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10 Fascinating Facts About Honey Bees

Interesting Traits and Behaviors of Honey Bees

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Honey bee queen cells on a honey comb
Paolo Negri/ Photographer's Choice RF/ Getty Images

No other insect has served the needs of man like the honey bee. For centuries, beekeepers have raised honey bees, harvesting the sweet honey they produce and relying on them to pollinate crops. Honey bees pollinate an estimated one-third of all the food crops we consume. Here are 10 facts about honey bees you might not know.

1. Honey bees can fly at speeds of up to 15 miles per hour.
That might seem fast, but in the bug world, it's actually rather slow. Honey bees are built for short trips from flower to flower, not for long distance travel. Their tiny wings must flap about 12,000 times per minute just to keep their pollen-laden bodies aloft for the flight home.

2. A honey bee colony can contain up to 60,000 bees at its peak.
It takes a lot of bees to get all the work done. Nurse bees care for the young, while the queen's attendant workers bathe and feed her. Guard bees stand watch at the door. Construction workers build the beeswax foundation in which the queen lays eggs and the workers store honey. Undertakers carry the dead from the hive. Foragers must bring back enough pollen and nectar to feed the entire community.

3. A single honey bee worker produces about 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
For honey bees, there's power in numbers. From spring to fall, the worker bees must produce about 60 lbs. of honey to sustain the entire colony during the winter. It takes tens of thousands of workers to get the job done.

4. A queen honey bee stores a lifetime supply of sperm.
The queen bee can live 3-4 years, but her biological clock ticks a lot faster than you might think. Just a week after emerging from her queen cell, the new queen flies from the hive to mate. If she doesn't do so within 20 days, it's too late; she loses her ability to mate. If successful, however, she never needs to mate again. She holds the sperm in her spermatheca and uses it to fertilize eggs throughout her life.

5. The queen honey bee lays up to 1,500 eggs per day, and may lay up to 1 million in her lifetime.
Just 48 hours after mating, the queen begins her lifelong task of laying eggs. So prolific an egg layer is she, she can produce her own body weight in eggs in a single day. In fact, she has no time for any other chores, so attendant workers take care of all her grooming and feeding.

6. The honey bee uses the most complex symbolic language of any animal on earth, outside of the primate family.
Honey bees pack a million neurons into a brain that measures a mere cubic millimeter, and they use every one of them. Worker bees must perform different roles throughout their lives. Foragers must find flowers, determine their value as a food source, navigate back home, and share detailed information about their finds with other foragers. Karl von Frisch received the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1973 for cracking the language code of honey bees – the waggle dance.

7. Drones, the only male honey bees, die immediately after mating.
Male honey bees serve only one purpose: they provide sperm to the queen. About a week after emerging from their cells, the drones are ready to mate. Once they've fulfilled that purpose, they die.

8. Honey bees maintain a constant temperature of about 93º F within the hive year-round.
As temperatures fall, the bees form a tight group within their hive to stay warm. Honey bee workers cluster around the queen, insulating her from the outside cold. In summer, the workers fan the air within the hive with their wings, keeping the queen and brood from overheating. You can hear the hum of all those wings beating inside the hive from several feet away.

9. Honey bees produce beeswax from special glands on their abdomens.
The youngest worker bees make the beeswax, from which workers construct the honeycomb. Eight paired glands on the underside of the abdomen produce wax droplets, which harden into flakes when exposed to air. The workers must work the wax flakes in their mouths to soften them into a workable construction material.

10. An industrious worker bee may visit 2,000 flowers per day.
She can't carry pollen from that many flowers at once, so she'll visit 50-100 flowers before heading home. All day long, she repeats these round trip flights to forage, which puts a lot of wear and tear on her body. A hardworking forager may live just 3 weeks.

Sources:

  • Beekeeping Basics, Penn State University
  • Tribeeal Pursuits, Carl Hayden Bee Research Center (article no longer online)
  • The Honey Bee: Amazing Facts and Feats, Illinois State University
  • Social Honeybee Shares Genetic Secrets, Scientific American, October 25, 2006
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