As our record-breaking wet season authoritatively ends our three-year drought, the natural world has made its transition from the growing season to the season of scarcity and survival.  One of the last things that occur is the collapse of our social wasp and bee societies.  Although the great majority of our native wasps and bees are solitary, a few of them, including yellow jackets, hornets and paper wasps and the bumblebees are social insects.  These, and the ants, constitute our social insects, found in the Order Hymenoptera. The only other social insect is the termite, found in the Order Isoptera.


The Hymenoptera Order is the most advanced of the Class Insecta (within the Phylum Arthropoda, which also includes the arachnids, crustaceans, millipedes, centipedes, and, formerly, the trilobites). While ant societies are similar to wasps and bees in that they both have queens, sterile female workers and fertile male drones (who are produced for one purpose only…), ant colonies will survive intact throughout the winter season, while only the mated queen wasps and bees will survive the winter among their societies.  (Ant colonies will swarm, producing winged males and females, from time to time as needed to produce new colonies.  When this happens, after mating, the males die and the females lose their wings and return to the ground to start a new colony.)  Termites also swarm on an ‘as needed’ basis, but have a much more complex social caste system where both males and females are active in all activities.


Of the approximately 3500 species of native North American bees, only the bumblebees are social.  That does not include the social honeybees, which are not native.  The bumblebee and honeybee are the only bees that produce and store honey.  However, unlike bumblebees, honeybees maintain their colony throughout the winter, feeding on their honey.  An average-sized colony of honeybees (50,000 bees) will require about 480 pounds of honey to survive the winter.  Of that, 400 pounds will be used to live on, 10 pounds will be used as body secretions to make wax, and the final 70 pounds will be used to feed the next brood.  Bees maintain an internal hive temperature of 86° F by beating their wings to produce body heat in winter, or by gathering water and sprinkling it in the hive to cool the hive in summer.  When a brood is being reared in late winter, an internal temperature of 86° to 93° F will be maintained, even with outside temperatures below zero. 


Interestingly, bees still need to defecate and they won’t do it inside the hive.  And, just like I hate to leave my warm sleeping bag to go out in the cold, bees have more reason to be concerned.  If it’s below freezing, honeybees risk freezing to death.  Not surprisingly, these bees have a special hind gut that stores fecal mater temporarily, but (again, like myself) they can only hold it so long.  Unfortunately, during particularly long cold winter periods, many honeybees will die before they can do their job and get back into their warm beds. 


There is only one queen in a honeybee colony.  In addition, there will be tens of thousands of sterile female workers and a few hundred male drones.  The hive may remain stable for a few years while the queen is busy laying eggs.  A queen can lay 2,000 eggs per day, equal to her own weight and, since she maintains the sperm she has collected for her lifetime during her one time outside the hive in a special pouch in her body, she can continue laying eggs indefinitely. The queen may live as long as five years (although 1 ½ to 2 is more common) and produce up to a million eggs during her lifetime. 


At some time when the queen’s egg production slows down, the workers change the diet of selected larvae so as to make them new queens.  Normally, worker larvae are fed royal jelly for the first three days, followed by a diet of beebread.  However, eggs destined to become queens are laid in a larger cell, and the larvae are fed only royal jelly; a creamy substance, rich in vitamins and proteins.  Beebread is a mixture of honey and pollen.  The newly emerged queen bees will kill each other until one is the survivor.  She then leaves the hive to mate with one or many drones of other hives in the area.  She then returns to the hive, to begin her new life as the ‘mother of all egg-layers’.  The only chance she may have of getting out of the hive again would be if the colony gets too large.  In that case, she may leave with a number of the workers, and start a new colony, with those remaining producing their new queen bees.


Interestingly, the fertilized eggs laid by a queen become female worker bees and new queens. The queen also lays some unfertilized eggs, which become the male drones.


Honeybees are very valuable insects, largely because of the role they play in the pollination of plants.  They are, in fact, the most important insect pollinators.  The pollinating activities of honeybees are 15 to 20 times as valuable as their honey or wax.  The transportation of honeybees can greatly increase the yields of orchard fruits and other crops.  For example, honeybees can increase the harvest of red clover seeds from one bushel per acre to 4 or more bushels per acre. 


The bad news is that over the past 15 years, two mite species have crept into the United States and have virtually wiped out our feral honeybees.  Female varroa mites enter the bee nests and lay eggs in the egg chambers before the bees seal it and feed on the bee larvae and pupae.  Microscopic tracheal mites enter the throats of honeybees, suck blood from the walls, lay eggs and raise a family.  Before the host dies, the young leave the host’s throat and find new bees to raise their families.  Both of these mites are host-specific to the honeybees.  Virtually all feral colonies have succumbed to the mites, while commercial beehives require chemical control to maintain their existence. 


Researchers are identifying bees that are resistant to the mites.  Queen bees are now on the market with demonstrated resistance to varroa or tracheal mites, but not all of the wrinkles have been worked out at this time.  Some of these resistant queen bees come from a Russian strain that developed natural resistance after nearly a century of exposure to varroa mites.  Most of these mite-resistant honeybee queens cost between $15 and $200 each!  Cross-breeding of varroa and tracheal mite-resistant queens may be the future of apiary breeding.  Such alternatives, which include artificial insemination and pre-testing for fertility, promise to make the apiarists life much more technically complicated than their forefathers enjoyed.


Bees differ from wasps in that the young are fed plant rather than animal food.  And, don’t forget, only the females sting!