Honeybees in the Ecosystem: Event Summary

Presentation at the Swan Ecosystem Center (March 12, 2009)

From the original event notice:Honeybee

Jerry Bromenshenk is at the forefront of research on honeybees and colony collapse disorder (CCD).  The program is geared toward gardeners and people interested in weed eradication. [photo from The Bug Guide]

Steve Eisenberg attended this wonderful event, and provides his notes for our blog.

Notes by Steve Eisenberg

On Thursday, March 12th, 2009, Jim Fiddler and I attended a wonderful bee presentation in Condon, MT, presented by Scott Debnam, Dr Bromenshenk’s field assistant, who has been responsible for managing UM’s approximately 50 hives for the past 8 years.  

Scott discussed (each detailed below):

  1. The bee’s life cycle
  2. The roles of the different members of the colony
  3. The bee’s anatomy
  4. The honey factory process
  5. Swarming
  6. Venom
  7. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)
  8. Current research
  9. Miscellaneous

Scott keeps one of the hives with him at his home and takes them to presentations; all attendees got an up close look at the end of the presentation.


The bee’s life cycle

There is a life of individual bees and that of the whole colony. The beehive is composed of a Queen bee, workers (females) and drones (males).

The Queen usually lives for 4 to 8 years. The workers and drones live for 6 weeks in summer (when the hive is active), and 6 months in the winter (when the hive is relatively dormant). During the winter, there are only the Queen and workers in the hive. The workers eject the drones as winter approaches, as they would any intruder or non-hive object.

In the summer the hive can have 75,000 workers and around 500 drones. Going into the winter the colony contains a balance of workers and honey to feed the colony through the winter. The Queen controls the size of the hive by reducing the number of eggs as the active period comes to a halt.

The bee’s lifecycle begins as an egg (for 4 days), then a worm-like (vermiform) larva (for 7 days), and then transforms into a pupa. The Queen’s total cycle is 16-18 days; the workers’ 21-23 days; and the drones’ 24-26 days; after which time they chew their way out of their cells as fully formed bees.

Roles of different members of the colony

The primary purpose of the Queen is to lay eggs. During the active time of the year, the Queen lays around 3000 eggs a day. She starts laying eggs 24 days before the hive becomes active, an event that coincides with spring (more accurate than a ground hog’s shadow-checking).

The workers’ role changes with age. Initially they clean their cells and the hive. As young bees, they feed the larvae bee bread. The larvae have no mouth, so the young bees place beebread in the cells for the larva to absorb. Next, as the workers age, they feed the pupa. Then they are responsible for guarding the hive entrance. For the rest of their lives, they forage:

  • Pollen (to make beebread for new larvae);
  • Nectar (to make honey for winter survival of the hive);
  • Water (for cooling the hive, which they keep year round at minimum 71 degrees); and
  • Propolis (for calking all seams in the hive).

Usually each worker stays with the same foraging choice for their lifetime, becoming very efficient having learned the locations of her foraging choice (i.e. nectar). If the outside temperature goes over 115 degrees, all the workers collect water. They fan the water to evaporate it, which cools the hive. To warm the hive, bees shiver similar to the way penguins heat themselves.

The drones do nothing, but are available to pass on their DNA to other hives’ Queens during their 30 minute sperm gathering flight. Other than that and emergencies, they serve no purpose.

The bee’s anatomy

The bee has three sections:

  • Head (for thinking and sensing);
  • Thorax (for movement: the wings and legs are attached to this section); and
  • Abdomen (which contains the airways, organs, 5 hearts and wax glands.

Bees do not have a contained blood system. Their hearts pump the blood from side to side in the entire body to feed nutrients to the different organs. The abdomen has seven sections with over-lapping sections containing the wax glands (wax is used to cover the honey for winter storage).

The drones are larger than the workers, so that they can fly farther (several miles) to drone congregation areas (DCA). The workers are smaller and carry nectar in their crop to feed on as they forage. The Queen’s abdomen is much larger than the workers or drones; it contains the sex organs and a supply of sperm gathered from its mating run to fertilize the eggs. Drones are not fertilized and contain only the DNA of the Queen. Producing drones is the Queen’s choice.

Bees have no ears but communicate via vibrations usually with their feet. While in flight, they cannot communicate. But they can communicate in the hive and when landing outside the hive. Scott contrasted bee communication to that of a police sergeant giving instructions to his squad prior to going on the beat, within the colony the individual honey bee knows what needs to be done and does it.

The honey factory

Honey is 80% sugar and 20% water. Nectar is 7-12% sugar and the remainder water. Workers give the nectar they forage to another worker who places the nectar in a wax cell and then fans it to evaporate the water to bring the percentage of sugar up to the necessary 80% for honey. As the cell gets filled and the water reduced, the cell is capped with wax.


When the colony has reached and exceeded its capacity for workers, several cells are fed royal jelly rather than beebread. Royal jelly turns a larva into a Queen. The first of the Queens to hatch kills the unhatched Queens using her stinger. The old Queen leaves the hive to the new Queen, taking half the workers to create a new hive. The swarm goes at least 250 yards and up to two miles from the old hive. The workers by consensus agree on a place to build the new hive through scouting iterations, and the new hive is built.

The new Queen does her 30 minute sperm-gathering run, mating with up to 13 drones from the DCAs until she has collected 50 micro liters of sperm. She then returns to the hive. If she is killed while she is out, the hive is doomed. When the Queen is in the hive, she exudes a pheromone which inhibits the workers from reproducing. If she doesn’t return the workers can lay drone eggs, which will leave the hive, carrying the DNA of the Queen. The drones can mate with another hive’s Queen to continue the life of the Queen (and the hive) thru her DNA. Drones die after mating. The death of the Queen is a very rare occurrence.


Bee venom is a neurotoxin causing neurons to remain excited. The heart is a muscle and by not letting it relax can cause acute myocardial infarction. Bee stings contain 50 micro liters of venom.

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)

The reason for CCD is not yet known. The Missoula Montana is one of two places in the USA that contains virus analysis equipment to help determine the cause of this disease. What is known is CCD is not caused by GM plants, airborne contaminants, pesticides, or cell phones. There is speculation and research underway to see if it is caused by a virus or a combination of factors.

Bee keepers do not make money the majority of their profit from honey or wax; rather from renting out hives to pollinate fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc. Bees are used in the production of 1/3 the food that we eat.

Scott used almonds as an example Almonds are grown in the Salinas valley; 100% of the USA’s almonds and 80% of the world’s almonds come from this valley. Almond trees bloom for two weeks in late February. At that time there can be 1.6 million hives in the California almond valley. Each hive rents for about $160-$175 for pollination service. If there is a virus present, many hives can be lost. 50% loss has happened in the past in many beekeeper operations. CCD was around in the 1930’s.


Bees are studied at Penn State, UC Davis and UM. Information is available on the web at www.beealert@beealert.info.


  • Do not use toluene, Malathion or Seven in your garden.
  • 1 tablespoon of local honey per day may control your allergies,
  • Propolis is made from tree sap, honey and wax.
  • It takes the same energy and resources from the workers to produce 20# honey as it does to produce 1# wax.
  • At the height of the season, Scott manages more bees than the human population of Los Angeles (around seven million).
  • Great lip balm, a mix of honey, wax and coconut oil (see recipe below)

Great lip balm

  • 1 tblsp bees’ wax
  • 1 tblsp coconut oil
  • ½ tblsp honey
  • A few drops of vanilla, or any flavoring you prefer

Place oil and wax into a Pyrex™ measuring cup then place the cup into pot of boiling water and stir until all the wax has melted. Then add the honey and flavoring and stir till honey has liquefied. Pour mixture into receptacle and let cool.


Links for More Information

To learn more about Jerry Bromenshenk’s research on CCD, refer to the following recent articles:



5 Responses to “Honeybees in the Ecosystem: Event Summary”

  1. Catherine says:

    Great summary, Steve! I’m sorry I had to miss the presentation. This is a great companion piece to our upcoming Earth Day Gathering on Pollinators and Their Habitat (April 22, 7 PM, Clementine’s in Bigfork)..

  2. Catherine says:

    This comment was sent to me (Cat) by Jim Fiddler. I add it here, with his permission. Jim attended the presentation with Steve.

    “Steve may not have mentioned that Scott’s presentaion on bees in Condon was one of the best talks I’ve ever experienced. I spoke to Scott about his willingness to travel to do such events and he is very willing. I would strongly encourage you to invite him to do a presentation at an ESP event ….maybe April….I would suggest strongly promoting such an event. Scott does a great job and holds the attention of the audience. He’s very knowledgeable and adapts his talk to the audience. Ther’s much more to bees than we realize.


    Jim Fiddler”

  3. Darika Barnes says:

    Is there a local beekeeping club in the Bigfork area? 837-4399 or darikabarnes@centurytel.net. Thanks!

  4. Catherine says:

    I forwarded your question to Steve, the man who wrote the summary about the honeybee presentation; he knows some bee-keepers. He made some inquiries and found there is no club in the valley. The nearest club is in Missoula.
    Come to our Earth Day presentation on Pollinators and their Habitat, with a focus on native bees and plants. Wednesday April 22, 2009, 7 PM at Clementines.

  5. […] post was sent to me by ESPer, Steve Eisenberg. Thanks, Steve.  See also Steve’s post: Notes from ‘Honeybees in the Ecosystem”; see also Video: Honeybees and Colony Collapse […]