Knowing your bees inside and out

As a beginner beekeeper, knowledge is one of the most important tools you can have. Before you even start setting up a hive, it’s a smart idea to join a local beekeeping club or association, participate in online message boards, and read as much as you can about the craft. Otherwise, no matter how much you spend on fancy gear and deluxe hives, you won’t know how to manage your colony.

One basic knowledge area? Bee anatomy. We all know bees are insects with six legs and wings, but many of us only have a fuzzy idea of bee anatomy beyond that. Knowing how your bees’ bodies help them perform their tasks in the hive helps you know what to look for when you observe them.

Here’s our basic guide to bee anatomy.

The head

As you might remember from primary school, all insects have a head, thorax, abdomen, and six legs. Honey bees are no different.

The head has large compound eyes on either side, giving worker bees exceptional peripheral vision when flying. Drones have eyes that are slightly closer together, as they don’t need to search for flowers as they fly. If you look closely, you can see that these eyes have tiny hairs growing out of them – these are believed to help bees navigate and detect wind direction.

Oddly enough, bees also have three bonus eyes on top of the head – called ocelli. These are simple eyes that can detect changes in light, but not much else. They help the bee detect predators approaching from above, as their compound eyes can’t see upwards.

The head has long antenna protruding from above the eyes, and a needle-like proboscis that lets the bee drink nectar from flowers, and water from other sources. Because the queen and drone bees don’t collect nectar, their proboscises are shorter.

The thorax

The thorax is the middle segment – although it can be hard to tell where the head ends and it begins. It’s round and covered with golden fuzz. The bee’s wings are attached at the top of the thorax, and its legs come from underneath.

The abdomen

The abdomen is the largest part of the bee’s body – it’s also where the classic yellow and black stripes are mot visible. It’s short and rounded in worker bees, longer and wider in drones, and long and tapered in the queen. Looking at the abdomen is usually the easiest way to differentiate between bees.

At the very end of the abdomen, worker bees have a short, barbed stinger. If they’re forced to defend themselves, this stinger lodges in the victim’s skin and detaches from the bee, killing it. Drones don’t have a stinger, and the queen has a much longer, smoother stinger, which is also used to lay eggs.

The wings

Bees have two sets of wings, larger forewings, and smaller hindwings. Workers’ wings are fairly small and lie flat against the body. Drones have much larger wings – they reach almost to the end of the abdomen. The queen’s wings are distinctive in that they are splayed out from her body, rather than tucked in. This is another clue if you’re struggling to identify the queen.

Bees use their wings for flying, obviously, but they also use them to maintain the temperature of the hive and process honey. In hot weather, workers will fan cool air into the hive using rapid wing movements. Inside the hive, these wing movements can help fan air onto newly made honey, helping the excess liquid evaporate more quickly.

The legs

Like all insects, bees have six legs. The forelegs and middle legs help them walk and cling to flowers, while the back pair is adapted to help with pollen collection.

When a worker bee lands on a pollen-laden flower, her abdomen is covered with loose pollen. She uses her back legs to scrape the pollen into special hairy ‘pollen baskets’ where it stays until she gets back to the hive. These pollen baskets look tiny, but they can carry up to a third of the bee’s weight in pollen.

Because queens and drones do not collect pollen, they have no need for pollen baskets.

Of course, these are just the basics of bee anatomy – once you start to think about bee organs, body structure, and their respiratory system, things get much more complicated. But as a beekeeper, knowing what you’re looking at is a good place to start.

Want to know more about bees or beekeeping? Get in touch with the team at Ecrotek.