Honey Bee Taxonomy

This week, our general topic will center on the taxonomy of honey bees.  what is taxonomy you ask?  No, it’s not having to pay a fine to the government for having bees.

Taxonomy is the scientific classification of living things in order to identify and organize where they fit in related to other creatures.

Why is taxonomy important to those involved in apicultural pursuits?  Beecause we are often very concerned about genealogical traits of colonies that will have the most success in the places we keep them.

Knowing where bees are originally from, the traits and genetic lines they descend from and how any and all of that relates to their success in various other locations is important to everything from pollination traits, defensive traits foraging and honey production traits and the types of pests and illnesses they have been adapted to as they evolved in the place they originate.  Queen rearing is very much affected by knowing what bees are and from whence they came.

Scientific research that is always ongoing makes great use of taxonomy to locate and identify new species and sub-species of bees all the time.

It’s always a good thing to learn and know about taxonomy where bees and beekeeping are involved.  Check out the new puzzles coming up this week that focus on honey bee taxonomy.  The Crossword puzzle will post on Wednesday and will have the downloadable PDF with a wordlist on it.  The answer sheet to the Crossword and the Wordsearch versions are already available for our supporters on our Patreon supporter webpage  

The next episode of the Bee Smart beekeeping podcast featuring those Beehooligans will also talk some about taxonomy and how it is useful for beekeepers of all levels of experience.

Of course, we’ll bee sure to get some posts up with even more useful information along this line as well as we get through the week.  The objective here is always to help folks Bee Smart.

Seeing is bee-lieving

Honey bees are extra-ordinary creatures.  There are so many interesting things to know about them that set them apart from every other creature in the world you could write every day in a lifetime and still not cover it all.

One of the fascinating things about bees is their vision.  The anatomy and physiology of what they eyes are and how they work to help bees do what the do is phenomenal!

First of all, bees have two sets of eyes.  There are the “simple eyes” technically called “ocelli” and there are the “complex” eyes which are the “Compound” eyes.  Except for bee larvae, they don’t have any eyes at that stage.

Bees live in a world of almost complete and total darkness when they are inside a hive.  Just like you and I, they need to find their way around in the dark.  The bigger eyes, the compound eyes, aren’t the best for that.  The ocelli are their answer to how to “see” in the dark.

There are three (3) small spots on the top of a honey bee’s head, between their antennae in a triangular layout.  Those are the ocelli.  Ocelli are only able to observe changes in light intensity, but that ability helps them do so much.

Apis mellifera, F, face, Maryland, Beltsville 2013-04-25-16.35.09 ZS PMax (8682047014)
By Sam Droege from Beltsville, USA [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Honey bees have two (2) large compound eyes.  These are the eyes we can see on the bees head on either side.  The compound eyes have multiple tiny facets with lenses (ommatidia) covering each eye.  Each of the three castes of bees has a different number of ommatidia.  For example, Queens have about 4,000, Workers have about 5,000 and Drones have around 8,000 of them.

The compound eyes do more than just “see things” for the bees.  Compound eyes are capable of forming images (seeing things), seeing in color (except red) including the ultra-violet spectrum, detecting movement, identify shapes and patterns, initiate head turning response, and seeing polarized light.

Not only that, but there are little hairs growing from the surface of the compound eyes and the bees use those hairs to detect air motion.  That is how we figure bees to be such interesting pilots because it allows them to gauge airflow speed and direction.

Whew! Those are some kind of eyes.

This is what some researchers tell us bee see things as…

image from http://www.neurobiologie.fu-berlin.de/Gumbert-Kunze.html

The biology of honey bees is a thing of technological wonder and artistic wonder.  The more we learn about these incredible little critters, the more we realize we have so much more to learn.

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Rumpelstiltskins In Miniature

It is an old tale indeed that let us know about the little man who could spin straw into gold.  We have some interesting little creatures who are able to turn “liquid gold” (Honey) into wax.

As a matter of fact, through evolution, bees have actually been built to turn honey into beeswax.  Parts of their body designed seemingly for specifically that purpose.

Only worker bees have the ability and the parts necessary to accomplish this remarkable feat.  Even more interesting is that only bees in a certain age range are able to do it.  When honey bee workers are 12 days old until they are 18 days old, they are best able to convert excess honey in the Honey Stomach (also known as the “Crop”) into beeswax.  Of course, besides having excess honey or nectar in them, they must also have an active need for wax in the nest to either build the nest or to expand it.

Honey bees can also work minor miracles in regard to making wax.  They can turn back their biological clocks in certain instances such as starting a new nest after leaving the old hive with a Queen bee.)  Once in the new hive and with an immediate and emergency level need for new comb, the “old” workers bees that make up the majority of the swarm can make their bodies sort of go back to the physical condition at which the could make beeswax when they were younger in order to get the new nest started right away.

Anatomically, the honey and nectar bees gorge on to begin making wax is converted into a complex of substances like fatty acids, proteins and Hydrocarbons.  Once the “mixture” is ready, it is secreted from the wax glands in the bee’s  last four visible ventral abdominal segments which are covered by the “Wax Mirrors”, those being essentially little plate-like areas that the wax comes through in the form of little flat flake sort of shapes.

All in all, worker bees have eight (8) wax glands in four (4) pairs on the dorsal (bottom) side of the abdomen.

Flakes of wax on a wax builder. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey) University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Once the wax is secreted the bees can then put it to good use in building their nest.

For the scientifically inclined, a great, in-depth article on the physiology of beeswax by Clarence Collison is at Bee Culture Magazine.

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Bee Smart Quiz B1

Question #1: The front and hind wings on each side of the bee are coupled together during flight.

BUZZ!  Sorry.

Question #2: The crop (honey stomach) is located in the abdomen.

BUZZ!  Sorry.

Question #3: The honey bee has ________eyes.

BUZZ! Sorry.

Question #4: The simple eyes (ocelli) analyze polarized light, thus permitting the bee to use the sun’s position as a compass during flight.

BUZZ!  Sorry.

Question #5: Wax glands are located within the thorax.

Buzz!  Sorry.

Question #6: Nassanoff glands or scent glands are found in all honey bee castes.

BUZZ!  Sorry.

Question #7: The scent or Nassanoff Gland is found in the worker’s:

BUZZ!  Sorry.

Question #8: Honey bees survive the winter by becoming inactive and going into diapause.

BUZZ!  Sorry.

Question #9: Honey bees cannot perceive airborne sound.

BUZZ!  Sorry.

Question #10: Honey bees have two types of eyes.

BUZZ!  Sorry.