Currently reading : SB5 Archive (2010): Nuclear Winter by Iris Hatzfeld – Bees
Illustration by Masha Karpushina
Deep in the very heart of the hive is the queen. Around her are the 60 000 workers, all sisters and all her offspring, who for the brief six weeks of their lives tend to her and to all the needs of the colony. A few 1000 male bees, the drones, hang around with nothing to do except for the occasional flight to a mating spot high in the air where unfertilized queens come to be impregnated by as many drones as possible before returning to the hive rarely to emerge again.
Their work done, the males die. Any remaining in the hive will be killed by the female workers as autumn comes around and they are of use no more. Their bodies will be torn apart and dragged from the hive.
The fertilized queen will store the sperm she has received inside herself for the rest of her life, perhaps as long as five years. As she lays her eggs, as many as 1500 every day during the spring, she will fertilize them with her stored sperm. A few will not be fertilized and they will become drones. The queen’s sole job is to lay eggs. The workers do everything else.
Young bees will feed the larva as they develop from the eggs and nurse them until they become pupae and transform into new bees themselves. They will also help with all the housekeeping jobs within the hive, cleaning, making and storing honey, building comb.
"Any remaining in the hive will be killed by the female workers as autumn comes around and they are of use no more. Their bodies will be torn apart and dragged from the hive."
As they get older, around three weeks into their six-week lives, and strong enough to fly, they will go outside of the hive and forage, collecting nectar to make honey and pollen as a high-protein source of food. Some will bring back propolis, sticky sap from trees, to repair and strengthen the hive.
Bees have extraordinary powers of navigation and communication, and, having found a source of food, will dance in the hive to let the other bees know where, in relation to the ever-moving sun, the forage is to be found. Returning bees will also produce wax, extruding it from glands on their abdomens which other bees then take and build into comb.
Some bees will be on guard duty, protecting the colony against intruders, whether it is wasps which they will fight to the death and throw out of the hive, or mice which, too big to be dragged from the hive once killed will be embalmed instead so as not to spread disease.
The hive is a complex and highly organized society in which every bee has a job to do. And it is hot in there, the bees using their strong wings muscles not just to fly but by vibrating them to keep the heart of the hive at a constant temperature—always around 35 degrees centigrade.
We take the products of the hives for our own uses, especially the honey to sweeten our food. But bees provide much more than honey. As they work their way around the flowers, the foraging bees pollinate the plants and so play as vital a role in providing us with much of our food—something like one spoonful in three of everything we eat and drink is the result of bee pollination. We would not be here without them.
Luke Dixon is an urban and rooftop beekeeper.