You have probably noticed flowers popping up, and fuzzy, buzzing insects visiting those flowers. Bees may strike fear in the hearts of some, but they are really quite beneficial as a whole and have fascinating lives to boot.
The most well-known bees are the 'social' bees who live together in a colony. These include honeybees and bumblebees. Honeybees establish a perennial colony, whereas bumblebees establish a new colony annually. There are also many solitary bees who create a colony that is dug under the ground. This category includes leafcutter bees, carpenter bees, and digger bees.
Honeybees (genus Apis) produce and store honey and construct perennial nests out of wax. There are essentially three castes of honeybees: the queens, who lay eggs, and the female workers, who care for the eggs and cannot produce their own young. The only purpose in life for the males, called the drones, is to find and mate with a queen. There can be from 10,000 to 50,000 worker honey bees in a colony, 100 - 500 males, and 1 queen.
The queen bee lays individual eggs in cells of the comb. The eggs hatch in 3-4 days into larvae. The worker bees feed the larvae and then seal the cell when the larvae are ready to pupate. The time of development of the bee, from egg to larvae, to pupa, to adult, varies depending on whether it is a queen, worker, or drone. Queens emerge in 16 days, workers in 21 days, and drones in 24 days. All larvae are fed 'royal jelly' by the workers, although workers and drones are only fed it for 3 days, while queens are fed royal jelly for the duration of their development. Royal jelly is a secretion from special glands of worker bees. New queens are only raised when the existing queen either is aging or dies, or the colony becomes very large. Once she has developed into an adult, she will take one or several 'nuptial flights' to mate with one, or often several, males before returning to the hive and laying eggs. Mating takes place during flight, and the males die soon after. The queen, meanwhile, returns to the nest and lays both fertilized and unfertilized eggs. The fertilized eggs develop into workers or virgin queens, and the unfertilized eggs develop into the drones (males). These drones contain a unique combination of 50 percent of the queen's genes. Queens live an average of three to four years, and workers may live for a few weeks to several months, depending on the climate.
A stinger on a bee or wasp is actually a modified ovipositor - an egg-laying structure. Thus, only females can sting.
Many people are wary of bees and wasps because they have the ability to sting. However, bees use their stingers only for defense, and usually only if they are stepped on or bothered in some way. The stinger of a honeybee is barbed, so when it stings an animal, the stinger becomes detached from its body, also leaving behind muscles and nerves, thus leading to the death of the bee. This is not the case with bumblebees or wasps, whose stingers are smooth and do not detach and thus can sting multiple times. The stingers are attached to two glands that combine to make the venom that is injected when it stings an animal. The stinger of a honeybee will continue to inject venom after it is inserted, as well as moving back and forth, pushing itself further into your skin, so be sure to remove the stinger immediately. Once a bee stings an animal, it releases alarm pheromones that excite the bees in the hive if it is close by, and these bees will then sting anything that moves close to the hive. This also happens if a bee is crushed in some way, so if you are being bothered by a bee, it is best not to kill it, but to move away.
Bees are essential in making sure that some of our favorite foods are available. Bees help pollinate crops that are valued at more than $200 billion per year! This includes about ¼ of the American diet. Some examples of bee pollinated crops include: almonds, apples, cotton, blueberries, grapes, oranges, peanuts, peaches, soybeans and strawberries. Unfortunately, colony collapse disorder is still a very real threat to honey bees all over the world. Recently, the European Union instituted a two-year ban on the use of certain pesticides called neonictinoids that seem to have an effect on a bee's ability to find its way back to its hive. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is still doing studies on these pesticides in this country.
Bees are essential to much of the life on earth. Next time you see one of these individuals flying nearby, step around it, and give it a quiet thank you for all of its hard work.