My friend Suzanne says, ‘I always know that spring is coming when I see my first big fat bumblebee popping out of a yellow daffodil.’ Last week I saw my first honeybee foraging for luminous orange pollen inside a bright purple crocus. Spring is coming.
Following my last post on the behaviour of the foraging honeybee, it made sense to continue studying the collection, storage and use of nectar, pollen, propolis and water by the honeybee colony. So I’ve skipped ahead to 6.9 on the syllabus to bring these sections together.
6.9 The collection of nectar and water and their use by the colony
A honeybee sees a flower very differently to humans. As Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum describe in A World Without Bees, the two compound eyes on the front of her head are sensitive to ultra violet light ‘expanding the already vibrant colours of the plant world into an explosion of differing hues, and directing the honeybee towards the area of the plant where the nectar and pollen are stored’. The honeybee’s eyes can see lines that guide her to the heart of the flower in a similar way that ‘the lights of an airfield direct planes to the landing strip’. Here’s what happens when she collects nectar for the colony.
6.11 The conversion of nectar to honey including the hydrolysis of sucrose, the evaporation of water and the role of the honeybee in accomplishing these changes
So that’s an overview of how the honeybee collects nectar, processes and stores the nectar as honey, and how the honey is used by the colony. The next flow chart specifically looks at the conversion of nectar to honey.
Collection and use of water
Honeybees also collect water to bring back to the hive. They tend to collect water from unusual, or what we would consider ‘unclean’, sources such as puddles, drains, bird baths, cow pats and, on occasion, and at the risk of causing annoyance to neighbours, from hanging laundry. The stomach in which water is stored has a valve that microscopically filters and cleans the water that they bring back to the hive.
Water is not stored by the colony so it is collected and used when needed to:
- dilute honey to be eaten
- mix with pollen to make brood food (70% water) to feed larvae
- dissolve hardened granulated sugars
- cool the hive when temperatures are very high.
6.10 The inter-relationship of nectar, honey and water in the honeybee colony
So this is how nectar and water are brought into the hive and stored and/or used. The simple diagram below brings together their inter-relationship in the honeybee colony.
There is a lot more to learn about nectar, water and honey (as shown on the syllabus for module 3 honeybee products and forage!) but for module 6 I’m focusing on honeybee behaviour.
6.12 The collection, storage and use of pollen by the honeybee colony
Emily and I enjoy watching our bees fly back home with baskets full of brightly coloured pollen. In January and February this is usually a sign that the queen has started to lay eggs again, because the pollen is needed to feed larvae and young bees who need the protein in pollen to develop their bodies. Throughout the year seeing our bees fly home with pollen is usually a good indicator that the colony is ‘queen-right’, meaning that the queen is present and that she is laying, and if our colony has recently re-queened it can be a sign that the new queen has mated successfully and is laying new brood.
And the different colours of pollen packed into the cells in the honeycomb are not only beautiful to look at, but also give us an idea of what flowers our bees like to visit.
Emily and I use a pollen chart throughout the year to identify the pollen of various flowers brought home by our bees. This tells us what is flowering now and what our bees like to eat.
Foragers use a variety of methods to collect pollen from different flowers. Mark L Winston describes this in The Biology of the Honey Bee according to the type of flower:
‘Open flowers. The worker bites the anthers with her mandibles and uses the forelegs to pull them toward her body.
Tubular flowers. Workers insert the proboscis into the corolla searching for nectar, and pollen is collected incidentally when it adheres to the mouthparts or forelegs.
Closed flowers. The bee forces the petals apart with her forelegs and then gathers pollen on the mouthparts and forelegs.
Spike or catkin flowers. The bee runs along the spikes or catkins, shaking off pollen onto her body hairs.
Presentation flowers. The pollen is collected by workers pressing their abdomens against the inflorescence, causing a pollen mass to be pushed out of the flowers.’
Honeybees can often be seen in flowers their bodies covered with bright yellow or orange pollen grains, which they then ‘dust off’ and brush into baskets on their hind legs.
Here’s another infographic summarising the relationship between bees and pollen.
And finally, propolis…
6.13 The collection and use of propolis by the honeybee colony
On a mild day in September 2011, Emily and I visited the apiary while the other beekeepers were away to do some secret beekeeping. We had to work hard with the hive tools to prise open the hive, which was very sticky. When we looked inside our bees were so busy chewing and sticking propolis all over the hive that they completely ignored us!
Propolis, or ‘bee glue’ is a resinous substance collected from sticky buds or tree bark, and seen as shiny blobs on the third legs of foragers flying home. It is most often seen by beekeepers in late summer and in autumn when bees use it to insulate the hive for winter – it makes all the hive parts very sticky and inspections can become difficult.
Here’s why the bees like it though.
My next (and penultimate) revision post before the exam will be written from the point of view of one of our queens and it’s all about swarming and supercedure, something Emily and I know a lot about!
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.1 the role of the worker bee
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.2 to 6.3 the life of the queen
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.4 a honeybee year
BBKA module 6 honeybee behaviour: 6.5 Social organisation of a honeybee colony and worker policing
BBKA module 6: honeybee behaviour 6.6 The social network including bee dances
BBKA module 6: honeybee behaviour 6.7 the foraging bee