Humans have kept honey bees as productive animals for millennia. They are an important part of cultural landscapes to the present day.
The economic benefits of the pollination services provided by bees is many times greater than the value of the honey which they produce, and not only in Germany. It is our shared task to ensure the well-being of bees so that we can continue to profit from their useful work. But for this purpose, it is important to know more about their behaviour, their physiological attributes, and how to keep them.
Three different kinds of honeybees live in a beehive; they are of different sizes.
Honeybees seek their food within a circumference of 3 to 4 km around their hive. In human terms, this would equal travelling about 2,500 km to obtain our food.
Bees are regarded as one of the most important pollinators of our plants worldwide. They carry out truly astounding feats: For example, they have to fly to about 2 million flowers to produce half a kilogram of honey. And this with a lifespan of only 3 to 6 weeks in the summertime!
Bees and plants live in a symbiotic partnership which developed over millennia. Both of them profit from each other. The bee receives its most important foods - nectar and pollen - from the plant, and organises the pollination service in return.
In the course of evolution, the structure of many flowers has perfectly adapted to the needs of bees as pollinators: To reach the nectar, the bee must brush along the stamen, where it automatically picks up pollen on its body hairs. It carries this pollen with itself as it flies from flower to flower. When it visits the next plant, the pollen adheres to the sticky carpel. The flower is now pollinated. A single bee can perform this pollination up to 1,000 times a day.
Honeybees, in turn, have adapted to their food supplier: Their mouths are extremely well adapted to pick up nectar and honey dew in the flower: Together, the lower jaw and lower lip form the so called proboscis, which the bee extends into the flower's interior. Using the proboscis, the bee can penetrate into the depths of the flower to reach the nectar there.
The pollination performance of honeybees increases yields and quality in many agricultural cultures - and can be summarised in impressive figures: Its worldwide agricultural value amounts to at least 150 billion Euros a year. Aside from honeybees, pollinators also include various species of wild bees such as bumblebees, solitary bees, but also butterflies, wasps, beetles, birds and bats.
Using its visual organs, bees can recognise much more than only light and dark, colourful and black and white. Its visual apparatus gives it much additional information which is important for its survival.
Aside from bees, wasps, beetles, certain kinds of birds and bats are also important pollinators.
The three simple eyes which lie between the two large compound eyes and are structured like a triangle standing on its tip form a kind of sun compass. They can measure light intensity and help the bee to assess its correct flight start and end. This makes them a kind of "inner clock" for the bee.
The approx. 4,000 individual lenses (ommatidia) of which the two large compound eyes of bees consist each register only a tiny image point and are completely immobile. The bee's brain joins the signals of the individual eyes together into a mosaic-like overall image. This has benefits and disadvantages compared to human vision: Bees have a far larger visual field than humans - without even turning their head. But they do not have very pronounced spatial or graphic vision. The complex process of seeing takes time: To see its surroundings as more than a roughly patterned black and white image, the bee has to slow its maximum flight speed down by as much as 30 km/h. It can only see colours in very slow flight of approx. 5km/h.
A worker bee does not speak to explain to her companions where delicious nectar and pollen is to be found - it dances. The bee can use her dances to describe the way to food sources which are up to ten kilometres away. This is also important in correctly assessing how much food to carry for her journey: Each bee takes along only as much food as she needs to reach her goal.
A bee’s eye reacts about four times more quickly than the human eye. Did you ever vainly attempt to catch a house fly? Their eyes function similarly to those of honeybees. For this reason, insects are usually just a bit too fast for us.
We differentiate between various dance types with which the bee tells her sisters exactly where she has found a food source. The two best known dances are the round dance and the waggle dance.
If the food source is less than about 100 meters away from the hive, the bee dances a round dance: It provides no information about the exact distance and direction of the food source, only that it is very close to the beehive. The longer and more intensively the bee dances, the better the food source. In the meantime, she gives the other bees a sample of the nectar.
If the food source is farther than about 100 meters from the hive, the route needs a clearer description. Therefore the dancer also provides information about the distance and direction of the food source. Here, the bee dances a waggle dance – a true "secret language“.
Not all kinds of honey are the same. This is particularly due to the fact that bees obtain it from different ingredients. Nectar is the sugar-rich syrup which is secreted by the nectaries of the flowering plants, and which the bees use to produce flower honey. This energy supplier of the bees is also very popular with humans.
Whether it is milky white, a bright gold tone or a dark green-brown: The various types of honey differ widely from each other - not only in taste, but also in terms of their appearance. Beekeepers obtain the honey by centrifuging the honeycombs, and then straining and stirring the honey. The latter ensures the desired consistency.
1.6 million tons of honey were harvested by beekeepers all over the world in 2012. Honeybees in Asia produce nearly half of this total amount. China meanwhile exports about 100,000 tons of this sweet bee product.
Beehives do not always have the same number of bees. The largest numbers of bees are present in the summertime, with a queen, up to 30,000 – 60,000 workers, and approximately 300 – 3000 drones. In the wintertime, the beehive contains only the queen with about 5,000 – 10,000 workers.
In winter, honeybees work together against the cold. The animals join into a large ball in the hive, the so called winter cluster. They warm each other by trembling their flight muscles. In this manner, they maintain a comfortably warm temperature of about 20 to 22 degrees Celsius. They lose far less heat with a spherical shape than if they were to gather in a cuboid or cylindrical shape, since the sphere has the smallest surface of all shapes in relation to its volume.
It is important for the bees to be healthy and strong enough. Weak colonies have lesser chances of survival in wintertime. Therefore, beekeepers have to check the condition of their bee colony in the fall (Varroa affliction, strength of the colony). They check whether the bees are doing well enough and help them if necessary.
Like us humans, European bee species also have considerable variations in their dance, which are also referred to as the “dialects” of the bee language.