The Anatomy of the Honey Bee: Part Two

The honey bee might be meagre in size. However, its tiny body is a well-constructed and highly complex powerhouse that has evolved over millions of years. Made to coexist with the natural elements, its body is divided into three distinct sections – the head, thorax and abdomen – and these parts differ between queens, workers and males. This ensures each caste, or bee type, functions perfectly in the smooth-running honey bee chain of life. In The Anatomy of the Honey Bee: Part One, we explored the exoskeleton and head of the honey bee; we will now look at the middle thorax and lower abdomen.

The bee’s middle, the thorax, is the main centre for the bee’s motion and movement. The thorax has six legs and two pairs of wings. The wings are connected to the thorax by a row of hooks on the back wing and have tiny muscles that allow the bee to change direction and fly. These pulsating muscles contract very quickly so that the bee’s wings can move at lightning speed. This carries a bee up to 24 km per hour, and approximately 5 km from their hive.

The honey bee has three pairs of legs that are split into six segments. Each of the bee’s legs have claws for gripping and hanging onto flowers and plants, with sticky pads that help the bee attach to more slippery surface. The front legs are used to clean the antennae, and the rear ones to collect pollen. Interestingly, workers’ legs differ, containing tiny combs and a pollen press that are used to gather, brush and pack pollen for use in the hive. Pollen itself is packed into a “pollen basket” – a concave region surrounded by hairs, located behind the bees’ back legs. This pollen is mixed with some nectar to keep it safe and secure while the worker flies back to the hive.

The abdomen section of honey bees differs between castes. The queen has a spermatheca, a space used to store sperm during mating flights and fertilize eggs. She has ovaries that develop at one to two weeks of her life and continue to produce eggs until she dies. In comparison, the male drone has a penis used only once in his lifetime! As described in The Honey Bee Caste System, the drone’s sole role is to mate with a queen. However, once this occurs during a mating flight, his sexual organs are torn from his body, along with a section of his abdomen, and he inevitably dies.

Worker bees have a unique aspect to their abdomen sections: eight wax-producing glands underneath their body. These expel liquid wax, which harden into thin scales or flakes when exposed to air. Chemically, beeswax is made of fatty acids and various long-chain alcohols and is made by the workers by converting the sugar in honey into wax. This task of wax production resides with the younger workers, who slowly but surely generate and build the substance. Many hours go into this process as it takes approximately 1100 scales of wax to make just one gram, and a worker can produce only eight scales over a 12-hour period!

Last but by no means least, the stinger of a bee is perhaps its most famous organ! Lacking other defences, the honey bee will sting only as a last resort, as once they have used their stinger, they will perish. Different bee castes have different stingers. The worker’s is barbed and is most usually torn away from its body once it stings a human, resulting in death. The queen’s, stinger has no barbs, and so she can sting more than once without losing her stinger, although it is very rare for a queen to sting at all. And finally, defenceless, the drone has no stinger at all!

As we can see, the anatomy of the honey bee is highly sophisticated. Evolved over millions of years, each of its parts – from its sensory antennae right down to its stinger – are developed to work in perfect harmony with it’s equally refined life cycle.

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The Anatomy of the Honey Bee: Part Two

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