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What are bees?

Honeybee in flight carrying pollen in pollen basket

Honeybee in flight carrying pollen in pollen basket

Bees vary in size from a small stingless species about 2 mm long to bumble bees over 25 mm long. Most bees live solitary lives - they live alone and each female makes her own small nest. Others, such as the bumble bees and honey bees, are social insects. They live and work in large family groups.

Farmers care for honey bees by providing hives to house their colonies. There are three kinds of bees in a colony: queens, workers and drones. The queen bee heads the colony. She starts life like any other bee - as an egg laid in a cell in the honeycomb. But queens get special food when they hatch as larvae. After a few days, the larva is sealed in its cell; it changes into a pupa and develops into an adult. Sixteen days after the egg is laid, the young queen bites her way out of the cell. She kills any rival queens and mates with one of the drones on a 'marriage flight'. She usually returns to the hive and ousts the old queen, who leaves in a swarm, accompanied by her workers, to start a new colony.

The queen bee's only function is to lay eggs in the cells of the honeycomb. Worker bees hatch from most of the eggs. These are female bees that are smaller than the queen and never mate. They have the task of looking after the entire colony. They build the honeycomb, with its six-sided cells, out of wax produced by their bodies. The workers collect nectar and pollen from flowers. They fly about collecting food here and there, and then fly straight back to the hive in a bee-line. These bees show others where food can be found by performing a special dance that indicates the direction of the food in relation to the Sun. The workers then convert the nectar into honey and place it in cells. The workers also defend the colony, but they sting human beings only if they are frightened or hurt.

Male bees, called drones, appear mainly in the late summer. They do no work and have no sting. Their only job is to mate with the young queens on the marriage flight. Drones do not live very long.

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