The life of honeybees in the course of the year
Winter is a time of survival in the beehive. While it is storming, raining or snowing outside, the bee colony has gathered in the hive to form the winter cluster, inside which the queen bee is waiting for spring at 35 degrees. The collection flights for nectar and pollen are stopped, no honey is produced and no pollen is stored, it is consumed from the stores stored in the combs. What looks like hibernation from the outside is actually hard work. Ten to 20,000 bees shiver their way through the winter. Because in order to maintain the temperature, they have to heat up with the honey and the winter food fed to them from the combs by the beekeeper. They shiver with the largest muscles they have - the flight muscles - until their thorax is heated to about 44 degrees. To avoid making a disturbing wind in the process, the wings are simply disengaged and the muscles idle.
Once the bee has warmed up, it crawls into the interior of the winter cluster - and is later pushed out again by the hotter bees that follow. This interplay continues into spring, day and night, without a break. The principle of "heat by trembling" is the same as in mammals and is also widespread in insects.
The bee colony as an organism
If you think of a bee colony as a superorganism, you can understand much better how the bee state works. Scientists speak of "the bee," a superorganism made up of 30 to 80,000 bees. An organism whose cells separate during the day, fly out, return and only form a physical unit at night and in winter. Just as cells perform different tasks in a body, bees also submit to a highly specialized division of labor: "heater bees" generate heat. "Fuel station bees" carry honey from the combs to the completely exhausted heater bees. "Guard bees" guard the entrance to the hive. "Cooler bees" evaporate liquid. "Nurse bees" take care of the queen's eggs. Male drones wait their entire lives for a chance to mate with the queen. And the winter bees simply survive the winter to build a strong colony in the spring when nature and plants awaken.
The bee superorganism maintains a constant temperature of 35 degrees in the center of the hive, where the sensitive brood is - summer and winter. In summer, the colony "sweats." Specialized bees distribute liquid in the hive and fan it with their wings, so that the water evaporates that the busy water collectors have brought in. If it gets cold, on the other hand, heater bees turn themselves into stoves. Other specialists measure the CO 2 content in the burrow. Or the humidity. If the climate deteriorates, they begin to fan fresh air into the nest.
The bees' tasks in the hive and as flying bees
The bee has to perform tasks in the colony according to its age. A summer bee lives on average 40 days, of which it is a hive bee for 30 days and a forager bee for 10 days. The number of tasks performed by the bee colony and the duration of these tasks depends on the needs of the colony, but it is approximately as follows
The bee colony also has a guard team
Guard bees protect the hive. Intruders are attacked, stung, driven away or killed. The guard bee often sacrifices itself for the colony, because its sting gets stuck in elastic skin and is torn out, after which the bee dies. If the enemies of the bee colony are small, they are disposed of. If they are too heavy, such as a field mouse, the carcass is covered with a fine layer of disinfecting propolis, making it harmless. This substance, called propolis, contains antibiotic, antiviral and antifungal substances - and ensures that no diseases break out in the densely populated hive. The inside of a beehive contains fewer germs than an operating room. This is also prevented by slavish cleanliness: bees only empty their bowels outside the hive. Since they can't do that in winter, they wait until spring for the big cleaning trip. From this day on, the bee colony begins to prepare for spring and the queen bee starts laying eggs again.
Mammals and humans do not feed their babies with captured food, not with worms like birds or with highly strangled fish like penguins - mammals produce their own food with their mother's milk, perfectly adapted to the needs of the baby. So do bees: they produce royal jelly in their feeding glands, which is used to feed the brood in the early days. Later, the diet is changed to honey and pollen - only the queen is fed with a special royal jelly the queen food juice for life.
Males and females in the bee colony
While the workers are all females, the drones are the males among the bees. Their only task is to pass on genetic information when mating with the queen. That is why drones do not have a stinger
In human reproduction, sperm find the egg by following the scent of lily of the valley emitted by the egg. The male drones, which are nothing more than winged seed packets, also follow the scent of the unmatted queen bee - but their scent, produced by pheromones, has not yet been fully decoded. If the drone comes to mate, it dies while still in the air. Otherwise, the colony lets them live as long as nuptial flights of queen bees take place. After that they are driven out of the hive as useless eaters, this is regularly the case in August and is called the great drone battle by the beekeeper. Whereas battle is actually the wrong name because the drones have nothing to oppose the workers and are happy if the sting of the worker bee is not used.
Not all bees are busy, by the way. "Bees that work conspicuously little in the first days, become significantly older than their busy sisters. The only question is, do lazy bees get older, or do bees with a long lifespan take it easy?" says Professor Jürgen Tautz, head of the BEEgroup at the University of Würzburg's Biocenter. The difference is big, summer bees live six weeks, winter bees seven months - with the same genes. The life span of human cells also ranges from hours to decades.
Teaching and memory in bees
The most interesting organ in humans has no direct counterpart in the bee colony. "Brain bees" do not exist. But each individual bee has a brain that networks with those of the others. Just as the nerve cells in the human brain cannot store information individually and only become "smart" in a network. To do that, they have to communicate. "This happens all the time and everywhere," says Werner von der Ohe, head of the Bee Research Institute in Celle. "Whenever two bees meet, they exchange information - in the form of nectar, smells or even movements." The hive is a permanent information exchange. "It's always the whole bee colony that makes decisions," says von der Ohe, "at least we don't find a boss."
Tautz goes one surprising step further: "The bee colony is like a supercomputer: together, the bees have about five billion brain cells, half of our brain. But the bees' brain cells explore the world during the day and then exchange an infinite amount of information." And with that, the colony learns.
The queen is also a slave of the community
Despite her special position and despite the fact that she can live up to five years, the queen bee is a slave of the community: at the beginning of her life, she is allowed to leave the hive for her nuptial flight. After mating with about twenty drones, she must lay 2000-3000 eggs a day for the rest of her life. She only leaves the dark nest again when the hive becomes too crowded for her numerous offspring. Then the workers nurture a new queen, and before she hatches, the old queen bee will leave the hive with a swarm. With a large part of their offspring and filled honey bladders, 20,000 homeless bees now look for a new dwelling. If the swarm of bees does not find a new home within three days, which is how long the honey in the honey bladder lasts, the bees die and cannot return. The old hive is taken over by the new queen. So it can go for centuries. Theoretically, the bee colony is immortal in nature. Only the changes of the agriculture and the use of agrarian poisons led in many places world-wide to the mass bee death. That is why insect protection is extremely important in nature conservation. Also in the small and front garden the planting of plants is the wild bees, honey bees and Schmeterlingen Narung offer an increasingly important component of the nature protection.
The principle in the bee state is: What is young is protected. What is old can be risked. Thus, worker bees live in the safe hive for the first two-thirds of their approximately six-week lives. Only in the last weeks do they begin to fly out and collect honey and pollen. This work is risky, but the colony can do without a few hundred older bees per day.
Tautz, meanwhile, has observed a surprising development: "Bees become smarter as they age: the number of synapses, the nerve connections in the brain, increases measurably. But their memory and ability to solve complex tasks also improve."
Bees have one ability ahead of humans: While differentiated cells in mammals no longer change - a skin cell remains a skin cell - a collection bee can also revert to a nurse bee or a gas station bee if necessary. It can even reactivate glands that had regressed. It is as if the superorganism bee had omnipotent stem cells that it can use at any time where they are needed. Humans are just learning this technique in the gene laboratory. The bee has mastered it for millions of years.