Honeybees don’t mean to sacrifice themselves.
Like the pain inflicted by a bee sting, most of us are familiar with the “fact” that they sacrifice themselves when protecting their hive, dying after they sting. The truth is, honeybees aren’t that selfless. Their stingers developed millions of years ago — long before mammals evolved — as an effective weapon against other insects, like hornets and other bees, that attempted to steal their honey reserves.
When mammals arrived and started raiding hives for honey, the bees only had their stingers to defend their bounty. Unfortunately, when a honeybee stings a mammal, its barbed stinger gets stuck in the thick layers of skin, and the bee disembowels itself as it flies away. It’s a final instinctual, but not suicidal, attack.
Worker bees decide to make a new queen
At the centre of any beehive is the queen, but that doesn’t make it a monarchy. Worker bees make many big decisions: when it’s time to cool or warm the hive, when to forage for nectar or pollen (their two food sources), and whether they need a new queen.
If an old queen dies, disappears from the hive or is too old to lay enough eggs, a new one is required. To make a new queen, workers build long cells around a few eggs and feed them royal jelly — a mixture of sugars, water and proteins secreted from special glands — but no pollen or honey. 16 days later, the first virgin queen hatches. After emerging, she searches out the other potential queens and attacks their cells. It’s a fight to the death. Sometimes, the colony grows so big and healthy that it splits in two. Half the colony leaves the hive with its own queen, “swarming” as it searches for a new home.
Winter worker bees can live five times longer than summer bees
Honeybees produce and store honey so they have a food source during tough times like winter when there are no flowers in bloom. During the colder months, the colony stays at home in the hive, keeping themselves warm by flexing their wing muscles to generate heat. Worker bees that are born in the autumn will generally live through winter and into spring — in many cases, surviving five times longer than those born in spring or summer.
Although a bee’s lifespan can be cut short by predator attacks or disease, its lifespan is usually determined by the number of hours it works. In the busy warmer months, the average life of a worker bee is up to six weeks. Lots of flying time means a shorter lifespan, as their wings become tattered sooner and their tiny bodies give out.
Honeybees ‘dance’ for each other — and we can dance for them, too!
When you take a look inside a bustling beehive, you’re likely to see a bee or two putting on a show. They’re doing the aptly named “waggle dance” for their sisters. The “dance” is actually a vital form of communication, relaying information about the location and distance of nearby food and water sources, or potential locations for a new hive if the colony has split.
The dance was decoded in 1946 by famed ethologist Karl von Frisch, and decades later, humans are able to communicate with honeybees. Researchers have created robot bees capable of busting a move with the same dance steps, communicating exactly where bees can find food — and then watched as they went off to search.
Honeybees smell with their antennae
Honeybees have two large compound eyes and three smaller eyes, known as ocelli, to see the world around them. But the antennae on their heads offer them a much more comprehensive understanding of their surroundings. Bees’ antennae are packed with sensory structures for touch, smell, taste and even hearing. Their sense of smell is particularly well developed — honeybees are able to smell 100 times better than humans. They’ve even been trained to sniff out explosives just like bomb detection dogs.
Honeybees may dream. A honeybee’s brain is made up of almost one million neurons. That might sound meagre compared to the estimated 86 billion neurons found in our own heads, but for an insect, it’s a lot.
Bees are intelligent, with impressive navigational skills that they combine with their powerful sense of smell to locate distant food sources. Incredibly, studies have suggested that they can also count and understand the concept of “zero,” something that many mammals are unable to do.
With all the work their brains do, honeybees need to rest, and they sleep between five and eight hours a day. Scientists have observed that while they’re snoozing, they move their antennae in distinct patterns. They could be storing memories while they sleep, and possibly dreaming just like we do.