receive special care. They're helped out of their cells and immediately fed.
In an otherwise society of equals, the male does not have to work. Even his name, "drone," is another word for an idler.
His large compound eyes tell of his sole purpose in life: sighting the queen on her mating flight.
In a honey bee colony, every member has a specific task to perform and everything has its place.
When the colony grows so large that the bees begin to run out of room, they instinctively know it's time for the old queen to leave with half the population, and a new queen to be crowned.
First, construction needs to begin on special queen cells, in which a dozen or so new, would-be queens will grow.
This is the most exclusive neighborhood in the hive.
As eggs, all bees are equal. But by feeding grubs a steady diet of "royal jelly"—a mixture of milky secretions—they're turned into queens.
But before the new queens hatch, the old queen must leave, accompanied by thousands of workers who are close enough to follow her scent.
They swarm out of the hive in a mad, swirling rush.
Not far from the hive, the old queen lands to rest, and the swarming bees follow her.
Whenever and wherever she lands, they collect around her to keep her safe and at the right temperature. / She's their future: The only member of the colony who can lay eggs and produce the next generation.
But swarming bees consume a great deal of energy. Whatever food they had in their stomachs is quickly used up, so they have to stop to gather more nectar.
Any food not used by a foraging bee is shared.
Scouts check out possible sites for a new hive. / But with each hour, the danger grows. Out in the open, the bees are extremely vulnerable to predators and bad weather.
Many swarms die when they can't find a new site fast enough.
But this time, the bees are in luck. They immediately take possession of a hollow fruit tree.
Every inch is carefully examined.
Naturally the tree is a bit musty, so they air it out using their wings as fans.
Then they spread a special scent from a gland on their abdomen. The sweet smell of home—it makes the new address official, and allows stragglers to find their way.
Inside the tree, the bees form living chains. Not having a ruler handy, it's their way of taking measurements, in preparation for the construction work, which has to begin as soon as possible.
Bees are natural engineers. / They're also gymnasts, excellent at holding on to each other's legs.
Outside, there's a steady stream of new arrivals.
The tree seems to meet with their unanimous approval, especially the rustic décor.
Cell upon cell and row upon row, the hive is built.
Each sheet of cells is called a comb.
The worker bees have wax-secreting glands in their abdomens to produce a steady supply of building material.
But there's a high price to pay. To produce the energy to make an ounce of wax, it takes a pound of honey.
Every cell is a hexagon, sharing a wall with six adjacent cells.
The comb has two layers of cells, with a base between them. That way, there can be open cells on both sides.
The wax can be incredibly thin without weakening the structure. A feather-light comb can support pounds of honey.
The more cells that are built, the more bees can be born—and the new colony's survival ensured.
It's now midnight.
Under the penetrating gaze of an owl, the original colony rests, while other creatures stir.
There's a visitor to the hive tonight: A mouse, trying to keep out of the way of owls and bees alike. It's not after honey, but warmth and safety, and a snack.
The owl is none the wiser.
The mouse can smell the danger above.
There lies the realm of the bees, where mice are not welcome.
He makes a modest meal of crumbs from the comb.
The bees are keeping the brood cells at an even 95 degrees Fahrenheit—just the right temperature for a chilly mouse.
The scent of honey is carried on the night air. And some creatures will go to great lengths to steal it.
This is the Death's Head Hawkmoth. Its sinister name comes from the shape of a skull emblazoned on its back.
The moth's limbs are stiff from the cold night air. By shivering, it warms its body up before taking flight.
The moth is risking its life on a dangerous mission.
It lands at the entrance, surrounded by guard bees ready to protect the hive, but there's no sign of defence. The moth walks boldly past the guards and enters the hive.
The moth's camouflage is perfect. It produces chemicals that mimic the scent of the beehive.
To the bees, having the right smell is more important than being the right size.
But just in case, the moth uses another deception. It makes sounds that would normally come only from a queen bee.
With these disguises, the moth can plunder the honey cells unchallenged. The hive bees notice the loss of honey, but not the robber in their midst.
The moth sucks four or five honey cells dry. But the scent of the hive is beginning to wear off, and if he's caught, he'll never make it out alive.
He escapes just in time.
Spring now turns to summer. / Not only is the harvesting season short, but all sorts of unpredictable events can force the bees to stop. And what's more unpredictable than the weather?
All those who can, return quickly to the hive. Those who remain, face the full force of the rain.
The bees are forced to seek shelter from the downpour.
Rain poses a real threat. The bees can become so chilled by the water that their muscles no longer function efficiently. They are grounded, unable to fly.
Even the guard bees back at the hive are rendered useless, numbed by the cold.
It's a good time for the mouse to return, without the risk of being stung.
A cluster of sodden bees hangs outside the entrance. Too many foragers tried to seek shelter in the hive at the same time.
But the mouse still needs to be careful. Once the bees dry out, their reaction will be considerably different. They are not generally known for their hospitality.
The bees have reason to be wary. There are enemies everywhere, and of these, one of the most dangerous is the bird ominously known as "the bee-eater."
With a brood of hungry chicks in their nest tunnels, the birds need to meet a constant demand for food.
Unfortunately for the bees, the birds are unaffected by the venom in their stings.
A single bird can kill 500 bees a day... A whole group can wipe out a colony.
The best the bees can do is become an irritation. But the bee eater's thick layer of feathers renders most attacks ineffective.
Nearby, the dreaded hornets are also rearing their young. With hungry hornet grubs to feed, attacks against the bees increase in intensity.
The bees counter attack. But no individual stands a chance against a hornet.
The invader quickly disables the bee's flight muscles.
The hornets are nightmare neighbors. They'll remain a constant menace to the bee colony for the rest of the summer.
Out in the countryside, the work continues.
There are thousands of different kinds of bees, but only one kind that produces honey.
The honey bee can smell with her antennae.
And she can taste with the tip of her proboscis, not to mention each foot, which can taste whatever it touches.
A forager can visit flowers up to six miles away from the hive.
For us, that would equal a trip of 800 miles.
It's now 16 days since the old queen left the hive. Time for a new queen to emerge from the royal apartments to replace her.
The first-born stakes her claim to be ruler with a piping call.
But that's not enough to win the throne. She will also have to fight up to a dozen royal sisters.
One possible rival is stung to death through the wall of the brood cell before she can get out.
At the same time, another is trying to free herself from her cell.
The first-born queen must now act quickly if she wants to remain in power. She heads for the brood cell of the second rival.
As soon as the rival is free, the challenge is taken up. She stakes her own claim with an aggressive call.
The battle for the colony begins.
The larger, longer queens are in the center, surrounded by workers.
Each queen tries to sting the other to death, striking as close as possible to the sensitive abdomen.
But this time, quite unexpectedly, the battle ends in a draw.
The stalemate has dramatic consequences. A hive can only have one queen. So the colony must divide yet again.
The departing swarm is on a risky mission. The newborn queen that leads it is a virgin and cannot guarantee the new colony's continued existence.
Thousands of workers follow her nonetheless, drawn inexorably by her scent.
A precipitous flight from the hive can have strange consequences.
If the scout bees have no opportunity to find a suitable home, they may stumble into a dangerous neighborhood, infested by humans and their infernal machines.
The swarm seeks a temporary resting-place.
For bees, home is where the queen is.
Alighting on a live overhead tram wire shows a definite lack of planning.
It could be deadly for the swarm.
But for passers-by, it's just a diversion. Swarming bees have no possessions to protect, and so seldom sting—although they do tend to bring the town to a standstill.
The fire department comes to the rescue.
The firemen have brought with them some expert help, on call for just this kind of emergency. But it's not clear how the beekeepers can get the bewildered colony under control.
As one would expect of firemen, the beekeepers have brought along their own hoses. The cold water has the effect of calming the bees, at least temporarily.
At first, the bees seem to tolerate being shaken into the box. But then they begin to rebel, led by their queen, who has been protected from the effects of the water by layer of loyal followers.
The swarm, with the queen in its midst, rises from the box and continues its journey to a new, unknown destination.
The scouts search for a suitable site for a hive in the nearby woods.
The rotted stump of an old tree seems ideal. A fixer-upper, to be sure, but one with undeniable charm.
The usual inspections are cautious at first, then progressively more confident. So far, so good.
It's empty, it's dry, and it's big enough for the colony. Who could ask for more?
Some food would be nice, too.
Now that the bees have settled in the woods, they search out honeydew, a sticky liquid containing a great deal of sugar, which they can turn into woodland honey.
The honeydew comes from aphids. It's prized by many insects, especially wood ants.
The aphids tap trees to obtain sugary sap, which their bodies turn into honeydew.
The wood ants then massage the aphids with their antennae to stimulate production. They act as shepherds tending their sheep.
An ant lion greedily watches the wood ants' flock. But he'll face stiff resistance.
Some poachers are more imposing than others.
Bears spend almost all of their time foraging for food.
It's best not to attract their attention.
The bear is known for its sweet tooth, and a beehive is irresistible.
To reach the prized woodland honey, the bear uses brute force.
But honey is only one of the attractions. He also savors the protein-rich grubs.
The bees desperately defend their hive.
But they're no match for the bear, who shakes off their attacks.
His thick fur protects him from the stinging bees long enough for him to wreak maximum damage.
Only when the hive is devastated does the bear decide it's time to move on.
Other, smaller plunderers begin to arrive.
One bee tries to rescue some honey. She's driven away by the ants.
The colony is doomed.
But the original hive is still very much intact.... As summer heat raises the temperature inside, workers are kept busy bringing in cooling water.
But it's the winter that's the hardest time for the colony. They have only the honey stores set aside in the summer.
All the bees must work hard for the survival of the colony. The drones who didn't mate with the queen / are no longer needed.
They're driven out of the hive to certain death.
The colony must now submit to another indignity. It's time for the beekeeper to take his share of the honey—a kind of rent to cover the cost of the hive and its management.
Anything he spills is public property.
But the rent is invariably reasonable, for the beekeeper wants his bees to survive the winter.
Beekeepers have been harvesting their crop for thousands of years. They have faced ruin from bad weather, predators, and bacterial disease.
And yet, year after year, a new generation of workers has taken to the air, to bring us the taste of honey.
In "The House at Pooh Corner," A.A. Milne wrote: "'What would you like best in the world, Pooh? 'Well,' said Pooh, 'what I like best...' and then he had to stop and think. Because although eating honey was a very good thing to do, there was a moment before you just began to eat it, which was better than when you were... but he didn't know what it was called."
© | Created September 2006
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