A Bee's Life - Hawaiian Style

I feel warmth, hear pleasant humming, and become aware of a snug capsule all around my body. I can hear footsteps above my head walking around, a bustle of activity. Instinct propels me to start chewing and clawing my way through the thin veil of wax that encapsulated my brood cell. I manage to get through it and slowly crawl out of my cell to a cacophony of buzzing. I look around in the faint light and see thousands of my kind, all purposefully moving in a giant organism that is a honey bee hive.

I am approached by a worker bee, who introduces herself as Jasmine and says she will instruct me on what my job is. I have to clean my cell! Well I guess all workers have to make their own bed, so here I go. I go in head first and spiffy up the cell so it's as clean and polished as the day I was laid in there as an egg. It's now ready for a new sister's egg to be laid. Jasmine instructs me to keep going cell to cell and make sure they are all clean and ready for a new egg, and also to put pollen and honey in. It's tedious work but I am assured different jobs are headed my way.

After about three days of cell cleaning, a bee named Sylvia approaches me. She instructs me to start helping haul out the bees that didn't make it. Sometimes larvae will die in the cell and need to be taken out of the hive. Other times, adult bees will die of old age or some other malady, and will need to be taken out. There are diseases that happen also, and we have to keep the hive clean and disease free. If any larvae are infected we take them out too.  I have heard that birds are waiting outside the hive to pick them up and take them to heaven. It's harder work than cleaning cells, but I am a few days old now and getting stronger.

After the second day of morgue duty, Cindy, a bee a couple days older than me, approaches me with more duties. I find out I get to help feed the baby bees! That should be a fun job. When the egg hatches, which is about three days after it's laid, we feed it royal jelly and honey. The ones that are designated worker bees get royal jelly for the first three days, then we feed them only honey, pollen, and liquid from plants. If it's a queen larva, we feed her a lot of royal jelly the whole time, along with honey and liquids. The drone bees get a mixture that doesn't contain much pollen on the outset, but when they are older they get a very heavy mixture of pollen in their food. They take the longest to hatch, 24 days, as opposed to a worker that only takes 21 days. A really strange thing is that it only takes 16 days for a queen to hatch!  She gets a special cell that is built out from the comb, it kind of looks like a peanut shell when it's closed.

I get to feed the older larvae for the next three days, I am 6 days old now. A brood-food gland on my abdomen (hypopharyngeal) is starting to produce royal jelly so I can now feed the young larvae that have just hatched. I work from cell to cell, transferring royal jelly to each larvae in my work area. I heard there is a queen cell around the corner that is getting massive amounts of royal jelly right now. I wonder if she is going to take over the hive? We feed the very young larvae more than they can eat, but as they get older we only feed them smaller amounts, as they need it.

Young worker bees inside the hive.

Young worker bees inside the hive.

My brood-food gland is starting to not produce anymore, but another amazing thing is happening. I am 13 days old now and am noticing a waxy substance coming from under my abdomen. A bee named Judy approaches me and says, "Congratulations! You are producing beeswax. We need you over here now. Follow me!" I follow her to a gathering of other bees my age that are busy passing flakes of wax they are pulling off their abdomens. They are busy building honeycomb. It's amazing, we get in there with our feet and mouths and mold these wax flakes into these beautiful geometric cells, ready for honey, pollen, or larval cells. I heard that man in any way has never recreated this wax.  It's a unique substance only a honeybee can make. We keep eating honey and making wax for the hive. It takes around 6 pounds of honey to make one pound of wax. We use the nice new wax to cap the larvae when they enter the pupa stage also. When the honey is ready we head over there and produce wax to seal that up too.

I am also busy packing pollen into cells for storage. We use this for food, it has so many nutritional benefits! It is almost 25% complete protein and has 18 amino acids. It has the full spectrum of vitamins, 28 minerals, 14 beneficial fatty acids, 11 enzymes or co-enzymes, and is rich in minerals. It is said to be a complete food for man too. The worker bees spend a lot of time collecting this for the hive.

In other cells we start making honey! The field bees bring in the nectar and the house worker bees meet them at the door to transfer the nectar and take care of it. We do the same thing when they bring pollen. There is a lot of activity at the entrance to a hive! We take the nectar and start processing it. It is a time consuming activity that actually has a chemical and physical change to the nectar. We mix it with an enzyme called invertase, which we make in our salivary glands. The invertase actually breaks the disaccharide sucrose in the nectar into two monosaccharides, glucose and fructose. Sometimes the nectar is all sucrose, but not always, but honey is always broken down into glucose and fructose, with maybe 1% sucrose left in. We put small drops of this nectar/enzyme mixture in the prepared cells and then start fanning. Whew, this is hard work! We have to get the moisture content down to less than 18.5% and we start out at 30% or even 90%. A lot of fanning is involved to get the honey to this super low moisture level. But that is what makes honey a food that doesn't spoil. The moisture content is so low that fermentation or spoilage cannot occur. At this stage it is in a hygroscopic state, meaning it is able to draw water to it. If you leave a drop on the counter, it will draw moisture from the air around it. In humid Hawaii you will have a very liquid spot in no time! We seal off the honey once we get it to the right moisture level with our beeswax to keep it at the proper moisture level.

Beautiful capped honey - nice white virgin wax!

Beautiful capped honey - nice white virgin wax!

I am 19 days old now. Shirley, a bee a few days older than me, stops by and tells me it's time for guard duty. Guard duty! What on earth are we guarding from? She takes me to the entrance of the hive and instructs me to keep a watchful eye on who is coming and going from the hive. There are so many bees going in and out that I get dizzy for a bit. But gradually I figure out the ropes. Some bees are at the entrance buzzing their wings like crazy. I ask what they are doing. Wow, they are ventilating the hive! We like our hives to be in the 92-93 degree range, so if it gets warm out the girls start fanning at the entrance to create a nice breeze to keep it cooler. I am warned to get ready for a day or two of this work. But now I am on the look out for foreign bugs and robber bees. Small hive beetles come at night and try to get in our hives at dusk. We attack them and try to fight them off, but they have a hard shell and are determined to get in.  We then have to round them up in the hive and lock them in "beetle jails" made of propolis. It took us a while to figure out how to do this, but we are getting better at it. Our keepers put an oil tray in the bottom of the hive where we can chase them to so they'll drown. This has helped a lot too. But they are relentless and if we don't have enough bees in the hive, they can take over and lay eggs, which hatch and can take over the entire hive and make a huge, ugly, gooey mess. We have to evacuate when that happens. I hope I never have to see that.

My fanning days are here.  I am exhausted! But I have met a lot of field bees that are telling me to get ready for the best days of my life coming up.  I am ready! In the past few days I have gotten to try out my wings and have taken short flights outside the hive. We all hover around the front door and try to memorize which hive is ours. You don't want to land on the front door of another hive or you will get beat up by their guards. Our keeper has put numbers in front of our hive, so we can tell which one is ours. I am excited for what's next.

After a good nights rest I am awakened by a field bee named Julie. She said she would be taking me out for my first field day. Out of the hive we go, up, up, and over the treetops we go. It's breathtaking! The world is so big. She tells me bees are out collecting many things for the hive. Water, pollen, nectar, and propolis. Most bees are collecting either pollen or nectar, only a few are collecting water for the hive. There are others that collect propolis, a sticky substance that consists of resins collected from the barks and sticky buds of trees and plants. They take these resin gatherings and mix it with wax and salivary excretions to sterilize the hive and seal up holes and smooth rough spots (and jail beetles).  We are going to gather nectar today. You only gather one type of item per trip. I might gather pollen on my next trip, but you never mix them together. My eyes use ultraviolet light to see which lights up all the flowers containing nectar and pollen. Most flowers have brightly-lit landing areas for me to home in on to get to the nectar quickly. You humans can't see what I see, but if you use your computer to Google it, you will be amazed at what you humans can't see when it comes to flowers. They are much more than just pretty colorful petals. I go from flower to flower filling up my "honey stomach", it's not my real stomach, I only store honey there for the trip back home. When I fill up, I head up to the sky to scout my way back to the hive. When I reach it, younger bees are waiting for me to offload the nectar and start processing it into honey. Once I am unloaded I can go back to where I know there are a lot of flowers ready with nectar.

I fly above the trees, navigating my way back, taking in the sights along the way. Bang! Something just hit me! What was that? Another hit comes and I am thrown off balance. I dive down to the trees and take cover from the mysterious substance I have just collided with in the air. Another bee is next to me under a leaf. I crawl over to her and ask what is going on. Her name is Jennifer. She spends the next-half hour or so telling me all kinds of horror stories she has encountered while foraging. I am transfixed by her stories and realize that there are many dangers that go along with the thrill of leaving the hive. The substance that hit me is rain, she says. You will encounter it a lot in Hawaii. Sometimes the raindrops are so big that it can take a wing right off. Many bees have been maimed by raindrops and never make it back to the hive. The sun comes out again and she takes off to complete her gathering. I tentatively fly up again, into the sunny sky, a new sense of awareness to the dangers of the world hanging in my heart. But, oh, it's such a beautiful world!

After a few days of gathering pollen and honey, I heard a rumor. A new queen cell has hatched. Someone said there wasn't enough room in the hive, all our honey cells are full and we have so many bees in a small space. If the beekeeper doesn't come soon and empty out our honey stores, we won't have anywhere to put new nectar. In Hawaii we don't have to get ready for winter, it never comes. Flowers bloom year round and we just keep making honey and new bees.

The word is that the old queen is going to find a new place for a hive. Half of the workers are going to go with her. Communication has been rampant as the bees that are going and those that are staying are sorted out. The ones that are going have gathered around the entrance and are waiting for good weather to head out. I am going to stay with the old hive and new queen. Good weather has arrived. Tens of thousands of bees pour out of the hive following the old queen. She lands on a nearby tree branch and the multitude of worker bees surround and cover her in a big ball of bees on the branch. A few bees are assigned the task of finding a suitable place to make a new home. They go out and search, returning to the ball of bees in the trees to communicate the location they have found. Several search bees will communicate the location and amenities of their chosen site. A consensus is reached with input from all the bees and off they all fly, in a swarm, to their new home.

We are left with only half the bees in our hive. It is harder to protect the hive from predators and beetles, but we are valiantly trying our best. The old queen left us with many new baby bees that will hatch shortly. Meanwhile the new queen is getting her bearings. Someone told me that she had to fight for her position, there was more than one queen cell, and one hatched at the same time she did. She managed to fight off the other queen who was killed. She secreted her special scent, a pheromone, which puts all the bees at ease and wanting to cater to her every whim. They had another couple of queen cells that had not hatched yet, so they opened them up and let her kill them also. She is now the queen of the hive. In a couple of days she will breed with the drones and start her legacy.

It's breeding day. All those drones that have been hanging around doing nothing finally have a job to do. They have been flying out to the "Drone Spot" bar where the queen will go in a little bit. It can be up to a mile away, and is between 200-300 feet in the air.  They wait around all their lives for this moment and die shortly after a successful mating. Drones have large eyes that can spot a virgin queen on her nuptial flight easily. The queen mates, in-flight, with several drones that deposit enough sperm in her spermatheca, a special sac in her abdomen, to last her life span. She might make several trips out to mate to ensure her spermatheca sac is full. Sometimes though, a queen will run out of sperm and can only produce drone offspring at that point. The hive will then produce another queen, as the worker bees are the ones who monitor the health of the hive and decide if a new queen is needed. They then pick a larva and only feed it royal jelly. Hawaiian drones have one advantage over the mainland drones. Horror stories abound about drones getting kicked out into the cold when winter comes. They simply cannot afford to feed a noncontributing member of the hive during the long, cold days of winter over there.

Our new queen successfully mated several times and is already beginning her chore of laying eggs. It's been said she can lay up to 2,000 eggs a day, and up to a million in her lifetime. All the worker bees take good care of her, they clean and feed her, tending to her every need. We all realize that we are all indispensable and contribute to the health and vitality of the hive. New babies are hatching every day, starting out just like I did, cleaning their cell and moving up to more complex jobs to keep the hive humming. Someday soon I will hang up my wings, knowing I did my part to keep the hive going, and meet the cardinal hanging outside the front door.

I hope you enjoyed my story of a bee's life inside of a Hawaiian honey bee hive. This is a work of fiction based on fact.

With much aloha, Linda Wakefield

Written by Linda Wakefield