Small but Mighty; Apis Mellifera and their Busy Lifespan

Here is a female honey bee hard at work collecting nectar from an Abelia bush right outside of the Munday Library.

Characterized by their black and yellow stripes and low resonating buzz, the honey bee, or Apis Mellifera is arguably the most easily recognizable pollinator. They are often seen by many poking their heads into blooming flowers and emerging covered in yellow dust before flying to the next potential bloom. Other than these subtle observations, many give little thought about these tiny insects. However small these pollinators may be, they have the capacity to accomplish might feats.
The term “busy bee” could not be more accurate as these insects live a highly structured life with little room for error. Every spring, new bees emerge from eggs that were lain only three days prior and immediately set to work on their assigned tasks (Gould, 2015). For sterile females, this means doing the laborious work of leaving the hive to collect pollen and nectar while the fertile males and females stay behind to mate (Gould, 2015). The female worker bees only have a maximum of six weeks to produce honey for the hive from the collected nectar before their demise. The rest of the bees will hibernate for the winter and feast on the stored honey for food before repeating the cycle again the next spring (Gould, 2015). The cycle is the same for bee colonies kept by bee keepers who harvest the leftover honey to sell to the public.
The deliciously sweet and golden substance known as honey has been enjoyed by humans since before the Egyptians crafted the pyramids (DeWeerdt, 2015). In fact, honey bees have fossil records that trace back about a hundred million years, which directly correlates with the first flowers (DeWeerdt, 2015). Many researchers including DeWeerdt (2015) contend that honey bees originated in East Africa, but today they can be found all over the world, and Austin, Texas is no exception.
It was a typical summer morning when I was walking towards the Munday Library at St. Edward’s University, and I noticed a strong and sickly sweet fragrance emitting from a large hedge with small white flowers. I approached the hedge and made note of the fact that it was taller than my average 5’4 height and lengthier than the sidewalk stretching down the hilltop to the library. The flowers’ aroma was so strong it began to give me a headache, so I was about to continue my walk when I heard a distinctive low buzzing sound. It was then that I witnessed more honey bees than I had ever seen in my life navigating from flowers to flowers without pause. It was incredible to witness, which is why I chose that exact site and organism to observe for the semester.
My observations began that early morning in September when the Texas heat was at an all-time high. The bees were plentiful and moved rapidly between fully blooming white flowers. The hedge itself, I later discovered is an Abelia, an attractive shrub and member of the honeysuckle family which is known to don its smelly flowers primarily during the summer months (Fowler, 2006). These bright white flowers have a funnel shape and are full of pollen which is why so many bees were drawn to them during this time. This continued throughout most of September with high temperatures and a large amount of bees stopping at each flower and occasionally bumping into each other. These bees did not appear to be aggressive, they simply brushed it off and continued on. I also noticed that they tended to be more active in the day when sunlight was at its peak as opposed to later in the evenings when sunlight is scarce.
As the temperature began to drop around October, the aroma of the flowers became less intense. I believe this is because many of them began to close since they are summer flowers and summer was drawing to an end. This in turn affected the number of bees I witnessed which was significantly smaller than my first encounter. The bees also moved less rapidly and seemed to be taking their time at each flower. Perhaps because there were less bees to compete with for space, or perhaps because these were older bees close to the end of their six week lifespan. The answer could just as well be both, and I predict that the number of bees and amount of bee activity will continue to decrease as the semester progresses and the temperature continues to drop.

By: Tayler McKenzie

References
DeWeerdt, S. (2015). The Beeline. Nature. 521(7552), 50-51. Retrieved October 8, 2017, from http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v521/n7552_supp/full/521S50a.html
Fowler, A. (2006). Abelia. Horticulture Week. 18-19. Retrieved from https://login.ezproxy.stedwards.edu/login?URL=?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.stedwards.edu/docview/225437139?accountid=7075
Gould, J. (2015). Meet Our Prime Pollinators. Nature, 521(7552), 48-49. Retrieved October 8, 2017, from http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v521/n7552_supp/full/521S48a.html

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