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In The Country

Busy as a Bee

Kay Deardorff
Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve

(4/2012) Don’t these warm spring days make you want to jump into spring housecleaning chores? OK, maybe not! But there are some ladies that have been very busy since the temperatures began to climb. Those industrious females are worker honey bees. Forced by cold weather to stay inside the hive throughout the winter, they maintained a core temperature of 95EF. Living on stores of honey stocked in the fall, they are eager to get to work outside. There’s housecleaning to do. Approaching an active beehive in the spring (or observing it from a distance) reveals the discards of dead bees, dirt, and debris accumulated all winter. Since the entire hive only consisted of female, or worker, bees and ONE queen, there is much to do to transition into the warmer season. The workers make sure the cells in the hive are repaired and ready for Her Majesty, the queen, to lay eggs.

Although the bees’ life span in the warm months is only 4 to 6 weeks most of them survive the entire winter because the work load is not as taxing to their systems. Let’s follow the life of a worker honey bee as she does numerous duties. The jobs change as the colony works together to not only survive but to thrive in their surroundings. There are three distinctive phases within the hive. The newly hatched worker spends her first week as a "nurse bee", requiring her to prepare the brood cells and later feed the larvae with a honey and pollen mixture. As she grows, the female enters the "domestic" phase which also lasts about a week. At this time, she cares for the others by storing honey, building and repairing the comb, and cleaning the hive.

Finally, at the mature age of fourteen days, the worker advances to a "field" bee or forager. She searches the neighborhood, flying an approximate 2-mile radius to find nectar, which is turned into honey; pollen, which is protein and fat for nourishment; water; and propolis, or bee glue, used to seal small openings in the hive. The nectar collected from flowers is stored in her "crop" or honey sack where enzymes convert it into honey. The pollen (from flowers) and propolis (from buds of trees) are carried in "pollen sacs" on her hind legs and fed to the larvae in the cells within the hive. If production of nectar and pollen, known as the "honey flow", is weak, the worker may have to travel up to 5 miles to acquire her treasure before returning to the hive. The life of the female in this final phase of her life requires much energy and she most likely will die in the field.

As they return after their hard work of foraging from flowers and trees, they enter the hive and announce to the others what they have found by doing a waggle dance. Witnessing this first hand in an observation hive like the one at Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve in Fairfield is thrilling and educational without the fear of experiencing their unpleasant stings.

When the numbers within the colony greatly increase and cause overcrowding, swarming is a natural process of the bee kingdom. The colony prepares to rear several new queens which are the offspring of the mother queen. Since she is too heavy to fly, the worker bees take on the task of a professional trainer and guide her into a workout designed to get her into shape to lead about 10,000 bees (nearly 2/3 of the colony) in a swarm to a new home. As one duty of the workers is to feed the queen, they regulate her diet. They treat her with mild hostility. They shake, push, and lightly bite her causing her to constantly move around the hive. With reduced food and increased exercise she loses 25% of her body weight. This causes her to get in shape for moving day.

The workers do the opposite of what they expect of their mother queen. They gorge themselves with honey and increase their body weight about 50%. This supplies them with the energy they need to leave home. A new colony is created with the mother queen, leaving a daughter queen behind with the remaining workers to carry on the functions of the old hive. The daughter queen is now ready to take a "mating" flight. She will be involved in the process of producing the drones, or males, that have been absent in the winter. The females actually feed the larvae in such a way to produce males whose function is to inseminate other virgin queens in the neighborhood.

We, humans, look for the perfect spot for our homes. Well, the honey bees are no different. Scout bees will search the area within a 3-mile radius for just the right place to lead the swarm. When the hive is ready and the weather is favorable, the scouts perform a "dance" to tell the others about the new place they’ve found. They make a piping sound among the bees to encourage warm up time, thus preparing them for flight. Finally, sensing the readiness of the swarming hive, the scouts lead the way as the now excited workers and the mother queen take off for their new destination. The bees fly in a circular pattern, forming a cloud approximately 30’ – 60’ in diameter. The scouts fly over the cluster, pointing in the direction of the new site. A few bees settle in a beard-shaped cluster on a nearby object. Workers are drawn to the object by the queen’s scent and the lemony odor released by some of the bees. This swarming cluster may remain on the object for a few hours or a day or two. It is usually just a resting place rather than the final goal. Don’t panic if you discover a bee beard in your backyard as they are usually rather docile at this time. They are not aggressive since they have no hive to protect and probably won’t sting since they are gorged with honey.

Meanwhile, back at the original hive, the remainder of the colony nurtures a new queen. They will spend the rest of the summer producing a new generation of workers and drones thankful for the newly acquired breathing room.

During the month of June it is not uncommon to see a swarm of honey bees on a shrub, bush, or tree. If you are fortunate enough to witness this natural phenomenon, don’t worry about what to do with them. Contact Strawberry Hill Nature Preserve at 717-642-5840 or your local agricultural center to give you a number of a local beekeeper who will promptly remove the swarm. Hopefully they will be happy with their new home in his bee yard and will reward him with "sweet" gratitude. Strawberry Hill is also in the middle of a 4-part beekeeping workshop. Spanning an 8-month time frame, bee-ginners can learn about those industrious critters. Covering topics such as hive installation, collecting swarms, harvesting honey, and overwintering the hives folks are gaining an appreciation of these precious pollinators. Check out for this and other exciting events at the Preserve.

Read other articles by Kay Deardorff