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.)
How often do you see a honey bee "standing upright" to reach nectar?
"Well, I guess I could just buzz up there and grab some nectar! But why not stay right here where I am and just s-t-r-e-t-c-h like a giraffe to get it?"
This bee, foraging on a Photinia blossom, almost looked like an athlete in training. Was she stretching to "warm up?" Was she stretching to improve performance? Flexibility? Mobility?
Me thinks she was just taking a short cut to the sweet stuff and being a little territorial as other bees buzzed around her.
Our honey bee will return to the hive where workers will process the nectar into honey. Humans will get some of it, too.
If you'd like to sample honey--and mix with entomologists--mark your calendar for Saturday, April 22 and "bee" at Briggs Hall for the annual honey tasting, just one part of the 200 some events at the 103rd annual UC Davis Picnic Day. It's an all-day campuswide open house aimed to educate, inform and entertain.
That is, honey bees heading home to their colony.
Many beekeepers, especially beginning beekeepers, like to watch their worker bees--they call them "my girls"--come home. They're loaded with pollen this time of year. Depending on the floral source, it may be yellow, red, white, blue, red or colors in between.
Below, the girls are heading home to a bee observation hive located inside the conference room of the Harry H. Laidlaw Jr. Honey Bee Research Facility on Bee Biology Road, University of California, Davis.
They're bringing in food for the colony: pollen and nectar. They also collect water and propolis (plant resin). This is a matriarchal society where females do all the work in the hive. The worker bees--aptly named--serve as nurse maids, nannies, royal attendants, builders, architects, foragers, dancers, honey tenders, pollen packers, propolis or "glue specialists," air conditioning and/or heating technicians, guards and undertakers.
The glassed-in bee observation hive is indeed a popular and educational attraction to watch the queen lay eggs (she'll lay about 2000 eggs a day during peak season), the comb construction, honey production, pollen storage and all the other activities. The sisters feed the colony, including the queen and their brothers (drones). A drone's responsibility is solely reproduction, and that takes place in mid-air when a virgin queen takes her maiden flight. After mating, he dies. Done. That's it.
Meanwhile, life continues inside the hive.
"Where do foraging bees go to die?"
That question was asked this week of honey bee guru Eric Mussen of the UC Davis Department of Entomology, who serves as the statewide Extension apiculturist.
"Do they return to the hive? Do they retire and live out their last days inside?" he was asked.
We've all seen worker bees in the throes of death. After all, they live only four to six weeks in the busy season. But the queen bee, which can lay some 2000 eggs a day, quickly replaces them.
"Since we do not know exactly where they go, we say that they fly off in the final moments of life, lose altitude and land on whatever is beneath them, moribund," Mussen says. "They are still able to sting for quite a few minutes, as can be attested to by neighbors who find moribund bees in their lawns or swimming pools, but they die relatively soon. Bees have enzyme systems that deal with flight and when the enzymes give out, so does flight."
Mussen points out that "a few of the dying bees, maybe 15 or so, of the 1,000 or more that die daily (in a colony) during the spring, summer, and fall, do die in--or in front of--the hive."
When those bodies lose some moisture, the "undertaker bees" carry away the lighter-weight bodies and drop them 150 feet or more away from the hive, studies show. "Most of the rest just drop, somewhere, when they no longer can forage or stay in the air," Mussen says. "Bees do fly up to four miles from the hive in any compass direction, so they drop out there in that 50-square mile area."
'Tis the season for brotherly love, but not in the bee hive.
As the honey-gathering season ends and the weather turns colder, the worker bees (infertile females) push their brothers--the drones--out of the hive. Drones are of no use to the colony in the winter. They're another mouth to feed. (The sole function of the drones are to mate with the queen.)
So how are the worker bees able to shove the much-larger drones from the hive?
"The sisters quit feeding their brothers so that they're lighter and easier to push," said UC Davis apiculturist Eric Mussen.
UC Davis bee breeder-geneticist Susan Cobey admits to having a soft spot for the drones. “They’re cold and hungry, sitting there on the doorstep and wanting to go back in. They’re attacked and they die. Well, it’s a matriarchal society.”
A matriarchal society in the season of brotherly love.