The End of the Bees

The kitchen window beehive is no more. The bees moved in to my kitchen wall space about 6 weeks ago, and built a significant piece of comb onto the wall of the house. They even started depositing some honey into the cells on the upper end of the structure (and perhaps in lower cells too, but those were always covered with bees). But as far as I know, the queen never emerged from the wall space, so the colony was doomed.

Last weekend the bee expert who built the one-way device (a Frank Gehry-like structure) brought his vacuum and removed the bees and their beautiful cone.

During the bees short residence, I read The Little Book of Bees by Karl Weiss (Copernicus Books) to get some background information on these extraordinary insects. Below are some interesting items I found in the book.

Many Jobs in a Life
The life of a worker bee is relatively short (about 30 days), but during that time they manage to do all of the duties in the hive (except laying eggs or mating with the queen, of course). The book describes their duties like this:

0-8 days – The early days of a worker bee are spent in the hive, around the queen (who lives for a few years). The bees clean the empty brood cells, and feed the older larvae pollen and honey. Between the time an egg hatches and pupation (transformation into an adult bee), the larva lives in a cone chamber with an open end. When pupation time arrives, the chamber is closed.

9-12 days – The bee spends her time in the hive, receiving nectar from returning collector bees, then passing it to other bees in the hive for further transfer, processing and storage. One item that caught my attention is a method of communication between the hive bees and collector bees. When collectors return (with water, nectar or pollen), the hive bees that greet them communicate the needs of the hive through enthusiasm. If it is a hot day, for example, and the hive needs water to cool down, any bee returning with water will be greeted more enthusiastically than bees with pollen or nectar. The collectors get the message, and change their collecting strategy to please the greeters.

13-21 days – The bee is one of the builders and defenders of the colony. She patrols the entrance, and builds and maintains the comb.

22 days and beyond – After 21 days or so, she goes far out into the world to collect nectar, water and pollen from the surrounding area (which can be a few square miles).

I seem to remember that a bee can switch jobs if the hive needs more collectors, or larvae tenders, or so forth, and that probably happened at my house. At the beginning, there was no comb, and thus no larvae, so all efforts were put on building and collecting.

Chemical Harmony
Another interesting thing in the book was about how bees recognize their hive by scent, and how chemical signals help keep harmony within the hive. The agent of harmony was called “queen substance” in the book. The queen produces a chemical from a gland that she spreads onto her body. The bees in her court lick off the substance, and spread it around through the hive. A certain amount of this “queen substance” is needed to maintain a contented hive. If the level drops too far, emergency queen rearing commences (i.e., the bees feed the special food to larvae in order to convert them to a queen). There are two main reasons for a drop in queen substance: a dying queen, or too many bees. When the former occurs, the bees wait for the new queens to emerge. When the latter occurs, the bees get ready to swarm.

Before the colony divides itself through swarming, the bees build several “queen cradles” on the edges of the combs, into which the queen lays one egg each. After the eggs have hatched and the larvae have grown to a certain size, they are sealed into the cell for to pupate and turn into queen bees. When the sealing occurs, the colony’s current queen takes off. She brings part of the colony with her, and they find a safe place to wait until a permanent home is found. A tree branch, for example, or a powerline. While the swarm is waiting, scout bees fly around looking for a suitable place to nest.

Back in the colony, several queens emerge at different times, and flies off with a group of workers to form their own new hive (these are called “afterswarms”). The last queen to hatch sticks around with the “inheritance” and starts doing her thing.

Sleepin’ Bee
As I was writing the first draft of this post, I happened to be listening to jazz vocalist Johnny Hartman’s I Just Stopped By To Say Hello (Impulse! records, 1963), which includes the infectious tune “A Sleepin’ Bee” (words by Truman Capote, music by Harold Arlen). I couldn’t find a full free and legal copy on the net, just this sample. For an entirely different sound, enjoy these two free and legal downloads with the word “bees” in the title:

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