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Bumblebees and Stingless Bees
The honeybee commonly raised for production of honey and wax in many parts of the world is Apis mellifera, of Old World origin. Honeybees build nests, or combs, of wax, which is secreted by glands in the abdomen. They store honey for future use in the hexagonal cells of the comb. In the wild the nests are made in caves or hollow trees, but beekeepers provide nesting boxes, called hives. Beekeeping, or apiculture, is more than 4,000 years old, but humans collected honey and beeswax several thousand years before that.
A typical colony consists of three castes: the large queen, who produces the eggs, many thousands of workers (sexually undeveloped females), and a few hundred drones (fertile males). At the tip of a female bee's abdomen is a strong, sharp lancet, or sting, connected to poison glands. In the queen, who stings only rival queens, the sting is smooth and can be withdrawn easily; in the worker bee the sting is barbed and can rarely be withdrawn without tearing the body of the bee, causing it to die. The workers gather nectar; make and store honey; build the cells; clean, ventilate (by fanning their wings), and protect the hive. They also feed and care for the queen and the larvae. They communicate with one another (for example, about the location of flowers) by performing dances in specific patterns. The workers live for only about six weeks during the active season, but those that hatch (i.e., emerge from the pupa stage) in the fall live through the winter. The drones die in the fall.
A developing bee goes through the larva and pupa stages in the cell and emerges as an adult. The larva is fed constantly by the worker bees; the pupa is sealed into the cell. Fertilized eggs develop into workers; unfertilized eggs become drones. A fertilized egg may also become a queen if the larva is fed royal jelly, a glandular secretion thought to contain sex hormones as well as nutrients, until she pupates. Worker larvae receive this food only during the first three days of larval life, afterward receiving beebread, a mixture of pollen and honey.
When a hive becomes overcrowded a swarm may leave with the old queen and establish a new colony. The old colony in the meantime rears several new queens. The first queen that hatches stings the others to death in their cells; if two emerge at once, they fight until one is killed. Mating then occurs. A newly hatched queen is followed aloft in a nuptial flight by the drones, only one of which impregnates her, depositing millions of sperm that are stored in a pouch in her body. The drone dies, and the queen returns to the hive, where for the rest of her life (usually several years) she lays eggs continuously in the cells.
Importance of Bees
Bees are of inestimable value as agents of cross-pollination (see pollination), and many plants are entirely dependent on particular kinds of bees for their reproduction (such as red clover, which is pollinated by the bumblebee, and many orchids). In many cases the use of insecticides for agricultural pest control has had the unwelcome side effect of killing the bees necessary for maintaining the crop. Such environmental stresses plus several species of parasitic mites devastated honeybee populations in the United States beginning in the 1980s, making it necessary for farmers to rent bees from keepers in order to get their crops pollinated and greatly affecting the pollination of plants in the wild.
In 2006, commercial honeybee hives first suffered from colony collapse disorder, which, for unclear reasons, left many bee boxes empty of bees after overwintering. Dead bees from affected colonies have since been found to be infected with viruses and other pathogens that, acting synergistically, may be the cause. Although colony collapse disorder peaked in 2007 and has subsided, commercial honeybee hives continue to suffer significantly from the effects of disease and pesticides.
The increasing expense of using honeybees to pollinate agricultural crops has led to the growing use of such alternative species as bumblebees and blue orchard mason bees as well as wild bees as supplemental or primary pollinators. The successful use of wild bees as agricultural pollinators typically requires providing or ensuring access to alternative food sources before and after the crop flowers and limiting practices, such as the use of pesticides, that might kill wild bees.
Bee venom has been found to have medicinal properties. Toasted honeybees are eaten in some parts of the world.
See M. Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee (1913); K. von Frisch, The Dance Language and Orientation of Bees (1965, tr. 1967); M. Lindauer, Communication Among Social Bees (rev. ed. 1971); C. Mitchener, Social Behavior of Bees (1974); F. Ruttner, Biogeography and Raxonomy of Honey Bees (1987); M. Winston, The Biology of the Honey Bee (1987); James L. and Carol Gould, The Honey Bee (1988).