MAY
2006

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

5-11-06

Discovering the Secrets of Honey Bee Life

Humans have known about honey bees for thousands of years. Some of the earliest human art in cave drawings depicts bees. For eons, humans have been honey hunters, seeking honey bee colonies in order to steal honey. Today, we practice a type of animal husbandry called "apiculture" or "bee keeping." Consequently, the biology of the honey bee has always been of interest to humans.

Some of the first questions to arise had to do with "Where do bees come from?" Ancient people, especially relative to small insects, in general had a poor understanding of animal reproduction. Even today, a discussion about the "birds and bees" suggests addressing the issue of reproduction. One ancient idea, even mentioned by Aristotle in his writings, held that young bees were "fetched" from flowers by adult bees. A bit like the idea that a stork brings human babies!

Another historical notion about the origin of honey bees was rooted in the concept of spontaneous generation. Spontaneous generation is the idea that living things come from nonliving material. It has been suggested that the notion might have originated from people observing creatures emerging from the mud of the Nile River.

The ancient Egyptians thought that honey bees were associated with Apis, their bull god. These people believed that honey bees came from the carcass of an ox. Such an idea was probably perpetuated by the presence of drone flies around a dead animal, where their larvae feed in the carcass. Drone flies also mimic honey bees in coloration and behavior, which further supported the confusion about the two insects.

Bees from different sources were even thought to produce different quality honey. The best honey was the product of bees that emerged from the carcass of a lion, a calf or an ox. The idea of rotting carcasses giving rise to honey bees is today known as the Bugonia Myth. The myth lives on, because the genus name of the honey bee is Apis. You guessed it; the honey bee is named after the Egyptian bull god! Another theory, one that was held by some Christian theologians of days gone by, was that baby bees issued from the mouth of the king bee. Not true, of course, but it brings up another confusing point of honey bee biology. What is the sex of individuals of the hive? For years, most people assumed that the leader of the hive was a male - a king.

The introduction of the microscope and biological observation eventually dispelled the idea that the supreme ruler in the hive was a male bee, a king. By the late 1500s, it was widely recognized that the honey bee colony was ruled by a female. The information was first published by Charles Butler in 1609. Butler said that the hive was "an Amazonian or feminine kingdome." The workers were all female, and the males were called "drones," which just so happens are kicked out of the hive in the winter by the females who obviously are in charge.

The idea of a bee space was introduced by the Rev. Lorenzo L. Langstroth in 1851. Langstroth had noticed that bees leave a space of about 35mm and do not attempt to bridge the space with wax or propolis. He correctly concluded that you could produce moveable frames in a hive, if you keep them a "bee space" apart. This observation led to the modern bee hive where the frames can be removed for inspection or extraction of honey.

How bees communicate was another mystery of the hive for many years. Many honey bee observers had suspected that bees were able to relay information to others in the hive. In 1953, a German ethologist, Karl von Frisch, suggested that bees dance. What von Frisch eventually established is that "the dance" was used to transmit information from one bee to another. This information includes direction to flowers by the location of the sun, distance by the number of waggles in the dance, and source by a taste of nectar or pollen.

So what have we learned about honey bees over all of these years? The hive consists of a queen that rules over spinster females, who need their space and dance a lot!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox