Everyone thinks of honey bees as amazing social insects capable of creating delicious food stores that humans and other animals enjoy consuming. Their interactions and ability to communicate with other members of their colony has been the source of much study and mystery, with more incredible discoveries being observed on a regular basis. With so many specialized behaviors that honeybees posses, it makes me wonder why we don’t learn more about ourselves from this amazing insect. Yes, the obvious desirable aspects of honeybee life are easy to aspire to… we should work together peacefully for a common goal, if we all pitch in and do our part… those are just a given. But what about the different jobs a honey bees does during its life cycle? The unique roles that are in alignment with their age and current physical status? What can we learn as humans about our personal growth as we watch this amazing, beautiful, beneficial, and necessary creature?
Many times in our own lives we are presented with choices to make regarding career, mates, schools, and for some reason, they are always referred to as singular. We can’t or shouldn’t make more than one choice, because we should pick something and totally stick with it. In fact, until watching a TED talk by Emilie Wapnick, I didn’t realize my tendency to want to do many different things was actually a good thing, and it had a term all of its own… a “multipotentialite.” Yet worker honeybees are all multipotentialites, each doing a job that perfectly suits them until the time comes to move onto something else… wouldn’t it be great if we could all do the same? Well come to think of it, why can’t we?
Female honeybees, which are known as “worker” bees, begin life as a fertilized egg laid in a myriad of cells created for the purpose of rearing new bees. As the name implies, they do all the work in the colony while male bees are produced from unfertilized eggs and do nothing but eat and have sex. This is always a great way to start any bee talk and a useful tool to see if your audience is paying attention. Aside from the comedic references, this is an important aspect to note since 21 days later and with great metamorphoses (egg, larva, pupa, etc.), an adult female bee emerges from a cell. With her body still soft and moist from being cooped up inside a tiny enclosure, she enjoys her first meal by consuming the cap of the cell she emerged from, and then cleans herself off. She’s unable to sting and defend herself with her parts being very new, so her first job is cleaning up the colony… she is known as a “house” bee and let’s get all anthropomorphic and call her “Gwen.”
Gwen has lots of work to do as a house bee… she will clean the colony by removing dirt and debris, sometimes even paint from the insides of man made hives. Bees that die inside the colony will be removed by Gwen and tossed out the entrance since they can rot and spread disease. No one likes cleaning the house all day it seems, and so Gwen will tire of her role and decide after about two days that she’d like to do something a little more challenging… of course this is something we often feel as humans. Sometimes we no longer feel joy in our jobs or careers and so we seek out something else to do… sometimes that change requiring a ton of courage in the process. For Gwen the change is part of her life and she will take on the role of what some like to call a “nurse bee.”
As a nurse bee Gwen will see to it that all developing bees are well fed and taken care of. She will gather pollen and honey that’s been stored in cells, add some of her saliva containing enzymes and even bacteria, and use it to make nutritious “bee bread.” She will feed this bread to the larvae that just hatched from eggs the queen laid about three days prior. As Gwen becomes more experienced as a nurse bee, she might actually experience a kind of promotion. It has been observed that older nurse bees are the ones that take care of developing queens when a replacement is needed, feeding them “royal jelly.” This magical food is what actually turns a developing worker bee into a queen… nothing else is different other than this specialized diet.
As Gwen continues to age and is about into her second week of being an adult honey bee, she will grow weary of taking care of so many and decide to change it up a bit. She will start producing wax flakes from her abdomen and chewing them to form honey comb. She will decide that perhaps making honey is her thing and she will construct comb for the purposes of storing nectar that foraging bees bring in from the field. This nectar has been mixed in-flight with enzymes, and will form into honey when the moisture is removed and it has the opportunity to “ripen.” Gwen will sit over exposed honeycomb and flap her wings to evaporate the water from the honey until it’s ready to be capped and stored. This is a huge career change but hey it’s a job and she enjoys it for about five days. At this point Gwen has a wonderful knowledge of hive life and she’s feeling like she knows her stuff… and perhaps it’s time to change it up a little once again.
Still considered a “house” bee, Gwen has decided security and environmental controls are her thing and she will begin guarding the entrance of the colony. Her stinger is ready for battle and every single bee returning from the field will get a little “sniff” to make sure they belong. Every honeybee carries a unique biochemical ID card to make sure they’re allowed to gain access to the colony, and Gwen is ready to kick ass in case other honeybees are looking to steal honey… because yeah that’s a thing. When she’s not defending the colony she might decide that it needs a little bit of air conditioning and will use the trick she learned from evaporating moisture from honey, and do the same with water to cool down the colony. By flapping her wings over water droplets intentionally brought in by other bees and causing evaporation, she can lower the internal temperature of the colony. All honey bee colonies must be kept at a temperature between 91 and 97 degrees fahrenheit for bees to develop properly… and that means sometimes being an air conditioner bee.
Well it’s been three weeks now and Gwen is tired of big city colony life. Like many of us, she wants to spread her wings and fly and explore what else life has to offer. She will take short trips around the outside of the colony, getting used to flying and orienting herself with the exact location of the colony with an error range of about three feet. Her internal GPS is thought to use the geomagnetic field of the planet combined with visual data, to get back to the same place every time, despite sometimes traveling up to twelve miles away! She will spend a day or two getting to know the neighborhood before doing her very last job… a foraging or “field” bee.
With her past behind her, Gwen sets off on her last and greatest adventure of all! She will spend about three more weeks flying all over town collecting nectar, pollen, water droplets, and plant resins… the later to make a glue / sealant called “propolis.” This is also the most dangerous job in her career path because Gwen will be away from the colony and her greatest source of protection… she will be extremely vulnerable to predators, pesticides, and even weather. It is very possible Gwen won’t return home, but she’s had a wonderful life and she’s taking it by the horns. Gwen will also navigate using the Sun, and will go back to the colony to let the other foragers know where food sources are in relation to it. She will perform the famously known “dances” which are fascinating to watch by the way, and can actually be read by humans. I’m honored to say I have done so myself within the glass hives of the University of Miami, during a brief internship when I was a teen.
If Gwen doesn’t get killed by predators or pesticides and makes it to her final days, her wings will become frayed and torn, and she will be unable to fly. She will be about 45 days old when she will decide that she’s had a full life and doesn’t want to endanger the colony by dying inside of it. She will exit the colony and fall to the ground, crawling away from the family of sisters that brought her into the world and saw her out of it. She will have looked back at a truly exciting life filled with many jobs, adventures, and knowledge… a day that we will all experience within our lifetimes. And hopefully just like Gwen, we can look back knowing we made the best of it, and lived life to the absolute fullest… because it’s never too late to reinvent ourselves.