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Social bees

Social Bees

Social bees live in communities consisting of mother (queen) and daughters (workers). These are types of social bees:-

Honey Bees

Honeybees are truly the gardener’s friend and are not the killer beast depicted in the cinema. If not for them and the other species of bees, plant life would be reduced to mainly wind-pollinated grasses and trees, as bees pollinate most of the flowering plants. Their value to food production is priceless as they pollinate so many of the crops grown worldwide.

The native bee Apis mellifera mellifera is one of many species of bee belonging to the insect order Hymenoptera. They have been associated with humans for a long time and cave paintings depict the harvesting of honey 8,000 years ago. Honey was the main sweetener of food until sugar was introduced, also the wax by-product provided the candles for illumination. Unlike most insects, honeybees remain active throughout the winter surviving on the honey, produced from nectar, they have stored in the summer.

One of their less favourable attributes is their sting only present in the worker bee. When threatened, honeybees will swarm out and attack with their stingers to drive the enemy away, but generally as they forage around they are quite harmless and only sting if accidently caught in clothing.

Honeybees are social insects and create elaborate nests containing up to 50,000 individuals during the summer months. Working together in a highly structured social order, each bee belongs to one of three specialized groups called castes – queens, drones and workers.

There is one queen in a hive and her main purpose in life is to make more bees. She lays eggs in the hexagonal shaped cells of the comb and these hatch into larvae, become pupae and then emerge from the sealed cell as the adult bee after 21 days for a worker, 16 days for a queen and 24 days for a drone. The workers feed a few selected larvae a special food called “royal jelly” which causes them to become queens. When active she can lay over 1,500 eggs per day and will live for two to five years. She is larger (up to 20mm) and has a longer abdomen than the workers or drones, which she controls by emitting pheromones known collectively as “queen substance”.

The drones are male. They live about eight weeks and only a few hundred are ever present in the hive. Their sole function is to mate with a new queen, if one is produced in a given year. They are bigger than the workers and have bigger eyes than the other castes. At the end of the season they are considered non-essential and are driven out of the hive to die.

Worker bees are all infertile females making up the vast majority of the colony and do all the different tasks needed to maintain and operate the hive. Young workers are called house bees which work in the hive doing comb construction, brood rearing, tending the queen and drones, cleaning, temperature regulation (by beating their wings) and defending the hive.

Older workers are called field bees foraging outside the hive to gather nectar, pollen, water and certain sticky plant resins used in hive construction. Workers born early in the season will live about 6 weeks while those born in the autumn will live until the following spring. Workers are about 12 mm long and highly specialized for what they do, with a structure called a pollen basket on each hind leg, an extra stomach for storing and transporting nectar or honey and four pairs of special glands that secrete beeswax on the underside of their abdomen.

Ideally you should purchase local bees from a local beekeeper or your local beekeeping association as they will be better acclimatised to the local area. You can purchase a nucleus (a small colony of bees) from about £80 up to £200. Swarms of bees are sometimes collected and offered to beginners free of charge.

Native plants are preferred by the bees to provide nectar. Hawthorn, white clover, heather and bramble are some of the better providers and dandelions are in bloom early in the year when the bees are becoming active. Cotoneaster horizontalis is a popular garden shrub for the bees.

As well as nectar, pollen is a food source for the bees. It sticks to the fuzzy hairs which cover their bodies. Some of this pollen rubs off on the next flower they visit, fertilizing the flower and resulting in better fruit production. The pollen provides protein and other essential nutrients for the bees.

Help & support – New beekeepers will benefit from joining their local Beekeeping Association as ongoing advice will be available. Many associations run ‘mentoring schemes’ and offer honey extraction equipment for hire.

The future

Honey bees are undoubtedly under threat and it is estimated that 90% of all wild colonies have died in the last 5 years or so. Reasons for this include loss of habitat such as natural pastureland and the destruction of hedges etc as agricultural practices have changed. Recently the spread of the Varroa mite among the bee population has threatened their future as it debilitates the bees by sucking their blood and carries various secondary infections. Beekeepers therefore have a crucial role to play in conserving the honeybee for future generations.

Interesting Honeybee Facts

  • The honeybee is the only species of bee that produces honey
  • Honeybees communicate with each other by performing different dance routines to tell the location of food
  • They cannot recognise the colour red
  • The queen can lay her own body weight in eggs a day – up to 2,000 eggs
  • The worker bees feed the queen exclusively on “Royal Jelly”
  • Honey is nectar that bees have repeatedly regurgitated and dehydrated
  • One honeybee produces about one twelth of a teaspoon of honey in its life
  • To make one pound of honey, workers in a hive fly 55,000 miles and tap two million flowers
  • Theoretically, the energy in one ounce of honey would provide one bee with enough energy to fly around the world
  • The honeybee is not born knowing how to make honey; the younger bees are taught by the more experienced ones

How Can I Help The Honeybee?

  • Plant bee friendly plants
  • Don’t use pesticides/insecticides in your garden
  • Join your local Beekeeping Association
  • Find space for beehives
  • Buy local honey; this helps local beekeepers to cover costs of protecting bees


Information Courtesy of Bumblebee Conservation Trust

There are 19 different species of bumblebee found in the U.K. and 3 of these species are already extinct with a further 9 on the critically endangered list. Scientists are warning that they could be wiped out within a few years.

Bumblebees, honeybees, wasps and ants are all social insects: they live in a colony with a queen and her daughters (the workers). Bumblebees have an annual lifecycle, with new nests being started each spring by queens. The queen bumblebees are very large, and from February onwards can be seen feeding on flowers such as willow catkins, bluebells and lungwort, or flying low over the ground searching for a nest site.

Some species prefer to nest underground in abandoned burrows of rodents, while others nest just above the ground in dense grass leaf-litter. The queen stocks her nest with pollen and nectar, and lays her first batch of eggs. She incubates them much as a bird would, sitting on the eggs while shivering her flight muscles to produce warmth.

When the eggs hatch the legless grubs consume pollen and nectar, grow rapidly, and pupate after a few weeks. A few days later the first workers hatch from their pupae and begin helping their mother, expanding the nest and gathering food.

By mid-summer nests of some species can contain several hundred workers. At this point the queen starts laying both male and female eggs. The females are fed extra food and become future queens. Both males and new queens leave the nest to mate and the new queens burrow into the ground to wait until the following spring. The males, workers, and the old queen die off in the autumn, leaving the nest to decay.

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