Most likely you know a lot about bees already, because such an enormous amount has been written about them. But every time I go around looking for something new and interesting, a bee seems to come along before anything else, as if to say, "You simply can't leave me out of your book!" So, let us talk a little, right away, about just a few of the things that make bees so wonderful.
It will have to be only a few of the things, because people who have talked about all, or nearly all of them, have written whole books before they could come to the end of them.
A bee starts its life as a tiny egg which its mother-the queen of the hive-lays in a six-sided cell specially made for this purpose.
The workers make these cells out of wax that they manufacture in their own bodies.
The queen works very hard at her job, laying about 3000 eggs a day, yet she carefully inspects each cell before placing an egg in it, and if she finds it the least bit dirty or imperfect, she passes it by without using it.
Three days after the egg has been laid, it hatches out into a tiny grub or larva. Nurse bees come along and feed it, first on royal jelly-a very precious food-and then on honey and pollen. They do this for five days, and the little larva grows and grows, shedding one skin after another. Then, when it is quite big, one of the nurses covers its cell with wax. This is the sign that it must now stop eating and become a pupa. And, of course, while it is a pupa, all of those marvelous things happen that are necessary when an insect changes from one form into another quite different one.
Goodness knows how long we would take to produce these same changes in a laboratory-but in a mere 13 days, when the top of that wax cell is pushed off, out comes a perfect bee. Certainly it looks a little tired and limp to begin with, but in no time it has straightened and combed itself out, and is ready to get on with its life's work.
And, in most cases, a life's work it is. A full hive contains about 50,000 or 60,000 bees, and by far the most of these are workers, who just keep on working without a stop until they die usually after a few weeks-ragged and worn-out. All of them are the queen's daughters-some of the most talented and versatile little creatures in Nature.
They make wax, as well as building it into great hanging curtain-like walls, containing thousands of perfect little six-sided cells.
For a while, they make royal jelly in their heads. They keep every tiniest part of the hive perfectly clean. They also control the temperature of the hive most cleverly. When it is too hot, they stand together at its entrance and fan currents of air through it with their wings. When it is too cold, they gather together in a large crowd, so that the air around them becomes warm from the heat of their bodies packed together. Although there is a special police force to protect the hive from enemies, there are times when extra help is needed. Then the workers come forward as warriors and thrust their stings into the hostile strangers, even though this means their own almost certain death, for their stings have barbs, and if the enemy is "tough-skinned", these cannot be pulled out again quickly without tearing the bees in two.
The workers also travel backwards and forwards endlessly, carrying pollen and nectar to their hive from wherever the best flowers are growing. These may be near at hand, or they may be miles away, but whatever the distance, the workers carry great loads on each return journey, with their wings joined together by a row of hooks to give them greater strength. They carry the pollen in special little baskets on their hind legs, and the nectar inside their bodies in what is called the honey-stomach.
While they are carrying the nectar, certain chemicals in their bodies get busy on it, changing it into honey. Back in the hive, they hand it over to other workers, who pack it into the large group of cells known as the honeycomb-but only after they have worked it around in their mouths to get as much moisture out of it as possible. When a cell is quite full, one of the workers closes it up with a little wax lid that is perfectly airtight.
The pollen is packed into other cells, and mixed with a little honey to make a special kind of bread for the use of the colony.
If we were doing all this manufacturing and building, nursing, cleaning, carrying, air-conditioning, processing and storing of food, just think of all the things we would need-building materials, tools, trucks, waxes, varnishes, chemicals, and of course, all kinds of machinery, a few factories, and a laboratory. Yet the worker bees carry in their own tiny bodies all the equipment that is needed for the health, strength, comfort and cleanliness of their whole vast community. Whatever they are called upon to do, they can do it with their own natural resources. Isn't that wonderful!
In a community of bees, everything runs in perfect order. Left to themselves, they never make a mess of things. Yet they have no leader to tell them what to do. Each of them knows what to do, by the amazing instinct with which it is born, and which guides its every action through life. They honor the queen and give her every attention, even combing her little fur coat and feeding her on nothing less than royal jelly as long as she lives, but she does not rule the hive-and nobody else does, either.
It is interesting to realize that the eggs laid by the queen bee are all exactly the same. There are no "queen" eggs, "worker" eggs, or that other kind of bee that we haven't talked of yet, "drone" eggs. The little creatures that hatch out of them grow into different classes of bees because of the kind of food that is fed to them.
Larvae which are fed entirely on royal jelly become queens.
It seems to be as simple as that. Or at least, they become queens if they are lucky enough not to be killed by the other newly-born queens. For this is what so often happens.
When the existing queen is slowing off in her egg-laying job, the workers wisely produce a group of new ones-and these, as soon as they are born, fight one another fiercely until only one is left. They jostle, pull at and sting one another-and as their stings are made differently from those of the workers, they can use them again and again without hurting themselves. Finally, only one is left, and she, of course, becomes the new queen.
There are times, though, when two queens survive. This happens when the hive has become over-crowded, and a large number of its inhabitants are preparing to leave it, and set up another colony somewhere else. Naturally, they too must have their queen-so a crowd of workers quickly hurries along to protect one of the rivals - and when the victorious queen finds that she cannot get to this last remaining one, she forgets all her other victories and yells with rage. But the little worker bees stand firm and are not afraid, for they know that they are safe from the queen's sting. She uses this only on royalty.
When the time comes, they themselves perhaps, among many of their fellows, pour out of the hive with one of the queens they have raised so carefully. This is called "swarming", and is something that no other insects are known to do. When they find a good place for a new home, they settle down, and another colony of bees begins.
In each colony, there is a third group of bees apart from the workers and the queen. It is made up of a few hundred male bees or drones-and you cannot help feeling sorry for them. They are built in such a way that they can do nothing whatever to help with the constant work in the hive, and they have to depend on the "good nature" of the workers for everything-even for their food, since they are also unable to feed themselves. Their whole job in life is-if needed-to become one of the queen's husbands when she leaves the hive on a high, swift marriage flight. Many drones follow her, but usually only one can keep pace with her. High up in the air, they marry, then immediately the drone falls to the ground, dead. So the queen of the bees is always a widow-but she is now able to lay eggs which will grow into new bees.
Usually, the drones are allowed to stay around until winter.
But then, life in the hive becomes more difficult, and "useless" members can no longer be supported. So the workers throw the poor old drones out, to die of starvation and cold.
Of course, everybody knows that bees make honey from nectar -and everybody also knows that, while they are taking this nectar from flowers, their little furry coats get a good dusting of pollen, which then brushes off on the next flowers they visit. This is called pollination, and it is very important to the flowers, as it enables them to produce seeds.
But what everybody has not understood for a long time is how the bees tell one another where the best flowers are. A scout bee goes out to explore. She finds a good patch of flowers, returns to the hive, and in a few minutes other bees come pouring out, and go straight to where the scout has just come from.
How is it done?
We do know now that the returning bee "speaks" to the others in the form of a dance, but we do not yet understand the meanings of all the variations in this dance. · Sometimes the movements go round in circles, sometimes in straight or wavy lines, up and down, the different movements are repeated many or few times, and in these various ways the "scout" bee tells the others exactly where the flowers are-their exact distance and direction from the hive. Following her instructions, the next bees that go out never make a mistake. When they return to the hive with their pollen baskets full of pollen and their nectar sacks full of nectar, they also do a little dance, and more bees go right straight out to the same patch of flowers. Then, at last, one group of bees comes back without dancing. This means that there is no more nectar left in that particular flower patch-and no more bees will be found going there after that.
But just as marvelous as all this, is a bee's never-failing sense of direction, which is due to her wonderful eyes. She has five of these - two large ones (each made up of about 9000 tiny separate eyes) and three small ones - and, as well as being able to see in all directions at once, she can also see the whole of the earth and the sky at the same time. Not only this, but her eyes let the light through in a special way-in countless different patterns of white, grey and black- as polarized glass does. So that she "reads" her way to flower patches and back to the hive again by memorizing these patterns.
And of course, as they change continuously with the sun's position in the sky, she has to be memorizing new patterns the whole time, then "dancing" them to her many attentive sisters.
Don't you agree now that, in the whole great world of insects, bees are some of the cleverest and most wonderful? Without them, so many things in our own world would be different, that it would scarcely seem like the same place. And what would flowers do without them, I wonder?
So, always be kind to them, won't you? And try to learn more about them, for the more you learn, the more delighted you will be.