Honey Bee

ByDr. Girish Chandra

The Honey Bee

(By Prof. Girish Chandra)



            Honey bees are colonial insects that visit flowers, collect nectar and convert it into a golden-yellow aromatic viscous fluid called honey, which is also called the liquid gold of nature. There is nothing comparable to honey, whether natural or manmade.  It is a complete food made and stored by honeybees for the whole colony.

            Honey contains about 80% sugars, mainly glucose and fructose.  Harmful sucrose is only 1-2% in honey.  In addition, honey contains all essential vitamins, minerals and proteins.  It has antiseptic properties, is a good blood-purifier, removes gastric problems and corrects metabolic imbalances in the body. It gives instant energy to sportspersons.

            A bee colony has about 20,000 workers, one queen and about two dozen drones.  Queen can lay up to 3000 eggs per day, which is twice the weight of her body but normal fecundity is about 600 eggs per day. Queen can produce male or female offsprings by choice; unfertilized eggs develop into males and fertilized ones into females. Growing larvae can also be developed into queens or workers by choice, both of which are genetically females. Males are called drones, which are darker, robust and hairy and larger than workers. There are about two dozen of them in a hive and chase the queen in air every time she ventures on nuptial flight. One of them manages to mate with her during

such flight and dies in the process. Drones are not tolerated in the hive once the queen is fertilized and are generally driven out of hive, where they eventually die of starvation.

            A worker has a lifespan of 6 weeks, the first half of which is spent in the hive attending to household chores, secreting wax and building hive, producing a highly nutritious royal-jelly and converting nectar into honey.  They become foragers in the latter part of life and tirelessly collect nectar and pollen throughout life.  Towards the end they become incapable to collect nectar and therefore become water-carriers.  They eventually die in work, an excellent example of selfless service for the society. An amazing phenomenon that has been observed in honeybees is their capacity to reverse their age should a catastrophe struck the colony.  In case of a crisis, such as destruction of the hive, the 4-5 week old foragers start reversing their age and become younger to secrete royal jelly and wax, repair their hive, rear a new queen from the larvae and rebuild their colony. Members of a colony are heavily dependent on one another and cannot survive in isolation, even if kept in the best of conditions. They communicate by ultrasound signals, pheromones, dancing and gestures.

            Workers possess morphological adaptations to carry out their duties. Their mandiblular

glands secrete wax softening substance, pharyngeal glands secrete a gelatinous highly nutritious substance called Royal Jelly and stomach contains several glands that help in converting nectar into honey. There are wax glands on abdominal segments 4-7 which open by several ducts on to the sternites 4-7. Hind legs have tibia and basitarus modified to form a pollen basket and pollen press. Mouth parts are chewing and lapping type. Workers are sterile females and hence their ovipositors are modified to form sting and accessory reproductive glands get modified to form poison glands. A worker in its entire lifespan makes about a spoonful of honey. 

             Two species of honeybees, namely, Apis cerina indica and the American species, Apis mellifera are reared in closed wooden hives for commercial production of honey.  While the Indian species can give a harvest of about 40 kg of honey in a year, the American species can produce 2-3 times of that quantity. For that reason the latter species has now been introduced in Indian apiaries. Owning apiaries is an excellent business venture, in which honeybees work tirelessly to make and store honey in the hives and we have to just go and harvest it every 15 days. In the process they also pollinate out crops and increase production in agriculture. There is no other insect as friendly to man

as the busy bee.

Agriculture depends greatly on the honeybee for pollination. Honeybees account for 80% of all insect pollination. Without such pollination, we would see a significant decrease in the yield of fruits and vegetables.

Bees collect 66 lbs of pollen per year, per hive. Pollen is the male germ cells produced by all flowering plants for fertilization and plant embryo formation. The Honeybee uses pollen as a food which is called bee-bread. Pollen is one of the richest and purest natural foods, consisting of up to 35% protein, 10% sugars,
carbohydrates, enzymes, minerals, and vitamins A (carotenes), B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (nicotinic acid), B5 (pantothenic acid), C (ascorbic acid), H (biotin) and R (rutine). Pollen is also mixed with nectar while converting it into honey.

Honey is used by the bees as food all year round. There are many types, colors and flavors of honey, depending upon its nectar source. The bees make honey from the nectar they collect from flowering trees and plants. Honey is an easily digestible, pure food. Honey is hydroscopic and has antibacterial qualities. Eating local honey can fend off allergies. Honey bees swallow nectar and store it in their crops where secretions of stomach lining, salivary glands and mandibular glands are mixed in it. It is then regurgitated into the cell and fanned to evaporate excess moisture. This process is repeated many times to ripen the honey. Ripe honey is golden yellow in colour, viscous fluid but transparent and does not ferment. Cells containing ripe honey are sealed with a waxy membrane. 

Secreted from the glands on abdominal segments 4-7, beeswax is used by the honey bees to build honey comb. It is secreted on sternal wax plates which are located on the ventral side of abdomen, from where it is removed as flakes and chewed with mandibles, softening it with the secretion of mandibular glands. It is used by humans in drugs, cosmetics, artists’ materials, furniture polish and candles.

Collected by honeybees from trees, the sticky resin is mixed with wax to make a sticky glue that makes foundation of the comb strong. The bees use this to seal cracks and repair their hive. It is used by humans as a health aid, and as the basis for fine wood varnishes.

Royal Jelly
The powerful, milky substance that turns an ordinary bee into a Queen Bee. It is made of digested pollen and honey or nectar mixed with a chemical secreted from a gland in a nursing bee’s head. It commands premium prices rivaling imported caviar, and is used by some as a dietary supplement and fertility stimulant. It is loaded with all of the B vitamins. See below for detailed composition.

Bee Venom
Honey bee venom contains at least 18 active substances. Melittin, the most prevalent substance, is one of the most potent anti-inflammatory agents known (100 times more potent than hydrocortisol). Adolapin is another strong anti-inflammatory substance, and inhibits cyclo-oxygenase; it thus has analgesic activity as well. Apamin inhibits complement C3 activity, and blocks calcium-dependent potassium channels, thus enhancing nerve transmission. Other substances, such as Compound X, Hyaluronidase, Phospholipase A2, Histamine, and Mast Cell Degranulating Protein (MSDP), are involved  in  inflammatory response of venom, with the softening of tissue and the facilitation of flow of the other substances. Finally, there are measurable amounts of the neurotransmitters Dopamine, Norepinephrine and Seratonin.

            Bee venom is hemorrhagic, differing from snake (viper) venom, which is a coagulant. As well as containing apamine, melittin, phospholipase, hyaluronidase, which have the opposing action of inhibiting the nervous system, and stimulating the heart and the adrenal glands; the venom also contains the mineral substances, volatile organic acids, formic acid, hydrochloric acid, ortho-phosphoric acid. Also present are some antibiotics, an enzyme – phospholipase A, as well as two amino acids rich in sulphur methionine and cystine. Sulphur is the main element in inducing the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands, and in protecting the body against infections.

Composition of honey


Unsurprisingly, these comprise the major portion of honey – about 82%. The carbohydrates present are the monosaccharides fructose (38.2%) and glucose (31%); and disaccharides (~9%) sucrose, maltose, isomaltose, maltulose, turanose and kojibiose. There are also some oligosaccharides present (4.2%), including erlose, theanderose and panose, formed from incomplete breakdown of the higher saccharides present in nectar and honeydew.

Proteins and Amino Acids

Honey contains a number of enzymes, including invertase, which converts sucrose to glucose and fructose; amylase, which breaks starch down into smaller units; glucose oxidase, which converts glucose to gluconolactone, which in turn yields gluconic acid and hydrogen peroxide; catalase, which breaks down the peroxide formed by glucose oxidase to water and oxygen; and acid phosphorylase, which removes inorganic phosphate from organic phosphates.
Vitamins, Minerals and Antioxidants

Honey contains trace amounts of the B vitamins riboflavin, niacin, folic acid, pantothenic acid and vitamin B6. It also contains ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and the minerals calcium, iron, zinc, potassium, phosphorous, magnesium, selenium, chromium and manganese.
Other compounds

Honey also contains organic acids such as acetic, butanoic, formic, citric, succinic, lactic, malic, pyroglutamic and gluconic acids, and a number of aromatic acids. The main acid present is gluconic acid, formed in the breakdown of glucose by glucose oxidase. Honey also contains hydroxymethylfurfural, a natural product of the breakdown of simple sugars below pH 5.


 Components of Royal Jelly

            Most of the components of royal jelly seem to be designed to provide a balance of

 nutrients for the larvae. However, the lipids present are unusual, in that they are unlike the

lipids of typical insect fats, which consist of 14-20 carbon fatty acids. Royal jelly lipids are

 composed mainly of 8-10 carbon acids, hydroxy acids and diacids, which may be saturated,

unsaturated, linear or branched. They include hexanoic acid, octanoic acid, (E)-oct-2-enoic

acid, 8-hydroxyoctanoic acid, 3- and 10-hydroxydecanoic acid, and 3,10-dihydroxyoctanoic

 acid. 10-hydroxydecanoic acid levels rise dramatically in summer. Royal jelly also contains

-9 sterols, 4 phospholipids, 5 glycolipids, and a variety of 16-33 carbon hydrocarbons.
The unusual lipids of royal jelly make it highly acidic, and give it good antimicrobial

properties. This seems to be the main role of the lipids. However, these properties disappear

above pH 6, so while royal jelly may be used as an effective skin-care product, its

antimicrobial properties are negligible within the body, where the pH is maintained at

about 7.4 by buffering systems. Because of this, there does not seem to be any

pharmaceutical use for royal jelly. However, its good balance of nutrients and high

nutrient levels mean that it has become a highly touted specialized health food.

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Honey Bees and Their Management

By (author): Withehead, S. B.

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