As my PhD focuses on the disappearing honeybee I feel there should be a page here with information about this amazing animal:
The European Honeybee, Apis mellifera, got its name from Linnaeus. 'Apis' means bee and mellifera comes from the Latin for honey and bearing because Linnaeus wrongly assumed that honeybees carried honey. (They don't, they carry pollen, nectar, water and propolis but the honey generally stays inside the hive...until we steal it.) Linnaeus realised his mistake and wanted to correct it (changing the name to 'honey-making bee' or apis mellifica) but was not allowed.
There are currently seven known species of honeybee around the world and forty-four recognised subspecies! The most commonly kept subspecies in the UK are A. mellifera ligustica (The Italian Honeybee) and A. mellifera mellifera (The Dark Honeybee), but now most of the UK honeybees are hybrid populations.
A colony of honeybees can hold as many as 80 000 individuals in the summer! This includes a queen, a small number of drones (the male bees) and thousands of female workers.
There is usually only one queen per colony. She is bigger than the workers and usually followed by an entourage of workers who see to her every need. The queen lays all the eggs for the colony and produces a pheromone which prevents the workers from trying to lay their own eggs. In the summer she will produce offspring that are fed royal jelly and raised to be new queens. these queens can mate with several males before either returning to take over the colony or to take workers with them in a swarm to find a new nest site. Queen bees have been reported to live for up to 15 years but usually survive only 2 or 3.
There is not so much known about the male bees or drones, who develop from unfertilised eggs. They die mating with queens in the summer or are thrown out of the hive by winter so their exact life expectancy is unknown. In the hive they may be integral for maintaining the correct temperature for the developing brood.
All normal, fertilised eggs develop as females. Those not raised to be new queens become workers. Although fertile; the queen pheromone usually prevents workers from laying thier own, unfertilised, male eggs.
Young workers remain in the hive and are usually called nurse bees as they 'nurse' the young. They also keep the hive clean, help store food and look after the queen. Middle aged bees (2-3 weeks old) take on new tasks; guarding the hive, removing sick or dead bees and fanning at the hive entrance to maintain the correct temperature and humidity within. After 3 weeks the worker bees may begin foraging tasks; collecting water, nectar, pollen and propolis (a sticky substance made from resin and used to stick up hole in the hive, it also has antimicrobial properties).
Worker bees usually only live about 6 weeks as adults in the spring and summer but in Autumn 'winter bees' are produced who can live for up to 6 months. Overwinter the colony shrinks to around 30 000 individuals with only a few young. The bees huddle together in the hive maintaining a temperature of around 32'C and surviving on the honey and pollen stored up over the summer.
Colony Collapse Disorder:
Honeybees have been in the news a lot recently as their numbers seem to be plummeting! In the UK and much of central Europe honeybee numbers have been falling for some time. A recent study suggests that numbers in central Europe have fallen by 25% from 1985-2005. In the USA whole collonies have been found deserted, the strange syndrome has been named 'Colony Collape Disorder'. The topic of honeybee losses has even found its way onto Dr Who!
But we still don't know why the bees are disappearing. There are various possible causes including; Pesticides, GM crops, lack of forage, loss of genetic diversity in honeybees, parasites, diseases...even mobile phones, aliens and devine retribution... but it is likely a combination of factors rather than one single cause.