The Life of a Bee

The following video shows the 21 day transformation of the honeybee from larvae to nature’s greatest pollinator in a 60-second timelapse. The video was produced in a partnership between Anand Varma and the Bee Lab at the University of California, Davis.

And here is his commentary, from a TED talk:

Like most advanced insects, bees go through a complete metamorphosis during their development. The young and the adult look very different, and the diet of the young and the adults differ so much that there is no competition for food between parents and their offspring. The life stages are egg, larva, pupa and adult. Development from egg to new worker typically takes two to three weeks

The eggs have an appearance similar to sausage-shaped poppy seeds. Each egg has a small opening at the broad end of the egg, the micropyle, that allows for passage of sperm. Hatching takes place three days after egg laying.

The larval stage lasts eight to nine days. Upon hatching, the larva is almost microscopic, resembling a small, white, curved, segmented worm without legs and eyes. For the first two days, all larvae are fed a diet of royal jelly. Beginning the third day, worker larvae are fed honey, pollen and water, while the larvae destined to become queens continue to receive royal jelly throughout their larval lives. Regardless of whether the larva is male or female, it molts five times during its larval stage. Care of the larvae is constant. Each larva receives an estimated 10,000 meals during this stage. Larval weight increases 5 1/2x during the first day, 1500x in six days.

The pupal stage involves a massive reorganization of tissues. Organs undergo a complete reorganization, and the body changes from the worm-like larval body shape to the adult body shape with three distinct body regions. Pupation periods vary: queens require up to 7.5 days, drones require 14.5 days, and workers require 12 days.

Adult bees are either workers (sterile females), queens (fertile females), or drones (fertile males). A typical honeybee colony consists of 50,000 to 60,000 sterile workers, 500 to 1000 drones (fertile males) and one queen, who is the only fertile female in the colony and mother of the entire population of the hive.

Workers provide virtually all of the efforts required to maintain function within a hive. During the latter part of their life, each will travel up to two miles in search of pollen, nectar and water. Each worker typically goes on ten food-gathering journeys per day, each lasting approximately one hour. This heavy workload takes its toll; the workers live for about a month before dying.

After emerging from its pupal cocoon within the brood comb, it immediately goes to work. During the first four days of its adult life, each worker is cleaned and fed by the other bees while its body hardens and it begins to produce substances in various glands. Activities during the next seventeen days include cleaning, feeding larvae, manipulating wax, processing honey, guard duty and air conditioning the hive by fanning. Any of these activities can be done at any time based on the needs of the colony.

On day 21 the worker leaves the hive, and works for another 20 days, bringing in pollen, nectar and water before taking its final flight away from the hive and dying outside.

Pollen, a plant protein source for the young, provides nitrogen, phosphorus, amino acids, and vitamins essential for the development of these vegetarian insects. Pollen is collected in pollen baskets (corbicula) on the workers’ rear legs.

Nectar, obtained from floral nectaries deep within flowers, provides a pure carbohydrate source for all stages. Each worker fills her honey sac within her digestive system, increasing her weight by up to one half. Upon arrival at the hive, the worker regurgitates the contents of the honey sac to the younger workers within the hive. These younger workers receive the nectar, which is processed by enzymes within their honey sacs, and deposited into storage cells where it ripens for five days. At this point the substance becomes honey, and the cell containing it is capped for storage. Nectar from 5 million flowers is required to produce a single pint of honey.

Water, the final substance brought to the hive, is essential for hydrating all of the individuals within a hive and cooling it throughout the year. Approximately five gallons are required to hydrate and cool the colony each year.

Queens can be distinguished from workers by their longer abdomens and greater size. Queens have the longest lifespan of all the bees within the hive. Their major role is to lay the eggs in order to produce the vast numbers of individuals required to maintain a hive. Colonies will produce a new queen if the original is ailing or infertile. This is done by producing a special wax cell around 7 or 8 fertilized eggs, which looks somewhat like a peanut. Eggs and larvae are coated with royal jelly (a vitamin-rich hormonal substance made by the workers) for a two-week period, after which a new queen emerges. The first new queen to emerge stings all her sisters within the specialized wax cell (all of whom are potential queens) and may also kill the original queen, her own mother.

Five to fifteen days after emergence from her pupal cocoon and cell, the young queen flies off, mating with as many as ten drones over a several day period. She will store the sperm from these matings in a spermatheca for the duration of her life, and will never mate again. She returns to the hive and begins laying up to 1,500 eggs per day. Queens typically lay 200,000 eggs over their lifetime. After two to four years, the queen uses up all of her stored sperm and begins producing unfertilized eggs, which give rise to drones. Usually the workers raise one or more queens from the last of the fertilized eggs to replace the new queen. To maximize hive productivity, honey farmers replace the queen annually or every other year.

Drones are the male bees within a colony. Drones can be distinguished from workers and queens by their large size, rectangular abdomens, large conspicuous eyes, and noisy flight. Drones lack the capability to sting, and have more eye facets than a worker (6,000-7,000 vs. 3,000-5,000). Drones result from unfertilized eggs. They emerge 24 days after the egg is laid. Drones are capable of extracting honey four days after emergence, but prefer to be fed by workers. Unlike workers (sterile females), drones can’t fly well, don’t gather food for the colony, don’t clean, don’t secrete wax, and do not care for the young. The role of the drones is largely to fertilize new queens. A group of drones follows each virgin queen on her early flights. Several males will mate with each virgin queen while flying, dying immediately after the mating, since his reproductive organs and the end of his abdomen break off. These pieces temporarily plug the end of the queen’s reproductive tract and abdomen.

Assuming all goes well, drones typically live for about 50 days. If there is a fertile female in residence, the workers may withhold food from the drones or gnaw off the drones’ wings and legs. By fall, all of the males and male larvae are evicted from each colony.

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