Inside the hive: The life of a bee

Jennifer Russell

Did you know that bees pollinate one-third of our fruits and vegetables? Farmers contract to have bees moved onto their land each year because nothing else can do their job.

Marla Spivak has been working with bees for decades. Spivak is an entomologist and distinguished McKnight professor at the University of Minnesota who runs the Bee Lab. [Ed. note: Read this story for more on Spivak's research and colony collapse order.]

On a beautiful spring day we met up with Spivak and the bees at the university, but not before donning protective bee suits, tucking our pant legs into our socks, lowering our voices and moving a bit slower than usual.

Marla Spivak: What I'm going to do is puff a little smoke in the entrance of the colony. That lets them know I'm here. Then all my movements are going to be slow.

I'm going to take off the lid, the outer cover, and what you're seeing are a couple of buckets. This is a new colony, so we're feeding them a little sugar syrup to get them going until the flowers are really in bloom.

These are called wooden frames, and inside the frame what you're seeing is this plastic base foundation. The bees don't need this, they can build their wax comb naturally. We give the foundation to them as a guide so that they'll build the comb straight, because otherwise they do some artistic things. Then you can't get the frames out. This frame you can see they've done a lot and it's beautiful.

wooden frames
Spivak removing the wooden frames (Jennifer Russell)

Here's the queen and we painted her. We gave her a dot of red paint on her thorax so that we can see her quickly.

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: She is magnificent. She has a longer body than the other bees. What is she doing right now?

MS: She's freaking out because we just brought her out into the sunlight. She's starting to calm down a little bit. If you watch her, she's sticking her head into the cells and she's looking for a place to lay an egg. That's what she does all day long: go from cell to cell and try to find an empty polished one that she can lay an egg into. She's going to lay an egg for you.

LRK: Oh my.

MS: She's laying an egg. Do you see her? When she put her abdomen way down in the cell that was it.

LRK: She's now hunting for another spot.

MS: Yes. Before she lays the egg she can decide to fertilize that egg or not, and it's not a conscious decision.

She has a sac inside of her where she has stored sperm from the males that she mated with. As her eggs develop in her ovaries -- which is why her abdomen is so large, it's just full of ovaries -- and they move down her oviduct, she can fertilize an egg or not. If it's fertilized, it will develop into a female. If it's not fertilized, it's just an unfertilized egg and it will develop into a male.

LRK: She actually populates the hive as it needs to be populated?

MS: Correct. But she's not really ruling the roost. She's not really in charge. She's in charge genetically -- it's her offspring -- but the workers are making decisions. If she starts laying male eggs and they don't want to rear the male eggs, they just won't. They're controlling the population also.

Bees
Bees (Jennifer Russell)

LRK: We're looking at what are called the worker bees?

MS: You're seeing a few worker bees. They're sterile females.

LRK: Are they always female?

MS: It's a female society. About 5 percent of the colony will be males. They're starting to raise males about now and into June, then at the end of the season they throw the males out of the colony. We call the males drones.

LRK: Why raise them and then throw them out?

MS: The drones don't do any work for the colony. Their sole job in life is to mate and then they die. The drones don't have a stinger, they can't defend the nest. They don't have the baskets on their legs to collect the pollen. They don't forage for nectar, so they don't make honey and they don't secrete wax. They really don't do any work in the colony. They just fly out every afternoon when they're mature and look for virgin queen bees to mate with.

Apiary
The apiary (Jennifer Russell)

LRK: To give us an overview, what is a day in the life of a bee?

MS: It depends how old the bee is. If you're a young bee, 1 to 14 days old, you would stay down with the queen. You would polish cells so the queen has a nice polished cell to lay an egg in. You would feed the queen. You would pass her pheromones, which are her chemical scent, from her to the other bees. Mostly you're in what we call the brood nest and you're feeding larvae, your immature sisters. You're a nurse bee when you're young.

Then as you mature, the middle-aged bees are the ones who store the nectar. An older bee is a forager and she'll go out and collect nectar. She'll hand it off to a middle-aged bee, like a teenage bee, and that bee will then store the nectar in a cell and convert it into honey. The middle-aged bees also are the ones who secrete a lot of wax.

When they're about 3 weeks old they start foraging regularly. That's all they'll do until they die at 4 to 6 weeks old.

LRK: That's a really short life.

MS: Yes, but the queen is constantly laying 1,000 eggs a day, so they're replaced.

Lynne in her bee suit
Lynne Rossetto Kasper with the bees (Jennifer Russell)

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