The Manscape: The Mating Rituals of Bees

Words by
Byron Smith
| September 20, 2016

He couldn’t have known she would rip off his genitals after mating, leaving him in a state of overwhelming release (and disbelief), as he spiralled down to the ground to be finished off by ants. He was not her first today, and chances are, not her last.

In her defence, he was a slacker. He never worked, had to be spoon-fed every meal, and most of the time just stared into space looking to get lucky. Any girl would agree his time was up.

But I want to tell you about her, not him.

Imagine you’ve been out getting the groceries. You carry your bags inside through the front door and hand them to your friends to put away. Then, you go back outside and get more groceries. And more, more, more. You do this all day every day, from sunrise to sunset, until your arms wear out and fall off at the supermarket checkout. You die there with your bags scattered around you, job done. Your last words are this: Long live the Queen. This is the busy life of the female honey bee Apis mellifera.

A bee hive, (those stacked white boxes you may have seen in paddocks on rural road trips), is similar inside to a city office building – you enter from ground level and head up to work. Bees have different jobs to keep the colony alive and collectively they are called a superorganism – they cannot survive on their own but are physically independent. In a hive, the levels (known as frames) are vertical, and the precise gaps between levels allow the bees to move around and feel content within the hives man-made wooden structure.

Photo by Matt Rabbidge
Photo by Matt Rabbidge

I have a 10 frame box stacked on another 10 frame box at home. The bottom box (‘Brood Box’) is where the Queen lives and lays her eggs – up to 2500 per day. The top box (‘Honey Super’) is where I harvest the honey frames from, as the queen doesn’t lay her eggs up there.

Bees collect pollen (protein) and nectar (carbohydrate) from flowers, they fly this back to their hive, pass it to their girlfriends who then store it inside on the correct frame. The girls pass the nectar through their mouths, reducing the moisture content until it becomes the thickness of honey. This honey is stored inside the wax comb and is capped by the bees to prevent it from falling out. I only harvest a frame when it’s full and make sure to always leave some leftover for the bees to eat too.

A worker bee will make about a quarter of a teaspoon of honey in her life – That’s about 4 bees’ life’s work on your piece of honey and toast!

Have you ever observed a bee carrying colourful yellow grocery bags on her legs? This is flower pollen and she’s likely holding nectar inside her too. She didn’t get up this morning thinking ‘I’m going to pollinate thousands of flowers today so farmer Joe can harvest his apples so people can sip cider while digging in the garden’. She got up to go to work. As she goes from flower to flower, some of the pollen she’s carrying is rubbed off onto the stigma – the female flower part. Then the flower is fertilised, thus allowing that tasty apple for your cider to grow.

Photo by Matt Rabbidge
Photo by Matt Rabbidge

What about the Queen Bee, though? What’s her story? Well, she is bigger than the female workers and big eyed male drones and can live up to 5 years, compared to the mere 4-5 week lifespan of the workers and drones! The best part is, the Queen can mate with a number of drones and store their sperm for as long as she likes until she wants to lay more eggs, then sperm and egg meet in the reverse order of the drones she met – long after the ants have finished off his body.

A bee’s life cycle goes from egg, larva, pupa to adult bee. It’s a beautiful thing to watch a furry baby bee chew out of its cocoon, breaking through its little paper-like door into the working world. A new Queen bee is created by feeding a special food known as royal jelly to a baby bee during its early life cycle. The new Queen will stay in the hive and the older Queen will pack her bags (in a swarm) with some of her loyal posse to find a new home.

And so this incredible super-organism of women lives on and on; a superbly designed system built around all the good things – food, community, and sex.

Byron Smith is the director of Urban Growers, a Sydney based urban farming company helping  people reconnect with their food by growing their own! Urban Growers build, design, and maintain edible gardens all over the city – from small courtyards to city rooftops.

All images supplied by Urban Growers. Images in body of post by Matt Rabbidge, and header image by Alex Carlyle

Photo by Matt Rabbidge
Photo by Matt Rabbidge
Photo by Matt Rabbidge
Photo by Matt Rabbidge

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