How often do we refer to ‘busy little bees’? But, just how busy are they? How hard do they really work? The answer is, hard enough to work themselves to death.
In their short lives of six weeks or so, they develop a series of skills to fulfil sequential tasks in the service of their colony; described as ‘age related polyethism’, bees as they age belonging to ‘temporal castes’.
The fact is they start work as soon as they emerge from their pupating honeycomb cells.
Their early tasks keep them within the hive except for cleansing flights. Bees are hygienic little creatures who go outside to defecate.
Only in the later stage of their lives do they become foragers and work outside, visiting your garden and crop flowers. In this role they work until they drop, until their filmy membranous wings become too tattered to carry them home.
Now let's look at their work loads.
A bee weighing about 120mg will carry up to 40mg of nectar, flying up to three or four kilometres at 24 km/h with little wings beating over 200 times per second.
A bee will make 10 - 15 trips per day, on each trip visiting up to 500 flowers, depending on their nectar or pollen content.
Eighty such trips are needed to make just one gram of honey, 400 trips for one teaspoon for your toast. When you buy a 500gm jar of honey, just think that bees made 40,000 flights to make that one jar for you.
And if at each flight the bee travelled just one kilometre (a conservative estimate), that is once round the earth just to put one jar of honey in the supermarket!
There is even more to think about when you use a bit of bees wax to polish furniture or to make lip balm. Or when you use cosmetics made with bees wax. Making bees wax is labour and energy intensive.
Bees, at about three weeks of age, develop wax glands under abdominal scales, secrete little dollops of wax which they push up to their mouths. There they process it for making honeycomb.
Wax is a fat, energy rich, and it requires the energy of eight kilograms of honey to make one kilogram of wax.
So if it took 80 trips for one gram of honey, that is 160 trips for one gram of wax. Or, for 500gm of wax, eight times around the earth. And that is a lot of work!
Well, do bees get any rest? They do. Bees can be seen apparently resting on combs, but it has also been shown that they are actually making wax or preparing bee bread to feed the larvae.
Do they sleep? Yes, for short periods. And how do you know if a bee is asleep? By using infra-red photography. If their antennae are perfectly still it is assumed that they are asleep.
So do they deserve the epithet of ‘busy little bees’? You be the judge.