Everyone knows bees make delicious honey, and many people experience a summertime sting. What you may not know is how bizarre these insects really are. With more than 25,000 kinds of bees buzzing around the world, there’s a lot to know about these little honey-making insects.
1. Bees are exceptionally efficient engineers
A honeycomb contains hundreds of perfectly formed hexagons. Why not rectangles or circles? Because hexagons are the most efficient, economical shape for honey storage. Even Charles Darwin was impressed with the engineering prowess of bees, says NPR. Geometry considers any six-sided shape to be hexagonal. When the sides are exactly the same length and meet at 120-degree angles, the result is a “perfect” hexagon — the kind built by worker bees.
Next: The outlandish origin of beeswax
2. Bees secrete wax from an unexpected place
Every colony member has a specific job. Young worker bees make wax. The queen’s daughters do this using special glands on the undersides of their abdomens. The glands secrete wax, which stiffens into paper-thin scales. Once hardened, the bee uses her hairy hind legs to scrape the wax scales from her abdomen, then uses her middle legs to pass them to her mouth. She chews the flakes until they’re soft enough to be formed into a perfect hexagon cell.
A young worker bee may create as many as eight scales in a 12-hour period. It takes about 1,000 scales to produce one gram of beeswax.
Next: The bee’s knees
3. Bees have five hairy eyes and 24 knees
Bees’ lenses perceive motion, light, and color. Two large compound eyes sit on either side of the face, and three smaller eyes sit atop the head. Each compound eye contains thousands of lenses, and between each of these grows a small hair. Bee experts believe these hairs may help the bee stay on course in windy conditions. Three smaller eyes allow the bee to triangulate his position and navigate home. Bee’s don’t have actual “knees,” but each of their six legs has six joints that function like knees.
Next: Dancing in the dark
4. Bees communicate with dance moves
In the mid-20th century, Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch decided to figure out how honeybees communicate. After observing the behavior of thousands of bees, he concluded that scout bees dance to tell others where to find food and how good that food is. A “round” dance means food is less than 50 meters from the hive. The faster the dance, the better the food. When a waggling motion is added, the food source is farther away. A figure-eight dance explains distance and direction.
Next: Bees have feelings, too
5. Bees have feelings and personalities
Many bees exhibit unique personality traits, says Gene Robinson, the director of the University of Illinois Institute for Genomic Biology. His team of scientists found that certain bees exhibit behaviors that are not unlike the thrill-seeking behaviors seen in humans. The 2012 study also revealed the fact that some bees seem to seek novelty and adventure.
Next: Busy bees don’t always tell the truth
6. Caffeine makes bees work harder; cocaine turns them into liars
Humans aren’t the only ones who love a caffeine boost. In nature, caffeine exists as a form of self-defense. Found in coffee and citrus flowers, caffeine-laden pollen keeps harmful insects at bay while enticing pollinators to visit. In fact, caffeine-enriched pollen enables bees to remember flower locations, upping the odds of a return visit, say researchers at Newcastle University.
Other scientists experimented to see if cocaine had the same effect on bees. The stimulant seemed to boost productivity but caused the bees to overstate the quality and amount of nearby “food” with exaggerated dance moves.
Next: The nose knows
7. Bees use smell to communicate, too
Bees release chemical pheromones to signal other bees. If a bee senses danger, it releases a specific pheromone to tell other bees to beware. When a bee finds a superior source of food, it may leave pheromone-scented “footprints” that lead fellow bees to the right flower patch. When a bee finds an inadequate food source, it leaves a different pheromone that tells bees not to bother.
Next: Bee venom as medicine
8. A bee sting might actually be good for you
Bee venom may treat autoimmune disorders, including arthritis, multiple sclerosis, lupus, and asthma. Delivered via a live bee sting or an injection, bee venom therapy is widely used as medicine in Bulgaria, China, Brazil, Korea, and even the U.S. Bee venom has a number of potentially beneficial ingredients, including a potent anti-inflammatory toxin called melittin.
Anecdotal evidence indicates that melittin therapy may effectively treat chronic pain, HIV, and other health conditions. Of course, alternative treatments should only be used under close medical supervision.
Next: Beehive bakery
9. Bees make bread
Made of honey and slightly fermented pollen, “bee bread” is a nutrient-dense superfood fed to developing larvae and baby bees. As bees make and pack this “bread” into honeycombs, they add gland secretions that make the food more nutritious than honey or pollen alone. When worker bees aren’t building honeycombs, they make and store batches of bread to consume later explains Buzz About Bees.
Next: Long live the queen
10. Bees can create a brand new queen anytime they like
If a colony suddenly finds itself queenless, they can create an ad hoc monarch in a hurry, provided the newly dead queen laid eggs within the past five days. To achieve this, hive workers stop feeding bee bread and/or fermented pollen to a developing larva and switch its diet to royal jelly.
Next: Keeping their cool
11. Bees live in air-conditioned comfort
Bees stay busy with various duties. One task is climate-control. On hot days, bees on air-conditioning duty grip the hive floor with their feet, lean downward, and flap their wings furiously. Some of the bees face inward and flap hot air out of the hive. Others face the outdoors and wave air into the hive.
Air propelled by all this flapping pass over minuscule water droplets within the hive, replicating the physics of evaporative cooling, says Bees and Beekeeping. During hot days, this insect-powered cooling system maintains a comfortable (to bees) indoor temperature of 93 degrees.
Next: Risky business
12. The love life of a bee is doomed from the start
When a male bee wants to mate, he does so at certain peril. Male honeybee drones exist for one purpose: to make more bees. As this mission comes to completion, the drone’s endophallus snaps off inside the queen. The spent bee falls to the ground with a ruptured abdomen and dies. This isn’t enough for the queen, however. She will likely mate with a dozen or more drones; each removes the previous endophallus before engaging in sexual suicide, explains ThoughtCo.
Next: To be a “he bee” or “she bee”
13. Hive workers determine the gender of embryonic bees
Hive workers decide whether an egg becomes a comb-building female worker bee or a pollen-collecting male drone bee. When a colony needs a queen, workers feast one larva to fatness on royal jelly. Infant bees fed bee bread and honey always become female worker bees. Bees from unfertilized eggs are always male.
Next: Bees can hold it in a long time.
14. Bees don’t poop in outer space
In 1984, over 3,000 bees were launched into space aboard the Challenger. Kept in a specially built box, the apian astronauts were observed to see how bees fare in zero-gravity on a space mission. During the seven-day flight, the orbiting bees built hives faster than earthbound control bees. They never went to the bathroom.
A NASA spokesperson told reporters that after the mission, the hive was “just as clean as a pin.” The reason for the tidiness: Bees never excrete in their own hive, says the Neville Pubic Museum.
Next: Some bees have only one parent.
15. Boy bees don’t have fathers, but they do have grandfathers
Drone bees are the product of asexual haplodiploid reproduction. This means the male bees develop from unfertilized eggs. Because no bee sperm was involved, drone bees boast just one set of chromosomes and are fatherless. They do have a grandfather, however, because the queen that laid the egg had maternal and paternal chromosomes and inherited genetic material from both her parents, explains HoneyBee Suite.