20 amazing facts about honey bees which you didn't know

05.02.2019. 09:28

For many years bees have been unappreciated, many people only saw bees as annoying buzzers and didn’t think much the impact they have on an environment and economy. However, a significant decline of bee colonies urged big changes in how we see them. In recent years, bees and their importance for our environment have been promoted a lot more. A bigger focus is put on learning about them and their life, which made people more aware of the issues they are facing.

Bees are amazing creatures and are present all around the world. They are one of the best pollinators in the world, and a lot of the food we eat depends on their hard work. The world without bees is unimaginable as their extinction would greatly affect our economy and food sources. There are many types of bees, but this time we will focus on honey bees. Join us on a journey through 20 honey bee facts and you might learn some amazing things about our friends honey bees.

#1 There are no sick days for honey bees

Everyone has, at some point in time, experienced how hard it is to work when you are feeling under the weather. Insects can also feel down, and nature has found a way to take care of it. Most of the work for honey bees is searching and carrying nectar and pollen. Scientists think that honey bees are ‘hardwired’ to be good searchers even when they are not feeling well.

The research done by the University of Exeter and Queen Mary University in London has shown that honey bees have remarkable navigational skills. They rely on distinct landmarks such as trees our houses which are then memorized for future flights.

Even a sick bee is very useful for finding resources for the hive because of the search pattern used by the bees - Levy search pattern. This search pattern is a natural mathematical pattern which alternates between clusters of short steps interjected with longer steps.

This pattern is very efficient and proved to be useful for both animals and humans. For example, that pattern describes movements like searching for mates and stalking prey. One of amazing honey bee facts is that Levy search pattern makes the bees efficient in combing through large areas. This skill is essential for honey bees because they need a good strategy while searching for resources.

#2 A hexagonal shape of a honeycomb cell is the most optimal shape for the beehive

It is a common knowledge that honey bees build hexagonal honeycomb cells, but not many people know why bees make it like that. To answer that question we have to remember that a beehive is the only home for honey bees.

Sometimes a beehive has to be able to accommodate more than 50,000 honey bees. A beehive has to have space for honey production, honey and pollen storage, and raising young bees. Since everything has to be in the same space, bees had to find a way to optimize available space.

Honeycomb cells are made of beeswax which is very expensive for bees to produce. For one ounce of beeswax produced, a honey bee needs to eat eight ounces of honey. When we consider possible shapes of cells, we run into some issues.

Circular cells would leave a lot of wasted space, while square and triangle cells would require a lot of bee wax. Also, square cells are inadequate for storing honey because the honey weight in square cells would not be properly distributed. This leaves us with the shape that honey bees chose - a hexagon!  Honey bees are smart builders, aren’t they?

# 3 Honey bees have a soul of a dancer, they communicate through dance

The dance is used by scout bees to communicate about the distance and location of water or food. Honey bee facts about dancing are that they use two dances, round dance and waggle dance. Each dance communicates a different thing. Round dance informs the colony about the distance of resources, while waggle dance informs the colony about both distance and location of resources. You can find a graphic representation of both dances here.

The round dance is used if the resources are located less than 80 m from the beehive, with the number of cycles showing the distance. Scout bees communicate the closer distance by doing more cycles of the round dance.

The waggle dance is just the round dance with some tail wagging. Unlike round dance, waggle dance communicates both location and distance of resources. For every kilometer of distance waggle is increased by 1 second, and the distance is signaled through the direction of waggle.

#4 Honey bees have a sweet tooth, they are happier after eating a sweet treat!

A study published in Scientist found that bees which have been fed sugar water flew faster towards flowers, recovered faster after an attack, and had higher levels of dopamine.

The happiness and optimism in bees have been measured by timing their decision making in several tests. In the first test, bees had to choose between blue and green colored doors with each door offering a different reward. The green door rewarded the bees with sugar water, while the blue door rewarded them with water.

The following experiment tested bees by timing their decision making in going to the green-blue door. Honey bees which chose green door the first time were optimistic and made the decision quickly, while other bees were not as intent on accomplishing the challenge.

Further testing with a fake spider made of sponge gave remarkable results also. Bees were exposed to the spider for 10 seconds which was enough to scare the bees. But, before exposure to the spider bees were let to forage a bit. After a short exposure to the spider, honey bees were again let to forage. The researchers measured the time needed for bees to return to their normal foraging routine. Honey bees which got sugar water while foraging for a bit took less time to return to normal foraging routine.

According to scientists, faster decision making in bees who found sugar water could be due to the reward. Receiving the award made them optimistic and more willing to face the unknown. They get positive feelings from the sugar they need to survive, nature is amazing.

#5 Only female honey bees can sting

Honey bee stings are one of the most known honey bee facts. In a traditional beehive, bees that sting are worker bees and the queen. They use their stinger as a weapon when protecting the hive. A bee that is away from the beehive will usually not sting unless provoked by rough handling or getting stepped on.

When honey bees perceive something as a threat to the beehive, worker bees actively seek out to sting. Whenever you are close to the hive there is a possibility of stings. If you get stung, you have to be able to recognize warning signs in case you are allergic to bee venom.

Also, bee stings can be dangerous for our pets. Knowing how to handle bee stings is something everyone should know, so we have prepared instructions on how to handle bee stings for humans and pets.

Worker honey bees have a barbed stinger so they can sting only once. The stinger is left in the skin after the sting, which doesn't seem that bad. But a sting is a death sentence for a worker bee because it also pulls out her intestine.

The queen also has a stinger, but hers is smoother so she can sting multiple times. However, the queen doesn’t leave the beehive so her stinger is only used to kill other queens. Male honey bees, drones, don’t have a stinger and do not engage in an attack. The reason for male honey bees not having a stinger is simply biological. The stinger is essentially a modified egg-laying device, so only females have it.

#6 Male honey bees are kicked out of the hive when they cannot mate

Male honey bees, also known as drones, lead a life very different from the life of a worker bee. They are larger, don’t have a stinger, cannot collect pollen, and are physically unable to do work around the hive. Pretty much their only two jobs in the beehive are eating and mating.

Since queens are produced only when the weather is nice enough, in cold weather drones are unable to perform their primary function - mating. In winter drones only use up the resources while not providing anything to the beehive, so they are kicked out. Also, honey bees stop rearing drones until the days get warmer and flowers start to bloom. As a part of the preparation for the winter, it is not uncommon to see dead drones in the grass or drones being dragged out of beehive by worker bees.

In the height of the summer, the drone population is at its highest. They need a lot of resources, so drones are kept with the colony only if the resources are abundant. Because of this, a population of drones can indicate issues with the colony. One of honey bee facts is that healthy colonies should have many drones in summer as that shows that there is plenty of food for the bees. If drones are kicked out during summer, that can indicate issues within the hive, such as not having enough food.

#7 Honey bee attack smells like bananas!

Bees communicate in many different ways, but one of them is truly surprising. We already know that many animals use pheromones in communication, and bees are not an exception. Honey bees use many pheromones in communication, but some are more famous than others.

Pheromones with a little special something are alert pheromones, pheromones that smell like bananas. These pheromones are released either by a sting or by honey bee opening the sting chamber and protruding the stinger.

When one bee attacks, other bees will soon follow because of pheromones. When a honey bee stings a threat, it gets marked by pheromones which tell other bees to attack. This is an effective way of dealing with threats which can easily win over a single bee. But nothing can fight the colony which can have thousands of bees.

Beekeepers are very familiar with the scent of alarm pheromones and know the importance of having a bee smoker ready. The smoker confuses the bees and masks their pheromones, so they aren't as aggressive. Beekeepers are often advised to avoid using products with the banana scent because it could trigger an attack.

#8 Bees go through four stages of development

Honey bee facts are not complete without at least mentioning their fascinating development. Even though there are three types of bees (castes) in a beehive, each with its responsibilities, they all start the same. The stages of honey bee development are egg, larva, pupa and in the final stage we have an adult bee. The difference between castes during development is the time spent in each stage. The queen has the fastest development (16 days), while drone has the longest (24 days).

The egg stage lasts the same for all castes - three days. During this stage, the genetic material of the queen and drones she has mated with are combined which develops into an embryo. Three days after larva is hatched and the next stage starts.

The larval stage lasts 4 - 6 days and larva remains at the bottom of the honeycomb cell. Worker bees feed the larva with secretions so the larva can grow and develop. Before the next stage, the workers cap the cell and the larva makes a cocoon.

The pupal stage is preceded by the pre-pupal stage which ends with a molt. This stage is a critical time for a honey bee because during this stage larva goes through the greatest amount of physical change. It changes from a white larva into a black and yellow adult.

When the adult bee is ready, she chews the cap of her cell and emerges ready for her duties. Honey bees are divided into three castes and each caste benefits the colony differently. You can read more about castes and their duties here.

#9 Bees have a tendency to collect toxic chemicals

Honey bees are smart and they always try to utilize their environment. A true example of that is a fact that they have a tendency to collect toxins. They collect some of the most toxic natural chemicals in order to use them for repelling ants, fighting parasites, and fighting microorganisms. The accumulated toxins are smeared over all surfaces of the hive.

One of the honey bee facts related to toxins is that one such toxin is poisonous to humans. Almond pollen contains a toxin amygdalin which releases cyanide if eaten by humans. Cyanide is a well-known toxin which can be deadly for humans even in small doses.  

Even though honey bees like collecting toxins, they are sensitive to human-made chemicals. Scientists believe that human-made chemicals (pesticides) might be one of the reasons of bee population decreasing. To combat this some countries have decided to ban bee-harming pesticides also EU agrees on total ban of bee-harming pesticides. 

#10 Nature is not kind to natural honey bee colonies

Contrary to popular belief, honey bee colonies in nature have a high risk of dying. They are often not able to store enough honey for the winter and lack suitable cavities for their nests. Scarce food stores are not good news for bees as that puts them at high risk of dying of cold or starvation.  Also, without proper nutrition young bees are weak and can die a lot sooner than well-fed bees. Weak bees are also less resistant to parasites and viruses.

In spring each colony produces at least one swarm and the population of colonies increases at least by a double. However, mostly only the original colony survives the winter. This means that each year half the colonies perish.

#11 Honey bees can recognize human faces.

You might be surprised that face recognition is among honey bee facts, but it is pretty remarkable. We thought that face recognition was reserved only for animals with large brains, with an area of the brain specially reserved for face recognition.

However, scientists have found that this is not true. To us humans honey bees all look the same, but we might not all look the same to them. A study has shown that honey bees can learn to recognize human faces in photos, and also can remember the faces even two days after seeing them.

Honey bees were presented with photos of faces which had similar background colors, lighting, sizes and included only the face and neck not to confuse the bees with clothes. Some faces were very simplistic, they had two dots for eyes and a line for a mouth. The researchers trained the bees to choose correct human faces by rewarding them with sugar water if they chose correctly. A few bees have failed to recognize what the task was, but five bees learned what to do.

While trying to recognize faces, honey bees would fly towards the photo horizontally so they could get a good look at it. Honey bees would also hover a few centimeters above the photo before deciding where to land. The bees had 80% accuracy with recognizing correct faces. However, note that even some humans have issues with recognizing faces.

#12 The queen bee can select the sex of their larvae

This queen bee fact surely deserves a spot in our list of honey bee facts. This finding is important for how we see queen bees because it breaks the notion that they are just mindless egg laying machines and that worker bees decide on the sex of new bees.

The sex of a bee is decided upon fertilization of an egg. Youg queen bee goes on a mating flight and collects the sperm from multiple males. The collected sperm is used for the rest of her life. While laying eggs, the queen can choose whether to add sperm to an egg.  Addition of sperm to an egg is what decides the sex of that bee. Fertilized eggs give female bees, while unfertilized eggs give male bees.

Some scientists believe that worker bees are the ones deciding the sex of young bees because they are the ones building cells for those eggs. The size of female and male cells is different, so that is also a deciding factor when choosing the sex of a bee. The cells for female eggs are slightly smaller than cells for male eggs. Worker bees control how many cells of each size they build which also affect which eggs the queen lays.

#13 Honey bees are just like us, they love caffeine!

A study from 2015 which was published in the journal Current Biology showed that bees love getting high on caffeine. The biologists had set up two feeders containing a sugar solution and to one of them they added a bit of caffeine. The concentration added was small and can naturally occur in nectar. Bees used in the experiment were from three different hives.

Researchers trained the bees to collect the solution from one of the feeders, same as they would collect nectar. The bees have been observed for three hours and the researchers noticed something interesting.

Honey bees returned to the caffeinated solution more frequent than to the solution without caffeine. Also, the bees modified their waggle dance when they returned to the hive. Usually, the waggle is more frequent the sweeter the nectar. Even though both solutions had the same concentration of sugar, caffeine changed the frequency of waggle dance upon returning to the hive.

The effect of caffeine on honey bees is similar to drugging because it tricks them into thinking that the caffeinated forage is more valuable than it actually is. Another effect of caffeine is that bee forage is affected even when there is no caffeine anymore. The day after the experiment, the bees chose the feeder which previously had caffeinated solution even though both feeders were empty this time. Also, bees were less likely to investigate the other feeder.

The willingness to explore other options after the source has been exhausted is a natural adaptive behavior for bees. If one plant has had food then maybe its neighbors might also have food. Such behavior is good for the plant but bad for bees because it makes them overestimate forage quality.

#14 For a very long time, scientists were not able to figure out how bees are able to fly

If you compare the birds and bees, you can notice a big difference in the size of their body and wings. Birds can have huge wings, a wingspan of some birds is over 2 meters. Unlike birds, honey bees have pretty small wings compared to their body. This is one of the honey bee facts which left scientists scratching their head for many years.

Honey bees have two pairs of wings, one pair of big wings and one pair of smaller wings. Bigger and smaller wings on each side are held together with hooked comb-like teeth called hamuli. These tiny teeth allow the two wings to act as one large surface which can create greater lift when flying.

The issue that scientists had with bee's wings was that they thought their wings were rigid. Under that theory, bee wings are similar to plane wings which move up and down. Even though bee's wings can beat up to 230 beats per second, the wings are fairly small for their body size so they should not be able to fly. The mystery was finally revealed with a high-quality video which could show bee wing beats in slow motion.

Contrary to what was believed, honey bee wings are not rigid. The wings twist and rotate during flight by making short sweeping motions front and back. Some insects have a similar wing motion and slower wing beats, which is more efficient. Scientists think that bees have fast wing beats because they have to be able to carry heavy nectar and pollen.

#15 A single bee produces only 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey during its lifetime

Such a low amount of honey doesn’t seem much, but you have to take into consideration that worker honey bees live only six weeks in the summer. Also, honey bees can forage only on days when the weather allows them since the temperature needs to be above 10°C (50°F).

This means that one teaspoon of honey that you put in your tea has had a lot of hard work put into it. A single teaspoon of honey needs honey of about 12 honey bees. Honey is food for bees and in winter they can use even 20 kg of honey. One of honey bee facts is that honey bees definitely work hard for their honey.

A single jar of honey which weights 454 grams requires about 22,700 trips to the flower and back. One bee can carry about 0.04 grams of nectar, but you need to remember that nectar is only 40% sugar, while honey needs to be 80% sugar.

This means that bee actually carries only about 0.02 grams of honey on each trip. Theoretically, when the colony is most productive it could produce around 800 kg of honey! However, since bees use honey as fuel, there is usually only 10-20 kg of honey in the beehive at any given time.

#16 Honey bees can detect explosives

For decades military and police have been using dogs to detect explosives, but it seems that dogs got a competition. Honey bees have a strong sense of smell which is comparable to dogs sense of smell. Their keen sense of smell helps the bees in finding flowers and choosing the best source of nectar when there is a high number of flowers to choose from. The odorant receptors of honey bee are more powerful than receptors of mosquitoes or fruit flies.

Honey bees can detect molecular hints of pollen in the air so they can just as easily detect traces of other particles in the air, such as materials used to make bombs. They can detect the scent of explosives even at concentrations of two parts per trillion. This is equivalent to finding a grain of sand in a swimming pool. Scientists have found a way to put honey bee's remarkable scent to good use by training them to detect explosives.

The prototype used in an experiment was a box containing three bees which were previously trained to detect explosives. The training took advantage of proboscis extension reflex (PER) which is a part of the feeding behavior. This reflex includes the extension of a honey bee’s proboscis (another name for a bee tongue) as a reflex to antennal stimulation.

During training, scientists would release a bit of air with a scent of explosives and at the same time give bees some sugary water on a cotton bud. Bees would put their tongue out whenever a cotton bud with sugary water touched their antennae. The training was similar to Pavlov’s dog experiment. This behavior was used for detection of explosives. The scent of explosives would trigger a reaction in trained bees; they would put their tongue out expecting to get sugary water.

A box containing three bees had a video camera which monitored bee response. Researchers would bring a box with trained bees close to the object with or without explosives and observed the reaction from bees. When close to explosives, all three bees would put their tongue out as a confirmation that explosives are detected.

In another experiment, honey bees were trained to swarm at the location of explosives which proved to be effective but only for contained spaces. At first, the bees were tracked visually but in large areas that was problematic. For easier tracking honey bees were fitted with small radio transmitters.

The advantages of training bees for detecting explosives are that bees are easier to take care off, learn quicker, and aren’t easily distracted from their task. Honey bees are truly versatile, so we just couldn't miss it out in our list of honey bee facts.

#17 Honey bees are protecting elephants and farming land in Africa

Elephants are the largest animals on land, but they are still afraid of tiny honey bees. When they hear a sound of a bee swarm buzzing, they flee from the area. Elephants also damaged acacia trees less if they had empty or occupied beehives.

One experiment tested their fear. The sound of buzzing bees was recorded and played to a few elephant families. The recording was hidden inside a fake tree. When the elephants heard buzzing, 16 out of 17 families fled the area within 80 seconds. The one family which didn’t escape was young and probably didn’t experience a bee attack. That fear of honey bees can be used to protect the elephants from the anger of farmers when elephants destroy their crops.

One practical solution which uses the fear of bees to protect elephants is beehive fences. Beehive fences are cheap and simple to make; they only need a few locally found materials. The fence is created by hanging a beehive every ten meters and linking them together with a wire. If an elephant touches one beehive, the wire will also swing the other hives. This will release even more bees.

Honey bees might not seem that dangerous but you have to remember that these are African honey bees, which are very aggressive. Their sting is agonizing to humans, so it is not far fetched to imagine that the sting is pretty painful for elephants also. Especially a sting on the skin around their eyes, behind ears, and inside their trunk is very sensitive.

Beehive fences aren't beneficial just for elephants. Protecting farming land is also a great benefit, especially for small farmers to whom an elephant raid can destroy the only source of income. Beehive fences increase yield production for farmers because of reduced damage and increased pollination. Also, farmers can collect honey from their bees and sell it for additional profit.

#18  A honey bee colony is technically immortal

A beehive can be a home to thousands of bees, which always include three castes of bees: the queen, workers, and drones. The lifespan of a bee depends on its caste and the time of year in which it was born. The queen bee has the longest lifespan, while summer worker bees have the shortest lifespan.

Worker bees have duties in and out of the hive. The first part of their life is spent working inside the hive, while the second part is spent finding and gathering nectar and pollen. The workers are the only ones responsible for pollination since the queen doesn’t leave the hive, and drones don’t forage. In winter the colony is not very active so worker bees can live five months or more. In summer honey production is at its high which unfortunately drains the worker bees quicker. Their lifespan in summer is only five to six weeks.

The average lifespan of a male honey bee (drone) is eight weeks, and they usually don’t survive the winter. Six days after hatching drones leave the hive for mating and if successful usually die within an hour after mating. Drones which were unsuccessful return to the hive and stay there until worker bees let them. Since their only role is mating with the queen, they are usually kicked out in winter because of lack of food.

The queen bee has the longest lifespan, she can live 2-3 years. Her only obligation is laying eggs. On average the queen can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day which means that young bees are constantly arriving. This means that a bee colony is continuously growing. If some bee dies, another bee is ready to take her place. If the queen doesn’t lay enough eggs or something happens to her, worker bees will raise another queen to replace her. Since bees are replaced continuously, the colony technically cannot die. Wouldn’t you say that this is one of the most amazing honey bee facts?

#19 Approximately 80 percent of insect crop pollination is done by the honey bees

A relationship between plants and honey bees is wonderful. Bees need plants with flowers for nectar and pollen, and flowering plants need bees for pollination. The most impactful work of honey bees is a cross-pollination of fruit blossoms and flowering plants. Cross-pollination is another name for transfer of pollen from one plant to another. If there was no transfer of pollen between flowers, there would not be production of fruit and seed crops. Bees are extremely important for our environment.

Pollination is done thanks to honey bee’s need to collect nectar and pollen for food. When a bee lands on a flower, the dust-like pollen clings to the hairs on bee’s body. When a bee visits the next flower, pollen from bee’s body brushes off against the female part of the flower.

Since pollination is so important for many plants, they have developed some mechanisms to attract the honey bees. Some plants have brightly colored flowers, while others produce scents attractive to bees. In order to ensure many visits by the bees, nectar-producing flowers produce nectar only in small amounts at one time. Increased visits by honey bees increase the chance of successful plant fertilization.  

Some fruit tree farmers even hire beekeepers to place hives in their orchards during blossoming season. By doing this farmers make sure that the flowers on trees are pollinated properly, which ensures that a healthy fruit will be produced.

An experiment done at the University of Guelph tested the possibility of honey bees helping in the protection of strawberries against rot. A micro fungus that prevents the rot occurs naturally, and bees were used to disperse it on strawberry flowers. During their forage, honey bees would leave some of the spores on each flower they visited. The experiment was successful, and the occurrence of infection in the strawberry flower and fruit was reduced.

#20 Pollen affects honey bee’s development and productivity of the whole colony

The diet of a honey bee consists of only two things: pollen and honey. Honey has the majority of the carbohydrates which worker bees need to be able to perform their daily activities. Pollen is a source of all other nutritional requirements which include vitamins, minerals, proteins, and fats. Since they are essential for honey bee metabolic processes and cell construction, it is an integral part of larvae food.  

Worker bees collect pollen and then carry it back to the hive. Honey bees have special pollen baskets on their hind legs which they use to carry pollen. These honey baskets are not actual baskets, they are long hairs which are positioned in such a way that pollen clings to them. You can learn more details about how bees carry pollen here.

When the bee returns to the hive, she kicks the pollen off her legs and into a cell. The pollen is then processed into bee bread by worker honey bees which handle food. The contents of a bee bread are not yet fully understood, but the main ingredients are honey and pollen.

Some additional components are acids, enzymes, and bacteria. Acids prevent germination of pollen, enzymes help prevent bacteria from destroying the nutritional value of the bee bread, and bacteria help with pre-digestion of food so workers can get more nutrients after consuming it. The bee bread can be stored in a comb for a very long time, so it is a great food source.

Our list of honey bee facts includes pollen importance because the protein from pollen is required for healthy development of physiological characteristics of honey bees. It is also necessary for the growth of a healthy colony. In young worker bees pollen is essential for the development of the hypopharyngeal gland which produces food for the brood.

This gland is located in a bee’s head. If the colony lacks pollen then the colony population can decline. Because of bad nutrition bees are also more susceptible to diseases which normally would not affect the colony much. Since bees are weaker, honey production also drops and honey bee lifespan is decreased.

Share these amazing honey bee facts with all your friends and help protect honey bees!

Globally there are more honey bees than any other type of pollinating insects which makes it the most important pollinator. As shown by many papers and articles, honey bees are some of the most studied animals. And even though many people know honey bees only as honey producers, their importance goes beyond just honey production. This is not surprising as they have a significant impact on our lives, many of our food sources depend on honey bees and their pollination.

Unfortunately, the honey bee population is declining, and scientists still haven't found the exact cause of it. However, one of the possible reasons is human influence (pesticides). If more people learn about the importance of honey bees, more bee colonies will be protected. We believe that you can also help in this cause. By teaching people about interesting honey bee facts, we can interest them more in honey bees and their protection.

Scientists agree that without honey bees our life would be very different, maybe wouldn't even be possible. Honey bees give us so much, they even provide us food! We think that we should stand up for them and ensure a happy life for all of us. Bees have complicated lives and we are sure that they are still hiding many mysteries. Let us know if you have some honey bee facts that we didn’t mention!