Kategorie: The Lives Of The Bees

With the first warm spring days, thoughts of the beautiful things of the warm seasons come to mind: summer sun, beach, and outdoor fun. What of course should not be missing in such weather is cool ice cream. The classic ice cream in the ice cream cone made from dairy is particularly popular here. A sweet and delicious treat for young and old. What hardly anyone thinks about, however, is the long chain of production steps that precede this summer fun. And it doesn’t start with the cows that provide the milk for cream production, it is the bees. They ensure the pollination of the plants that serve the cows as a source of food and thus form the basis of all dairy products. And here the bees sometimes have a really bad job. The flowering meadows with buzzing bees in bright sunshine may give a romantic picture, but hidden from view, exciting processes take place here. And it’s not always fun and games for the bees.

One of the most important plants in the diet of dairy cows is alfalfa (Medicago sativa). This protein-rich plant is the basis for almost all feed for the dairy farm. The ingredients of the plant ensure an increased milk production and thus improve the milk yield. The cows love this plant both directly from the pasture and processed in the feed. The bees are also happy about the many purple flowers that keep their nectar ready in the alfalfa fields.

Honeybee on an alfalfa flower

But what exactly is the problem with the whole thing? The flowers of the alfalfa have a very special property: In order to ensure reproduction, they don’t rely on pollen getting stuck in the bees‘ bristle dress by chance. These flowers make sure that every bee that nibbles on the precious nectar also carries a large load of pollen to the next flower. For this purpose, the plant has developed a mechanism that hurls a concentrated load of pollen at the head of the bees with great momentum. The bees are literally hit in the face by the flower.

The Landing of a pollinating insect on the keel of the flower releases the stamens which are normally hidden under the wings of the flowers. They fold down and slap a load of pollen on the pollinator’s heads before they fold back again to their normal protected position, where they remain hidden until the next victim flies around.

The honeybees don’t seem to be particularly thrilled about this spectacle. They learn very quickly that there are other ways to get the nectar here. After a few painful learning experiences, they collect the nectar sideways from the inside of the flower and thus avoid triggering the mechanism. For the flowers, however, there is no successful pollination. As a result, only 1% of the flowers are pollinated by bees.

Different species of bumblebee seem to have fewer problems with this spectacle. They are the main pollinators of alfalfa and are not impressed by the punch on their heads. Solitary leafcutter bees (Megachile rotundata) are also effective pollinators. This type of bee is the most actively used solitary bee in the world in agriculture. In order to ensure successful pollination of the large alfalfa cultivation areas, areas are deliberately chosen in which a large number of wild bumblebee species occur or a large number of leafcutter bees are artificially settled.

So the next time you enjoy ice cream, think about how many bees had to take a slap in the face.

Text: Fabian Kalis

Image source: Ivar Leidus, CC-BY-SA 4.0, <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/deed.de>, via Wikimedia Commons, no changes were made to the image.

Within the tribe of the Melliponini, there are three species of stingless, state-forming bees in the genus Triguna, which have discovered a food source very special for bees. They are the species Trigona necrophaga, T. crassipes and T. hypogea. The species name necrophaga is made up of the Greek words “nekros” (death) and “phagein” (to eat). Like all other types of bees, these bees collect plant nectar in order to produce honey from them, but they do not cover their protein requirements by bringing in pollen. These bees collect the flesh of the decaying remains of dead animals. They are scavengers. They are also called Vulture Bees. These special species are found exclusively in South and Central America and the Caribbean.

The bees usually penetrate the carcass through the eyes and then collect the meat that is best for them inside. This is first salivated so that the bee’s own enzymes pre-digest the meat before it is gnawed, chewed, and chopped up, and stored in the special honey stomach that all bees have, which is normally used to transport large amounts of nectar. The meat is then brought home to the beehive. There the fleshy pulp, which has meanwhile been enriched with the body’s own enzymes from the collecting bee and traces of sweet plant nectars, which are always found in the honey stomachs, is passed on to the workers in the bee colony. Exactly as with the nectar, this pulp is now passed from bee to bee and in the process more and more thickened and more and more enriched with enzymes. In this process, nectar slowly turns into honey. The meat pulp, together with the small amounts of nectar from the honey stomachs, turns into a honey-like, sugar-rich, high-protein pulp. Like the finished honey, this meat honey pulp is now stored in storage containers made of wax. You could say that honey is produced here, which consists largely of rotten meat. This special pulp is the food for the young bees. The larvae need a high protein diet in order to grow up quickly and to build up enough reserves for their metamorphosis into adult bees.

Different insects feeding on a dead animal body

The finished meat honey has a dark gray-brown color and a sour taste with a slight sweetness. Some native residents of neotropical regions where these bees live also use this special meat honey for food purposes. It contains far less sugar than conventional honey, but the high content of animal protein still makes it a valuable source of food.

This honey is truly a curiosity among the special types of honey. I would love to have a taste. Unfortunately, this pleasure has so far been denied to me. With regard to the already difficult legal status of honey from alien (honey)bee species (see my article Honey Discrimination), this honey presents a particular difficulty.

The nests of the genus Trigona are usually built within burrows in the ground or hollow trunks. They build their nests out of beeswax, propolis, and plant resins. The honey and meat pulp are stored in large egg-shaped wax pots, around which the small brood combs are arranged. Pure honey made from plant nectar and honeydew and the special meat honey are not necessarily stored separately from each other. Mixtures of these two are therefore often created.

Text: Fabian Kalis

Image source: Luis Fernández García, CC BY-SA 2.5 ES <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5/es/deed.en>, via Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever wondered how the bees reproduce? If you are not a beekeeper probably not. But let me tell you, it is one heck of a story.

It all starts in the swarm season, which here in Germany is in the spring, mostly in May, when the bee colonies start to produce a lot of male bees, the drones. These cute little creatures are much bigger than the female worker bees, even bigger than the queen herself, and are easily recognized by their huge eyes.

Unlike the female worker bees, the drones don’t have a stinger. And they also won’t work as the females do. They can’t even feed themselves and have to be fed by the worker bees. Their only use inside the hive is for heating purposes when it is really cold at night. Since they are bigger, they can produce a lot more heat than the smaller females by vibrating with their wings. The drones live as vagabonds and fly out to different hives in the area, enjoying their bachelor’s life.

A hatching drone

But this lazy lifestyle comes to an end when the young queens hatch and the swarming begins. When a bee colony wants to split, the worker bees start to build special cells, where new queens are produced. The larvae inside these cells are fed with the special gelee royale, which makes them become fertile females: queens. The worker bees are infertile females. These special cells are also bigger thane the ones for the worker bees since the queens are much bigger. Right before the new queens hatch, they make a loud noise inside their cell. This is the signal for the old queen to fly out with a big chunk of the worker bees to start a new colony. These bees are the beeswarms.

A male bee

The reaming bees greet their freshly hatched queen and continue their everyday business. The first queen that hatches in a hive immediately starts killing the queens in the other cells before they are able to hatch. There can only be one queen to reign.

In this stage, the young queen can’t lay eggs yet. She has to be impregnated by the male bees. And this is where it gets really interesting. The young queen of course isn’t impregnated by the drones inside the hive, these are her own brothers. In order to mate with drones from other hives, she has to meet up with them in a special place: the mating spot.

A drone resting on a leaf

Until now, we have no idea how the bees choose this location, because it changes every year. But all young queens and all the drones know instantly where to go at this moment. And the spot can be up to 20 km away from a single hive. Yet all the bees now exactly when and where to go, even although they never have been there themselves nor has there been another bee from the previous year mating, which could have told them where to go. How they know this is one of the many mysteries, the bees still have left until now.

When the queens enter the mating spot, they are immediately greeted by hundreds of drones. Now the mating begins. Males and females come together on the mating flight. The drone attaches himself to the queen and right when he finishes his penis explodes (you can even hear a little „bang“ if you are close enough, so know you know where the word „banging“ comes from…) and the male dies and falls off onto the ground. But the queen isn’t satisfied yet. She mates with up to 20 different drones. But the drones after the first one have a slightly more difficult job. In order to be able to mate with the queen, they have to pull out the remaining penis from the previous drone, which is still inside the queen.

When the queen has acquired enough semen to last her whole life (she stores them in a special organ and uses one sperm at a time to fertilize each egg), she flies back home to her own bee colony. During the mating flight, she is accompanied by a small number of worker bees, which protect her during the process. Back home one of those bees has to pull out the last drone’s penis. Now her ovaries evolve fully and she becomes unable to fly (remember the old queen wich flies out while swarming? She has to be put on a special diet a few days prior in order to be able to fly again). After a few days, the queen starts laying eggs and the cycle of life continues.

Fabian Kalis

 

Topic introduction: what I’ll post in this category.

Ever wondered how it goes with the bees and the flowers? Let me answer this and give you an inside look into the life of bees. Don’t worry, it won’t be like one of those boring educational films you know back from school. I’ll try to keep it fun and easy. So, if you want to find out about how bee vomit got a loved food and what it’s all about with the exploding penises in the mating process of the bees and other crazy stories, then this is the place for you.