A winter tale

“Hey!” “Get off my head!” My sister runs on, ignoring me. I don’t really mind, I’m as tough as nails even if I’m only just emerging from my cell.  The word “cell” doesn’t do justice to the snug, warm, incubation chamber that enveloped me as an egg, then larvae and finally pupae during the last 21 days. I nibble the last of the porous wax cap that had sealed me in. This cap allowed me to breath. I know, but don’t know how I know, that the cap on a cell containing honey is not the least bit porous and will preserve honey for eons. 

Bee emerging from her cell Vid 2.02 min

Wriggling out of my cell, I immediately start to clean out any detritus and sanitise and polish it to a high mahogany shine with propolis that has been passed to me by one of my sisters. I also catch the scent of the queen from her. How lovely. The queen pheromone. Somehow that calms and reassures me that all is well in the hive. The hive is a constant 35oC (96oF) degrees and I had to be kept constantly warm in my cell helped by the hexagon of six other sisters developing around me and those on the other side of the same comb. We are collectively call brood. Hundreds of my sisters kept the brood warm with their own bodies as they scurried about busily, while they cleaned, passed on nectar from one to the other while converting it to honey, packed pollen into cells, water and resin and making bee bread. They spend about a third of their time resting and particularly like to rest near us as they kept vigil never leaving us alone to get cold. 

My exoskeleton is hardening while I work. Soon I have the cell spotless and sanitised and am proud of my work as it is now ready for the queen to lay again in that cell. I hope I can see and touch the queen myself soon. I’m nudged away from my birth cell by a large group of my sisters, the queen is coming my direction! I’m so excited. But there is a cell near me that is not up to scratch. This won’t do. I hurriedly start to clean out this cell and get busy polishing again. I’ve no sooner cleaned this cell when I see another one that I need to clean. I continue cleaning cells and lose all track of time. Eventually I lift my head and look around me. I can sense that the queen is no longer nearby, she had laid thousands of eggs and moved on quickly. I stand on my back four legs and using my front two start rubbing down my 5 eyes, my antenna and my 7mm long proboscis tongue. I don’t know it, but I look just like a cat giving herself a good lick. Nearby, a cluster of my sisters are whispering. “Look at her.” “She’s new.” “She’s different.” I look over and wonder if being different is good or bad. The elder of the group who is all of six weeks old and has spent the last few weeks flying outside the hive foraging tells the girls to get a move on and take the nectar-honey mix she’s carrying. “Look at her wings” says one, “Yes”, says another, “They are so perfect!” The elder bee, forgetting her load for a moment explains to the youngsters that the beekeeper had put some really smelly stuff in the hive a few weeks ago so that there are very few varroa mite in the hive now. Varroa live in the cells with the bee larvae and cause a lot of damage to the poor young bees. I am one of the lucky ones, undamaged.  I’m about to say “Hi” when I hear “She’s so fat!” before the group scurry away.  Lucky for me I’m a honeybee, I don’t have a hang up about my weight, I know we are all sisters and part of a big team working for the greater good of the hive. I’m sure I’ll find out what they mean later.  I check my wings, they are dry now and it’s safe to stretch them out. I have two forewings and two smaller hind wings. The top and bottom are supported by a network of veins that carry haemolymph (bee “blood”). I can’t help but admire my wings. They are beautiful. They are translucent. The colours of the rainbow shimmer in between the supports of nerves and breathing tubes which weave throughout them. The wings are imprinted with the same clan pattern of my sisters. I close them again and automatically engage the hooks on the hindwings that neatly fit into the groves of the forewings which allow them sit one each side of the body to function as a single surface1 .

It’s time for a break so I walk around the frame. Most of the cells are open and some have a single, small, white, oblong egg while in others the eggs have already hatched and there is one glistening, white, C-shaped larvae on the bottom. Although full adults, most of my sisters around me are still young nurse bees, bustling about putting brood food in the cells. Brood food is a kind of jelly and is a mixture of fluids produced by the hypopharyngeal food glands which are in the head of the bees and and the mandibular glands which are near the mouth.2 I am very grateful that the nurse bees took such good care of me. I look forward to when I am 3 days old and I can start feeding the young larvae.

There’s a commotion near me. The queen is coming back and her entourage jostle and clear the way. An elder bee rushes over to me and in a low, gentle voice says, “The queen desires to meet you.” I quiver in excitement. “Me?” I stammer. “Yes, now don’t delay, stick close to me.”  We push through the crowd, wings, bodies, legs touching many others. I am before her majesty and dip my head low before licking her body and touching her antenna with mine as is the custom.

Image from The queen bee and her entourage

 “Ah, there you are.” She cooed.  “You look great.” She says inspecting me. “I am so delighted that you are lovely and fat and undamaged, this bodes well for the future of our hive.” I listen, confused. “You are the first of our winter bees.” She explains. “On you, and your sister winter bees that are yet to emerge, rests our future. The sisters you see around us now will only survive at most six weeks but not you, you will survive 6 months and maybe more, because your fat body will produce a miraculous substance called vitellogenin which enhances your immune system thus increasing your lifespan. This vitellogenin will allow you as a nurse bee to secrete brood food even in the absence of fresh pollen.” She paused and her antenna drooped as she remembered the dearth of the previous winter. “Fresh pollen will certainly be scarce by the new year.” She paused again. “You my dear child, will spend your life within the hive caring for me and you and your kind will raise the brood that will inherit the colony in spring. You are so welcome my daughter, our first winter bee.”3 The queen, with a flourish of her long body and with her entourage huddled around her, swept on as she continued on her mission to lay as many eggs as she can before the cold creeps around the outer world when bees can no longer fly out to forage and food becomes scarce. I stand once again ignored by the mob around me. I am infused with confidence. I know my role, my mission, my calling, my purpose. I return to the mundane cleaning of cells with pride in my heart.

Links to further information

1. A bit about wings

august 13, 2018 by dan wyns

2 Life cycle of the Honey Bee

3 What are winter bees and what do they do

How to identify bees by their wings


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