Humans have been using (some would say exploiting) honey bee labor since the end of the last ice age. Archaeologists have found 9,000-year-old cave drawings of people gathering honey, and beeswax residue has been found on ancient stoneware throughout Europe.

DNA analysis shows that the honey bee originated in Asia about 300,000 years ago and migrated (or was brought) to Europe. Honey bees (Apis mellifera) arrived in the New World in 1622 when Pilgrims brought them from England. They’re now found on every continent except Antarctica.

Bees are totally communal and cannot survive on their own. The colony is their “everything” — all they do is directed toward its survival. For this reason, the hive with all its associated resident bees is sometimes referred to as a "super organism." A healthy colony has a population of about 60,000 bees.

The life cycle begins when a new queen takes flight and mates with up to 50 drones on her maiden (and only) flight. She stores the sperm in a special chamber that she’ll use during egg-laying for the rest of her life. When she returns to the hive, she will begin placing one carefully inspected egg into each hexagonal chamber, and will continue to lay up to 2,000 eggs a day until winter comes.

There are three castes of bees within the hive. The fertile queen is physically the largest; her role is to mate and lay eggs. Each hive has a single queen. The worker bees are sterile females who build the brood chambers, tend the eggs, determine what to feed the larvae, do the housekeeping, regulate the temperature, guard the hive and bring pollen and nectar back to colony. Drones are fertile males whose only job is to fertilize the queen. Drones that don’t die after mating are usually driven from the colony before winter. Drones lack a stinger.

The first task of a new worker bee is to eat its way out of its wax-capped brood chamber. Immediately, she begins to tend to other developing young. Then she graduates to housekeeping and grooming the queen. Her next task is to guard the hive, stinging any invader that gets too close. The worker’s last job is to forage for nectar and pollen, sometimes traveling up to 3 miles from the hive. Worker bees only live about 1 1/2 months during the busy season, usually dying in the field.

Trivia

Q: How much honey does a worker bee make in its lifetime?

A: About 1/10 of a teaspoon.

Q: How many flowers must be visited to produce a pound of honey?

A: 2 million. That’s right; 2,000,000.

Q: How much is honey bee pollination worth each year to U.S. crop producers?

A: About $2 billion a year.

Q: What term is used to describe a collection of bee hives?

A: An apiary.

Sheryl Myers taught biology and environmental science for 34 years and has worked as a naturalist for area parks. She is a founding director of Heart of the River Coalition.