A female honey bee, Apis mellifera, in a six week lifetime will master many tasks.
Her first three weeks will be in house and the second three outside. Upon emerging as a new adult, she will spend her first two days wandering through the hive eating pollen and honey while observing the labor taking place. Cleaning and polishing cells will be her first job.
As soon as the royal jelly gland develops, she will be a nursemaid to the queen and the larvae. The queen is fed royal jelly for life. The larvae get royal jelly for three days. When royal jelly glands atrophy and the eight wax glands mature, our girl will become a cell builder and capper. This requires knowledge of size, location and need.
Queen cells are the largest. Drone cells are located on the outer periphery and are larger than workers’ cells. These workers limit the number of drones by herding the queen away from drone cells. They will also fill these cells with honey to block laying. If she has already laid eggs they will eat them or the larvae.
As the wax glands begin to atrophy, the next job undertaken is unloading the returning foragers. If the load is pollen, she will store it in a cell. If it is nectar, she will chew it to remove moisture until is the correct texture for honey and then she will store it in a honey cell.
Shortly past the two-week mark, she will begin guarding the hive. Standing on their rear four with their front legs raised for grasping, they check for suspicious flight patterns and anyone who does not have the odor of the hive.
At midday, when the sun is on the hive entrance, you will see a lot of flight activity. The inside workers are taking a break to relieve themselves. No healthy bee will discharge feces inside the hive.
The guard bees will start making short flights from the hive and return to land at the entrance, where they will immediately take off again.
We are now at the three-week point and it is time for some heavy lifting. The honey bee forager can carry a load heavier than herself. She will fly up to six miles to visit a patch. This requires exceptional navigation abilities. Bees have very poor vision – 20/2,000. That would be legally blind by our standards.
To recognize a target she would have to be very close. A worker will die after about nine days of heavy foraging or three weeks of light-duty foraging. The flight muscles wear out at approximately 500 miles. Two thousand trips may be needed to produce one ounce of honey.
These girls get the job done!
Thomas Tucker is a Master Gardener with the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Fairfield. If you have gardening questions, call the Master Gardener’s office at 784-1322.