Belonging to the genus Apis, honey bees are considered as the closest relative of bees and ants. They are distinguished from the other members of Class Insecta by the production of colonial nests made from wax. Throughout the history, 7-11 species have been recognized, including 7 species and 44 subspecies which were recognized in the early 21st century.
Specialized by the production of honey, humans have been domesticating many species of honey bees, Western Honey bees and Stingless Honey Bees being the most common in this regard. South and Southeast Asia are considered as the center for the origin of Honey bees as most of the species are native to these places.
Queen, workers and drones
The different individuals in a beehive perform distinct functions during the life cycle and are named according to the function they are responsible for. Drones are males that mature from the unfertilized eggs (a process called parthenogenesis) laid by the queen and thus have DNA and genes from the queen only.
Therefore, they have only one set of chromosome and are considered haploid (n). The fertilization of some eggs result in females that perform the function of Queen and Workers. In a beehive, Queen is responsible for the laying of an egg while the Workers nourish the eggs and young ones that hatch from these eggs. Both queen and workers possess genes from both male and female and are diploid (2n).
Life cycle of honey bees
A colony of honey bees consist of a fertile female (Queen) and thousands of sterile female called the Worker bees. A group of queen and workers is called Swarm. The Queen has the sperms stored (which came from males during mating) in a special organ called Spermatheca and the choice to fertilize the eggs depends on her. Eggs are laid in a single cell of honeycomb, which may be fertilized or unfertilized.
The fertilized eggs will give rise to the females while the unfertilized will develop into drones. Special young honey bees called the “Nurse Bees” feed the growing larva and when their jelly-producing gland (Jelly like material is the food of larva) begin to atrophy, they take the task of building the comb. Later in their life, they also perform the task of guard and help secure the hive.
The individuals responsible for finding the food are called “Workers” and they communicate with each other through special signals to find the source. Males (Drones) die during mating and therefore are not found in the colony.
Important facts about honey bees
Each honey bee has 170 odorant receptors, meaning that they have a high sense of smell. These are used for communication within the hive and also to obtain nectar and pollens. The worker honey bee has a lifespan of about 6 weeks while the queen can live up to 5 years or more.
The queen can lay about 2500 eggs per day, during summer. Honey bees are characterized by the different pattern of communication which is called “Waggle Dance”.
They use this method to transfer the signals from one place to another. The most important domesticated species and the third insect to have the genome completely sequenced is A.mellifera, which was found originally in Africa and then spread to the different parts of the world.
Honey bees fulfil their nutritional requirement from pollen and nectar. Major protein and lipid source is pollen. An adult honey bee obtain 65-70% of protein through 3-4mg of pollen per day. Developing larva and Queen require much more than this. In addition to proteins, honey bees also require Vitamins, biotin, riboflavin and folic acid being the most crucial for their survival. On the other hand, nectar obtained from flowers and fruits act as a source of water and carbohydrates (mainly sucrose). Water is required by honey bees to maintain the osmotic homeostasis. On a hot day when not much nectar is available, honey bees fulfil the demand of water from streams.
Honey bees possess defense mechanism against invaders and alarm each other through the production of Pheromone. They are distinguished from other species of bees by the presence of small barbs on the sting, but these barbs are only present I the worker bees. The venom of honey bee, called Apitoxin, is composed of polypeptide Melittin and enzyme Phospholipase A2 which hydrolyzes the bond in Phospholipids and produce certain acids.
Honey bees are important for the environment in many respects. The most significant aspect is that they act as pollinators of fruits, flowers and vegetables. In other words they help the plants to grow. They transfer the pollens from male plant to female plant, helping in the formation of fruits and thus contributing to the different varieties of plants.
The first product that comes into our minds when we think of honey bees is Honey. The bees produce honey not for humans but for their survival during winter. Honey is a complex compound formed when the bees collect nectar, process it and store it in the honeycomb.
The walls of a bee hive are made by a special substance, bee wax, secreted by glands found within the abdomen of the bee. This bee wax is used by humans for various purposes especially for the food, pharmaceuticals and cosmetics production. It may also be used for the preservation of food, such as cheese, against fungi. This wax is molded with other compounds to form useful products such as candles, shoe polish and furniture polish.
In addition to utilizing pollen as a source of proteins and lipids, honey bees form a special product known as Bee Bread that is actually a mixture of pollen, honey and other secretions. This bee bread is utilized by Nurse Bees which then produce a jelly-like substance as food for the larva.
The different stages of honey bees during are eggs, larva, and pupa, collectively called the Bee Brood. They also act as a source of nutrition. The larva has the highest protein content, as compared to eggs and pupa. Almost the same as beef or poultry and is used as source of protein in many countries. Brood is also rich in carbohydrates, vitamin B, vitamin C and saturated fat.
During the construction of a bee hive, unwanted openings are sealed by a resinous compound called Propolis. The propolis has also nutritional value. But it is mostly used in the production of wood varnishes and giving violins their characteristic red color.