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External Anatomy of Honey Bees

Information | Honey Bees


The Honey Bee is a captivating cultivator that truly deserves the respect of all mankind.

Like many insects, a honeybee's body is comprised of three parts: the head, a thorax and an abdomen.

The external features of the head include a set of antennae, two large compound eyes, 3 smaller simple eyes and the mandible (mouth parts). The antennae of a honeybee are bent. Other bees have straight antennae. This almost 90 degree 'elbow' allows for the honeybee to have a greater radius for 'feeling' its surroundings. It can turn the antennae at that joint and have contact with more area than a straight antennae would offer. The antennae of the honeybee are extremely sensitive. They gather a lot of information including present chemicals, texture, odor and even taste.

The large compound eyes have thousands of lenses. Under a microscope, it is possible to see that a short hair grows from each of these lenses. Honeybees have hairy eyes! It is believed that the numerous lenses creates a somewhat 'pixelated 'appearance to objects that honeybees are looking at. Honeybees can see polarized light, unlike humans. Polarized light comes from the sun. This enables honeybees to see their way home on dark and cloudy days. These large eyes are sensitive to light, motion and colors yet for all the lenses in these compound eyes, a honeybee may still mistake a lady in a bright floral dress as an actual flowering plant and land on her to investigate. The smaller triplet of eyes, called ocelli, are located at the top of the head. These eyes work to triangulate the bee's position related to the sun and act as a sort of navigation system for it. This allows a honeybee to know the way home once it has completed a few initial orientation flights when first leaving its hive.

Honeybee mandibles are small by human standards. They are too small to effectively harm a human's skin when they bite us, but to other insects, they can be ferocious. Honeybees bite invaders, mites, robbers and other threatening creatures that approach or try to enter their hive. They also use their mandibles to shape and trim beeswax in the hive into hexagonal honeycomb. Honeybees use their mouthparts to take in and store water in a special internal reservoir. They can also drink nectar and honey and transfer it to other bees upon arriving at the hive. Of course, honeybees also use their mandibles to eat 'bee bread', a mix of fermented pollen and nectar.

The thorax of the honeybee is the middle body part. It connects the head to the abdomen and is the center of movement. Wings and legs are attached to the body at the thorax. Honeybees have 2 pairs of wings: forewings that are large, and hindwings that are smaller. Both sets are transparent. When in flight, the two pairs hitch together for simultaneous movement. Honeybees flap their wings at a very fast rate, but they can increase their speed when threatened, creating a higher-pitched buzzing than usual.

Because honeybees are insects, they have 6 legs. The front legs (forelegs) are slightly shorter in length than the back pairs. At the back of the 'knee' joint lies an 'antenna cleaner'. When a honeybee's antenna becomes too dirty or heavy with pollen grains, it loses its ability to detect its surroundings which can be dangerous if not inconvenient. The honeybee will wipe an antenna clean by running it through the gap created by bending its leg and a thin pointy spur that closes the gap. The spur looks like a little stinger. The back of the joint area has hairs in it that brush the antenna and remove debris as it passes through. To people, it looks like the bee is brushing its antenna with its leg, and in essence, that is exactly what it's doing!

The hind legs of a honeybee have pollen baskets on them. Pollen baskets do what any 'basket' does: they hold things for transport. The bee will stuff pollen grains from the various flowers it visits into these pollen baskets until they are crammed to the top and full. The baskets are transparent, so the bright colored pollen grains are easy to see (orange, yellow, red, etc.). The honeybee then returns to the hive with the pollen load and hands it over to a bee waiting to receive it at the hive. Once the basket is empty, the bee returns to the flower patch to get another load.

The feet of honeybees are dual-purposed. At the tips of the feet are claws that allow the honeybee to stand on rough surfaces like tree bark and clothing without falling off. Likewise, the feet also have areas of soft padding that offer more surface area and friction for standing on smoother surfaces like windows and cars.

Honeybees are much smaller than bumble bees and are so light, humans do not realize when they are walking on their bare skin. A curious honeybee will use its feet (and its antennae) to learn about what it is walking on. People usually think that sensation is a loose hair and move to brush it away. When the honeybee feels the pressure and force of a huge human hand on it, it will sting as a last act of warning to its sisters (more about that later).

Finally, the thorax contain sets of spiracles, or breathing holes, for the honeybee. Instead of lungs, honeybees breathe through the holes in their thorax. They are lined with muscles and can close and open, somewhat like a whale or dolphin's blowhole. Honeybees can hold their breath for a short period of time, like when they are sprayed with a mist of rain or water, but they cannot hold it for long and a good dousing of water will drown them easily. For this reason, honeybees in the field will rush back to the hive when they sense rain coming. They drink water, but only from sources with rocks or sticks in it which allow them to walk close to the water's edge without falling in. These spiracles can also become infected with tracheal mites if the honeybee is oversized. Normal sized honeybees have smaller spiracles, but some commercial beekeepers have tried to increase their body size in the hopes that it would increase honey production. As a result, the spiracles became large enough for tracheal mites to enter into them and start breeding on the soft, moist muscle tissue inside. This in turn eventually suffocates the oversized honeybee since its fellow bees are unable to clean out the mites for them. Some beekeepers also paint a colorful dot on the thorax of their queen in order to visually see her quickly when inspecting their hives. This paint dot can cover some of her spiracles (if it doesn't suffocate her outright) and potentially compromise her health.

The abdomen is segmented and each segment has yellow and black bands on them. Older bees have a greater proportion of black bands than yellow. Younger bees, in addition to having more yellow on their abdomen, have more hairs as well. This part of the body is the most feared part of a honeybee for humans that do not like them. At the tip of the abdomen is a barbed stinger. Honeybees are the only kind of bee or wasp with a barbed stinger. Wasps and other bees have smooth stingers that allow the insect to sting multiple times before exhausting their venom supply. They will not 'lose' their stingers. The barbs of a honeybee's stinger make it more likely to stay embedded in the object it stings. This is important because stinging something costs the honeybee its life. The stinger's barb are so embedded, that when the honeybee tries to fly away, it rips open the tip of the abdomen and the honeybee will die. Because honeybees live in hives that contain tens of thousands of individuals, many can be sacrificed in this way to protect the hive from threats.

Wasps and other bee species usually have smaller colonies (hundreds, not tens of thousands) so they cannot afford to lose many individuals. This may explain why wasp venom is more potent (and painful) than honeybee venom. Fewer wasps must pack a stronger defensive punch. A honeybee sting has been likened to that of a paper cut, and is generally considered much less painful than that of a wasp sting. Receiving many of these stings, however, can be a deterrent to animals trying to break into a hive. Inside the stinger of a honeybee is a venom sac that releases more venom when squeezed. For this reason, one should not 'pull out' a honeybee stinger. They will inadvertently squeeze out more venom directly into the wound. Using a credit card or stiff-edged object to lift the stinger out from the bottom of the barbs is less likely to empty the venom sac. An alarm pheromone is released from the sting gland that sends a chemical signal through the air to other honeybees in the vicinity that danger is near. This puts those honeybees on guard and the rest of the hive is warned. A scientist studying the chemical components of honeybee alarm pheromone discovered that, in large quantities, it smells like banana! This scientist used that information to go on to create artificial banana flavoring (used in packaged puddings and candy). For beekeepers, it made it clear that consuming or even handling bananas before visiting a hive would automatically put the bees on alarm and make them more likely to see any approach as a threat.

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