Stories & Tales - Secrets of Bees

SECRETS OF BEES - from Walt Disney’s ‘World of Nature’, 1965 To collect pollen, a bee dives into a flower, scrambles around, and rolls over like a child playing in the surf. The splashing throws pollen grains all over its body, where they stick to feathered hairs. When the bee dives for nectar, its body picks up pollen just by brushing past the pollen boxes that are usually held out in front of the flower on long trembling stems.

SECRETS OF BEES - from Walt Disney’s ‘World of Nature’, 1965

To collect pollen, a bee dives into a flower, scrambles around, and rolls over like a child playing in the surf. The splashing throws pollen grains all over its body, where they stick to feathered hairs. When the bee dives for nectar, its body picks up pollen just by brushing past the pollen boxes that are usually held out in front of the flower on long trembling stems.

The bee leaves the flower, and while hovering in mid-air, or swinging below the flower and hanging by one claw, it combs its face, the top of its head, and the back of its neck with its front legs. Even the bee’s eyes collect pollen, as hairs grow out of its eyeballs. The bee has a special soft brush to remove this pollen. A reverse gulp brings up a speck of honey from the honey tank to moisten the pollen. The middle legs scrape off the middle of the body, reaching up over the back. Rapid combing and passing to the rear get the pollen onto the hind legs. The scrapings are caught in a comb with nine rows of bristle. The bee doubles up its legs. A huge rake passes through the rows of bristles, pulling the pollen into a press made by the knee joint. When the bee bends its knee, the jaws of the press open; when it straightens its leg, the jaws close, and the pollen is pressed and pushed up into the pollen basket. The pollen basket is a shallow trough in the middle of the hind leg, located just where it widens like the blade of a paddle. To hold the load securely in place, there are many curving hairs around the edges. They serve to hold the bee’s bulging load of pollen securely in place.

There is a single rigid hair in the centre of the basket that makes it possible to build twice as big a load. As the pollen ball grows bigger and bigger, the curving hairs surrounding it are pushed apart, and the load mounts above them. The long rigid hair in the centre gives the load a core. It holds the big swelling ball of pollen together like a pole planted in the middle of a haystack.

But of course, all this skill and equipment is useless unless the bee can get to the right place at the right time.

Freight planes carry a payload of about 25 percent of their weight. A bee can carry almost 100 per cent. Planes have enormous wings for lifting and gliding, but they do not have power to move forward. They lift only when the plane is going fast enough to make suction on top. The bee has short wings on a fat body. It cannot glide, but it can move up, down, or stand still in mid-air. It does not have to move forward for its wings to lift it. It needs no propeller or jet, because the wings both lift and drive it forward in flight.

The short wide wings beat at high speed with a weaving figure-8 motion. By changing the shape of the figure-8, the bee can drive itself forward, or stand still in the air in front of a flower and look it over. The stubby wings can fold in a second when the bee dives into a flower or into one of the tightly fitting cells of the hive. The bee has two pairs of wings, but even if you watch carefully, you would never see them. They are so close together their edges almost touch. For flying, a row of hooks on the forward edge of the rear wings fastens into a pleat on the edge of the front wings. This doubles the wingspread. They can be quickly unhooked and folded up like a lady’s fan, or unhooked when the bee wants to whirl them as an electric fan, instead of using them for flying.

This flying machine has three places for storing cargo. One is the tank inside, which it fills by sucking up nectar syrup through a long tube, from the inside of the flower’s body. The other two are the baskets on its hind legs for carrying pollen. Bees have been carrying freight on their landing gear since man first wrote about them in 3000 BC, and haven’t changed their equipment for doing so since.

Outward bound the bee only needs to pack a speck of honey for fuel, enough to reach the goal. Honey is so powerful that a pinhead-sized speck of it will whirl the bee’s wings for about a quarter of a mile. If nectar is flowing and anthers are bursting with pollen, a bee can suck up a load of syrup in a minute and can build two big bulging loads of pollen in the baskets on its hind legs in three minutes. Often it may carry water in its honey tank, if the hive is thirsty. It may scrape resin off sticky buds and twigs, especially poplar, horse-chestnut, willow and honeysuckle buds, and load this into the pollen baskets. This resin will be made into varnish to make all surfaces perfectly smooth, and to stop up cracks and crevices. When it has a load, the bee flies home at 14 mph with a tankful of nectar inside, and two bulging bags of pollen swung below that keep it flying upright. A loaded bee cannot fly upside down.

BUILDING THE HIVE: The trick is performed by younger bees under 17 days old, which have not yet reached the field bee stage. If the comb is new, and there is no old comb to enlarge, they hang themselves in festoons from the roof of the hive or the hollow in the tree. One hooks its claws to the roof and another hooks on to the hind legs that dangle down. They look like watch chains looped from the ceiling. More and more bees hook their front legs to the hind legs of those above. The chains grow longer. As they sway and touch, the bees hook on right and left, forming a living curtain. Nobody knows why they hang up in this way, but the wax seems to come faster when the body is stretched out.

On each side of the abdomen are 4 wax pockets. After 24 hours of hanging, tiny slips of wax begin to appear, like letters stuck in their pockets. When a bee feels its wax ready to come all the way out, it takes the letters out of its pockets, chews them, and pats on the wax where the comb is to be built. Sometimes the wax scales come fast, especially if many bees have hung themselves up at the same time. Wax scales litter the floor. The lowest bees let go the legs of those above, drop to the floor and pick up the wax slabs, taking them to the new hive walls.

Wax is reinforced by drawing long thin threads of varnish through it. The wax hardens around the threads, like concrete reinforced with wire. As cell walls are only 1/350th of an inch thick, it would be impossible to see a thread so find. This makes a sharp edge and since bees are constantly on the move on the face of the comb, the top edges must be thickened. Extra wax is dabbed on, giving the walls a rounded coping. When making the cells, bees start by just piling on wax, laid on like mud when a swallow builds a nest. The holes begin as rough cups, pressed in by the bee’s body, and the cells will always be that size and exactly fit the shape of the bee. The work of shaping and finishing the cells is done by lots of bees in lots of holes, all pushing simultaneously against each other. They use heads, feet, bodies - smoothing, scraping and ramming home the wax, which is kept warm by their bodies.

To prove that a bee never digests its food all alone, but rather that the whole hive digests food together, scientists fed six bees in a hive of 24,500 radioactive honey. After two days, all the bees in the hive were radioactive, from passing the treated honey from mouth to mouth.