The life of the bees, the queen and the hive

Honey, royal jelly, propolis, pollen, venom and waxes have one thing in common: they are products of the hive, which come straight from bees. And when we see the potential of these substances, we can only conclude that bees are exceptional insects. The beekeeper, at the heart of their world, is the one in charge of collecting these products, but without him, bees can live by themselves in very structured colonies, and this in a totally natural way. Responsible for the pollination of 80% of flowering plants through their foraging activity which occupies a good part of their lives, bees are essential to life, and their disappearance would have catastrophic repercussions... And let's clear up a common misunderstanding right away: the bee is not the wasp, and despite their physical resemblance, they have nothing in common. The wasp, carnivorous, stings several times and produces nothing, while the bee is vegetarian, pacifist (it will only sting you if it feels threatened) and its hive is the cradle of remarkable products.

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The bee, the queen and the hive

A bee is a hymenopteran insect of the apoid family, of which there are more than 20,000 listed species! In Europe, the most common species is Apis mellifera, and it is the one that is mostly found at the origin of honey production. This fascinating world is very structured and the society of bees is incredible in its functioning.

Bees are female societies living in swarms of 40,000 to 60,000 female workers for 1,000 to 2,000 male drones. This whole little world is structured and organized around a queen, who is the only female capable of reproduction because her pheromones inhibit the ovaries of the workers (original as a means of birth control!). The latter is impregnated only once in her life, on a beautiful spring day, by some of the males (yes, there are several of them) whose sole task it is. And, tragically, these males lose their lives as well as their genitals which remain attached to the female's abdomen... Thus, like martyrs sent to the battlefield, these drones, these chosen ones, these unknown heroes give their lives for the survival of the species. RIP little drone, you who disappeared on the field of honor to save the beekeepers!

In short, these multiple simultaneous matings are good for the queen, who fills her spermatheca (like a library, you know what I mean), with 5 to 7 million spermatozoa (just like that!). The queen, O great queen, then returns to the fold (alone, no room for any male, they're all dead anyway), and settles into the hive for 5 years of a now chaste and prudish existence, which will be devoted to one and only one task: respond.

The egg-laying, at the origin of the colony

But then, how does the queen keep laying eggs? This immutable ritual, only disrupted by the phenomenon of swarming (when a swarm leaves the hive with the queen to form a new colony), takes place every year from the beautiful days of spring until autumn. And we must speak of ritual, because all that is missing is the drums and the fires for us to think we are witnessing an ancient ritual of a Mayan tribe. Indeed, the queen, surrounded by her court (about fifteen hand-picked worker bees), plunges her head into the cells that have been prepared with a drop of royal jelly, then turns around and lays an egg in it. Then she moves on to the next cell, repeating the same pattern, and so on, every forty seconds. She lays between 1,500 and 2,000 eggs per day (equivalent to her own weight), methodically from the center of the comb and spiraling outward. Irreversibly, the queen plunges her head into the cell, lays, and moves on to the next. And so on, tirelessly and assiduously.

But, you probably wonder why it passes the head in the alveolus? It is necessary to know here that it is the size of this last which will determine the sex of the individual. Indeed, the queen "decides", according to her good will, depending on the size of the cell, to open or not her seminal canal, allowing the sperm to fertilize the ovum, thus giving a female. After a careful examination of the cell, the queen will fertilize her eggs for the small cells, giving birth to worker bees, while there is no fertilization for the larger cells, where males are produced (which, although having a larger chamber, will have a role for the colony inversely proportional to the size of their cell).

The bee, a whole life at the service of the hive

This is the story of the viiiiie, the cycle of the beeiiiiiide!

After three days of incubation, the egg hatches and turns into a larva that will be fed exclusively with royal jelly for its first three days of life, then it begins its growth process in its alveolus, fed with honey and pollen, and becomes an imago (adult bee) after 21 days after laying. She then tears off the operculum, takes her little ball out of the alveolus, and joins the colony: she enters a rigorous and uncompromising system, where she will have a particular role depending on her age. First cleaner, then nurse, on the twelfth day she becomes worker (architect and mason of the hive, or janitor, or handler or ventilator), and then, finally, at about three weeks of existence, the bee leaves the hive and becomes butterfly. After a few orientation test flights, she will make 10 to 15 trips per day, for one to three weeks, to forage on flowers and bring back the precious nectar.

The bee is an unconditional worker, who will exhaust himself and then die of exhaustion. Valiant throughout its short existence, the bee rarely lives longer than 1.5 or 2 months. Its only chance to live longer (up to 6 months) is to be born in the fall, as the hive then enters the phase of inactivity, as winter is coming. They then spend the winter huddled together, producing heat by contracting their muscles, in order to keep a temperature of 20-25°C in the center of the hive. However, the bees at the end of the cluster may experience temperatures below 10°C, and they take turns to warm themselves in the center of the cluster. Here again we see that the bee colony is a single organism that is collectively self-sustaining.

But, during this period, what about the males? Well, the poor drones don't make it through the winter. Indeed, as they are not essential to the survival of the hive, they are hunted or even exterminated by their female congeners who prefer to keep their winter provisions for useful individuals. Cruel, would you say? In any case, it is very efficient for their survival, although a bit radical...

Spin-off, the end of a cycle and the beginning of a new era

The following spring, the daily activity of the bees resumes, like a stream that resumes its course. Each one finding its role, each one well in its place in this society where the individual is the colony. Until the day when the current hive becomes too small for the colony: then, the queen, surrounded by several tens of thousands of worker bees, guided by scouts, begins a long pilgrimage to create a new colony. Foreseeing by taking the necessary provisions, the bees thus begin the essaiming to go towards more propitious horizons. Without knowing how is decided who leaves and who stays, it seems that the bees are one organism that will do what is good for its survival. Bees really do think of everything, and once a new home is found, each bee sets to work hard to resume its cycle, the cycle that is its entire life and existence.

The loop is closed, everything can start again.