The Laborious Honey Bee

BugSquad By Kathy Keatley Garvey September 9, 2019

Today is Labor Day 2019, a federal holiday celebrated the first Monday of September.

However, "the girls" are working, as they do every day of the year, weather permitting.

"The girls" are the worker honey bees.

Unless you keep bees or have access to a hive, you mostly see them foraging. But inside the hive, they are also nurse maids, nannies, royal attendants, builders, architects, dancers, honey tenders, pollen packers, propolis or "glue" specialists, air conditioning and heating technicians, guards, and undertakers.

They ensure the survival of the hive, but their life span is short.

"Worker bees live for approximately five to six weeks in the spring and summer," writes author and retired bee scientist and bee wrangler Norman Gary, emeritus professor of entomology at the University of California, Davis, in his book, Honey Bee Hobbyist: The Care and Keeping of Bees."Those reared in the fall live for several months--long enough for the colony to survive the winter--and are replaced by young bees in late winter or early spring."

In peak season, a honey bee queen can lay 1500 to 2000 eggs a day, and most of them will be worker bees, the most needed of the three castes (queen, drone and worker) in the hive.  Although the smallest, but they do most of the work.  The queen is the egg layer. The drone's role is strictly reproduction.

Worker bees forage within four to five miles of their hive. If you provide no nectar or pollen sources in your yard, they'll go elsewhere.

Theirs is a dangerous occupation. No thanks to predators (such as birds, praying mantids and spiders) and pesticides, many do not return home at night.

Like to photograph them? Try the "magic hour," which occurs about an hour before the sun sets. We love photographing them on Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia). The light is soft, warm and welcoming.

(Editor's Note: Interested in becoming a beekeeper or learning more about beekeeping? Be sure to check out the UC Davis-based California Master Beekeeper Program, directed by Extension apiculturist Elina Lastro Niño of the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology. The next course is on managing varroa mites, a major pest.)

Worker honey bee forages on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) in the magic hour, the hour before sunset. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Worker honey bee forages on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) in the magic hour, the hour before sunset. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Illuminated by the late afternoon sun, the worker bee prepares to fly to another Tithonia blossom. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Illuminated by the late afternoon sun, the worker bee prepares to fly to another Tithonia blossom. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A worker bee takes flight, lifting over a Mexican sunflower. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

A worker bee takes flight, lifting over a Mexican sunflower. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

All the Buzz: The Hive and the Honey Bee

Bug Squad   By Kathy Keatley Garvey  November 3, 2015

It's out.

The newly published edition of The Hive and the Honey Bee edited by American Bee Journal editor Joe Graham, is now a reality.

This is the bible of the beekeeping world, and rightfully so. It was first published in 1853--which, by the way, happens to be the same year that the European honey bee arrived in California.

Apiarist, minister, and teacher L. L. Langstroth (1810-1895), “The Father of American Beekeeping,” wrote the first edition, then called Langstroth on the Hive and the Honey Bee. 

The Hive and the Honey Bee, last updated in 1992, is a massive effort. Published by Dadant, the 1057-page book is the work of dozens of national and international icons in beekeeping science and the beekeeping industry. The book traces the global history of beekeeping to modern day apiculture and spotlights the progress, problems and achievements along the way. European colonists brought the honey bee to America (Jamestown colony) in 1622. 

Three bee specialists with ties to UC Davis each wrote a chapter: Norman Gary, emeritus professor of entomology; Eric Mussen, Extension apicuturist emeritus; and bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey, now with Washington State University. (Yours truly provided several dozen bee photos.)

Gary wrote a chapter on “Activities and Behavior of Honey Bees"; Mussen, “Injury to Honey Bees by Poisoning"; and Cobey, “Instrumental Insemination of Honey Bee Queens.”

“It has taken us until the 21st Century to realize just how important these hardworking insects are and their significance in the integrity of the environment is, at least, beginning to be fully understood,” wrote Richard Jones, director emeritus of the International Bee Research Association, Cardiff, United Kingdom, in the first chapter. “There are many threats to honey bees and the possibility of their demise has sharpened interest in them and in turn led to further investigating, scientific research and the dissemination of more material on their management and well-being.”

Gary opened his chapter with “The activities and behaviors of honey bees haven't changed significantly in thousands of years! What has changed is our understanding of how and why bees behave as they do.”

Gary, who retired in 1994 from UC Davis after a 32-year academic career, specialized in research in honey bee behavior, especially mating, foraging, stinging and communication. A noted bee wrangler., he trained bees to perform action scenes in movies, television shows and commercials. Among his credits: 18 films, including “Fried Green Tomatoes”; more than 70 television shows, including the Johnny Carson and Jay Leno shows; six commercials, and hundreds of live Thriller Bee Shows in the Western states.

Mussen began his chapter with “Honey bees have been exposed to naturally occurring intoxicants and poisons for tens of millions of years. Their exposure was limited mostly to toxicants that were components of nectar and pollen or naturally occurring gases such as methane from anaerobic breakdown of organic wastes.”

“While flying as many as four miles from the hive in their quest for water, nectars, pollens and propolis, a fifty-square mile potential area of coverage, forages are likely to encounter many different chemicals and organisms,” Mussen wrote.

Mussen, who retired in 2014, served 38 years as the Extension apiculturist, headquartered in the UC Davis Department of Entomology and Nematology.  During his academic career, he conducted a program focused primarily on his role as a liaison between the academic world of apiculture and real world beekeeping and crop pollination.  Known as a "honey bee guru," Mussen continues to share his bee expertise from his Briggs Hall office.

In her chapter on instrumental insemination, Cobey wrote: “The ability to control honey bee mating is essential for stock improvement and a valuable research tool.  Instrumental insemination provides complete control of the random honey be mating behavior.”

Cobey noted that queens “mate in flight with an average of 10 to 20 drones in congregating areas consisting of 10,000 to 30,000 drones from diverse genetic sources.”

Former manager of the Harry H.Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility, Cobey served UC Davis from 2007 to 2012 when she joined the WSU Department of Entomology. With a strong background in practical bee breeding for the commercial industry, she developed a collaborative honey bee stock improvement and maintenance program, partnering with the California queen producers. She coordinated a project to develop techniques for the international transport of honey beegermplasm. Under a permit from the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS),  germplasm collected from Old World European honey bees was successfully imported and incorporated into domestic breeding stocks to enhance U.S. honey bees. Cobey developed information and outreach programs to assist beekeepers in honey bee breeding methods, providing instructional material and workshops in queen rearing and instrumental insemination,  presented locally  and internationally.

Norm Gary, Eric Mussen, Susan Cobey--three UC Davis scientists who made a difference in the beekeeping world and are sharing their expertise.

The "bee bible" belongs on the bookshelf of every bee scientist, beekeeper, and bee enthusiast. 

(Editor's Note: The price for the new edition is $54.50 plus shipping, and the books can be ordered now from the Dadant web site: or purchased at any of the Dadant branches. The toll-free order line for the Hamilton, Ill., home office is 1-888-922-1293.)

Bee Stunt: A First and a Last

Bug Squad - Happenings in the Insect World   By Kathy Keatley Garvey

It was Norm Gary's last bee wrangling stunt. And it was Barbara Allen-Diaz' first close-up encounter with bees.

The occasion: Barbara Allen-Diaz, vice president of the UC Agriculture and Natural Resources (UC ANR), was on the UC Davis campus recently to fulfill her UC Promise for Education. Last October she vowed that if she received $2500 in contributions for UC students, she...


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Bee My Valentine

Bug Squad - Happenings in the Insect World   By Kathy Keatley Garvey  2/14/13 

It's nice to remember the honey bee on Valentine's Day. You'll see many Valentine cards  inscribed with "Bee My Valentine" and featuring a photo of a bee.

Many of those photos depict a queen bee, the mother of all bees in the hive.

To be a queen, she'll need to be fed royal jelly as a larva. The nurses bees feed the otther larvae a regular worker diet that includes pollen. 

"Queen larvae are fed royal jelly throughout larval development, providing a...


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