How Bees Work

bees on honeycells, Thinkstock How Bees Work

With less than a million neurons in their tiny heads, bees shouldn't be able to do much more than eat, sleep and reproduce. And yet, bees are capable of high functions like population economics and navigating by the sun on overcast days. Learn about these fascinating insects, including what a stinger really is in this episode of Stuff You Should Know.

Male Speaker: Brought to you by the reinvented 2012 Camry.

Female Speaker: Welcome to Stuff You Should Know, from

Josh: Hey, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark. There's Charles W. "Chuck" Bryant, and you put us together, give us a little nectar, let us collect pollen with the hair on our bodies, and you have Stuff You Should Know.

Chuck: That'd be a lot of pollen. We'd be honey making fools.

Josh: Yeah, you know who would best at it is Robin Williams.

Chuck: Oh, man, that guy's hairy. He would be a honey making fool.

Josh: How you doing?

Chuck: Well, Sir, how are you?

Josh: I'm pretty good. It's a little early.

Chuck: It is.

Josh: But you're feeling good?

Chuck: Yeah, man, I love recording in the mornings.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Been up since six a.m., reading about bees.

Josh: Yeah, well, this is a - I can imagine. You could have gotten up a four or five because this is like the most extensive article in the universe.

Chuck: Yeah, it is.

Josh: How bees work. It's a Tracy Wilson joint, and so it's -

Chuck: Thorough.

Josh: And exhaustive, and exhausting.

Chuck: Yes.

Josh: But it's a good one, dude. I love bees.

Chuck: Do you?

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: I hate bees.

Josh: Do you really?

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Why?

Chuck: Because the sting and they hurt, and they make me get up at six a.m.

Josh: You don't think they're fascinating creatures?

Chuck: Yeah, that doesn't mean I like them

Josh: Oh, okay. Well, you've got to talk about them anyway, how about that? I don't really have much of an intro, which is probably for the best because this is a really long episode.

Chuck: There's a lot facts.

Josh: Yeah, there are.

Chuck: And parts and things.

Josh: Let's talk bees, man. How long have they been around?

Chuck: Bees have been around for a gazillion years. They've been around for a long time. Ancient Egyptians, in fact, thought they were sort of magical creatures, that the Sun Gad Rah cried down upon the earth.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Which is fanciful.

Josh: And that's where bees came from.

Chuck: That's not where they came from.

Josh: No, the San people think that we came from bees, the Kalahari, the San people.

Chuck: Oh, yeah?

Josh: Yeah, they have this creation myth that a bee was carrying a mantis across the desert, got tired, died. Before it died, it laid some eggs in the mantis, and then that became the first human, and that's where we came from.

Chuck: I buy that.

Josh: Really?

Chuck: Sure, why not? A lot of people used to think that - including beekeepers, that they reproduce spontaneously. They didn't like have intercourse to do so. And this was true until the mid-1600s, when a very cool dude name Jam Swammerdam examined bees under a microscope and saw little reproductive parts, so we got it all wrong.

Josh: He went -

Chuck: And I'm Jam Swammerdam.

Josh: That's a pretty great name.

Chuck: It's a great name.

Josh: The Dutch are good at that.

Chuck: Is that what he was?

Josh: It's got to be.

Chuck: You think, Swammerdam, yeah.

Josh: Jam Swammerdam.

Chuck: Probably so. And there are like 20,000 species of bees, but we're gonna concentrate mainly on honeybees.

Josh: Yeah, mostly.

Chuck: A little bit of - what are the other ones, not the bumblebees, but well, we'll talk a little bit about bumblebees, too.

Josh: Yeah, pretty much those two, but mostly honeybees. They're the most studied, I think, they're the most fascinating.

Chuck: But social and - I don't want to say antisocial.

Josh: Solitary?

Chuck: Yeah, solitary bees.

Josh: Antisocial is maybe a way to describe it.

Chuck: But those are two categories that we're going to dive into.

Josh: Yeah, so surprisingly, bees go back even further than the ancient Egyptians. The oldest bee fossil that they found is about 100 million years old, and they think that at some point around then, during Cretaceous Period, bees diverged from wasps. Not necessarily from wasps - it doesn't mean that bees evolved from wasps, but that possibly, they shared a common wasp-like ancestor.

Chuck: I bet that was creepy.

Josh: And I'll bet it was like eight feet long, too.

Chuck: Ancient super wasp. And this is about the same time, too, not coincidentally, when flowering plants started doing their thing. Before this, if you wanted to do the tree thing, you had to - plant thing, you had to do what conifers do, dropping your cones and counting on the wind, and nature to do your work.

Josh: Yeah, which may or may not work.

Chuck: But thankfully, bees came along, and they said, hey, you know what, we can help take your pollen, Mr. Flower.

Josh: Yeah, so bees and flowering plants, angiosperms, co-evolved. And that was a big step for bees. They're kind of like the sweet philosophy majors of the wasp family. They just went off and became herbivores, whereas, their wasp relatives or wasp cousins were carnivores. And not only carnivores, carnivores that used ovipositors to lay their eggs in other animals, other bugs.

Chuck: Yeah, that's gross.

Josh: It is, and it's very aggressive. But as we said, bees became herbivores. They just go around to flowers. All they want is to just be left alone, collect pollen and nectar, and then you know, pollinate flowers along the way. And they're very happy with their lives like that. They're into the pan flute, and Birkenstocks.

Chuck: You think bees are like hippies?

Josh: A little bit.

Chuck: Yeah. You've never been attacked by a dozen.

Josh: Hippies?

Chuck: No, actually more than a dozen. I was stung a dozen times.

Josh: Is that right?

Chuck: I told that story before in the Colony Collapse podcast, when I was tagged in the head and face 12 times.

Josh: Oh, yeah, that rings a bell.

Chuck: One of my worst days, very painful. So let's talk about parts. The bee's body is pretty remarkable. It's got an exoskeleton, made of chiton, moveable plates of this chiton.

Josh: Yeah, it's almost like a suit of armor it sounds like. That's pretty neat.

Chuck: They've got, like we said, a lot of hairs all over their body, little fuzzies, that they collect the pollen, help regulate body temp, keep it cool or warm, depending on what's going on. And like a lot of insects, they have - they're divided into little sections, the head, the thorax and the abdomen in this case. And the brain is in the head.

Josh: And it's not a big brain.

Chuck: No, but it's pretty awesome.

Josh: Well, yeah, because it's specialized. So a bee brain has about 950,000 neurons.

Chuck: That seems like a lot for a small insect, and a small brain.

Josh: It does, right. But apparently, it's not, and the reason why we know it's not is because just based on the number of neurons, bees should be incredibly stupid, and very simple animals, and they're not. The reason why is because the neurons in a bee's head are extremely specialized, and rather than being recruited by some like executive function like we have, in our frontal lobes, their neurons kind of act on their own, and communicate with other neurons to carry out a very specific activity, right, so this division of labor in the brain allows bees to do a lot of stuff that it would require a bigger brain to do normally. Its' pretty ingenious.

Chuck: Yes, that's right. Bees were pretty smart when they figured out how to do this to themselves.

Josh: Right, yeah.

Chuck: They have a couple of sensory antennae, five eyes, three of them are simple, bacilli, and then two compound eyes. And they have lots of repeating parts called ommatidia.

Josh: I think so.

Chuck: And they can actually see polarized light. They specialize in patterns, and humans can't do that obviously because we would be like the predator maybe.

Josh: Just try.

Chuck: Is that what that looks like?

Josh: That's thermal imaging.

Chuck: Oh, yeah, that's right, that's thermal.

Josh: Polarized would be -

Chuck: More polarized glasses.

Josh: Exactly, like your polarized sunglasses.

Chuck: Yeah, remember those? Before I got the Ray Bans?

Josh: Yeah, instead of Ray Ban, it said polarized.

Chuck: That's what you get for eight bucks at CVS.

Josh: But they worked, you had them forever.

Chuck: Yeah, until they broke.

Josh: So that's how you saw polarized light. Bees don't even need sunglasses from CVS. They just see it naturally, and the reason this is important is because as we'll see later on, they use the sun to navigate, and being able to see polarized light, that means they can see clear through clouds, when it's overcast, and know where the sun is, very important.

Chuck: Like a lot of insects, they've got the little mouth parts. You know, we've talked about mouth parts I think in fleas maybe.

Josh: Flies?

Chuck: Flies - flies and fleas. They have the jaws or the paired mandibles, the tongue, the glossa, and then the lips, which are the labrum and the maxilla. And they support the proboscis, which I think most people know is the pollen sniffing device.

Josh: And collect.

Chuck: Yeah. Well, when I mean sniff, I mean sniff it up in there.

Josh: Yeah, it's like an aardvark's trunk.

Chuck: Yeah, pretty much.

Josh: But instead of huffing ants, it huffs nectar, right/

Chuck: That's right. You go two pair of wings, you got three pair of legs. The wings are actually part of the skeleton, which is kind of cool. And then so if you're a little boy that's tearing wings off of a bee, you're actually breaking its skeleton.

Josh: You need a spanking.

Chuck: You need to get stung. That's how you learn that lesson.

Josh: Poetic justice.

Chuck: Exactly. And they - a row of hooks called the hamuli connect the wings, so they are just beating together in synchronicity.

Josh: But they don't connect all the time. They're not fused together. The wings are separate - forewings and rear wings are separate, and then when they really want to get going flying, they hook together using the hamuli.

Chuck: That's to fly though.

Josh: Right, and to really take off.

Chuck: Oh, like they have different speeds of flying?

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: And they connect or disconnect, depending on that?

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Oh, Tracy skipped that part. So much for thorough. And then you got the legs, which starting from the body working out, you have the coxa, the trochanter, the femur, the tibia, and the tarsus, a.k.a., hip, thigh, shin, foot. And that's the body for the most part.

Josh: Yeah, the legs are also kind of specialized. They're almost like Swiss Army legs. It's pretty cool. They've got different kinds of hair. You've got brush hair, comb hair, depending on the kind of pollen you're collecting, and then basket-like hairs that hold pollen. You've got a pad and a claw, so you can like grab things. You can strangle other bees if you want - if you're a bee. And this is kind of cool. There's a small groove in the arm, in the leg, for scraping pollen from the antennae, and then lastly, there's a press on the bottom for packing pollen into things. That's pretty neat if you ask me.

Chuck: That is pretty neat.

Josh: Swiss Army leg.

Chuck: Is that what you call it?

Josh: That's what I call it.

Chuck: Very nice. You should put a patent on that.

Josh: So Chuck, when you accidentally squish a bee, and you look down at it, and its guts are everywhere, it's not red. The blood isn't red, and actually, it doesn't necessarily have what we would call blood. It's called hemolymph, and it has oxygen just suspended in it. It doesn't have red blood cells, which is why the blood, hemolymph is clear.

Chuck: Yeah, you don't see a lot of insects with red blood, do you?

Josh: Only Americans.

Chuck: Red-blooded insects. Of course, we can't overlook the stinger. That is where the bee's abdomen is, and it's an appendage. And like we said before, it's an egg depositor, an ovipositor, and then the lancets will sting you and deliver venom from the poison sac and a venom gland, and once again, these wasp-like ancestors, they think that's where the bees got the venom, and it's just a leftover trait from that, even though they didn't go on to lay their eggs in meat.

Josh: Right, which is why the wasps evolved venom, to subdue their prey while they were laying eggs and eating them and all that stuff, and bees, like you said, had it left over, but they just have it for defense.

Chuck: Yeah, and I guess it was obviously a trait worthy of keeping. And like if I had a stinger and could inject people with venom, I'd keep it around. Use it on occasion.

Josh: You'd be like come on, evolution, just let me have it.

Chuck: Exactly. There are stingless bees though, quite a few species, and they don't have stingers at all.

Josh: No, and they were very handy among the Maya until very recently, for beekeeping because you just stick your hand in there and be like I'm taking your honey and what are you gonna do, nothing.

Chuck: That's great.

Josh: Because you're a stingless bee.

Chuck: They couldn't even bite or anything?

Josh: No, they'd just stand idly by, that's their thing. So Chuck, there's a lot of stuff that a bee produces. They're like pubescent children. They just produce all these different things with all these different glands all the time. They're secreting stuff all the time. But it's very useful stuff.

Chuck: That's right.

Josh: And then Chuck, you know how when you get stung, sometimes you hear - or you've heard a bee will die after it stings you.

Chuck: Yeah, I think most people think that all bees die when they sting you, not true.

Josh: No, it depends on the type of stinger they have. Honeybees, for the most part, except for the queen honeybee, have barbed stingers, and if a bee has a barbed stinger, it is gonna stick in you, if you're mammal. A bee can sting other insects with a barbed stinger and live after stinging repeatedly. If it stings in a mammal, we have this fat, meaty flesh that the barb stinger hooks into, and when the bee flies away, it leaves its stinger and its abdomen and guts stuck in you, and so it dies, which is why if you have a barbed stinger you can only sting once. But some bees do have smooth stingers and can sting mammals as often as they like.

Chuck: I wonder how long that takes for the bee to die because you know, they sting you and they fly away. I wonder if it's like a few minutes or a couple of hours, of if they just like -

Josh: I would think pretty quick.

Chuck: Go quietly and bleed out.

Josh: I mean how long does it take a bee to bleed out?

Chuck: I don't know, probably not long.

Josh: They hemolymph out.

Chuck: But I know when I've been stung, I see them fly away, and they look like they're doing all right to me.

Josh: And right when you turn around, they just go -

Chuck: I guess. I'm gonna trail the next bee that stings me and follow it.

Josh: You're gonna track it?

Chuck: Yeah, I'm gonna track it.

Josh: You totally should.

Chuck: All right, so you want to talk about some juices and stuff, some venom?

Josh: Yeah, we should talk about venom. And remember the difference between a venomous organism and a poisonous organism, is venom is produced in the body. Poison is outside, right?

Chuck: That's right. And a bee's venom basically destroy cells. Like it's pretty hardcore stuff. It's a good thing it's in small quantities probably. I can imagine if it was larger quantities, it could be pretty destructive. But they have peptides and enzymes break through the fat linings of the cell, destroy the mass cells, and that releases histamine, and this is where we get into like whether or not you're allergic, you could be in big trouble.

Josh: Yeah, because histamine is part of your immune response.

Chuck: Yeah, which is a good thing, you know, you want that.

Josh: Right, and histamines open the blood vessels, so that you can get your antibodies, your immune cells to the site much more quickly. But if you have a bee allergy, your immune system is too large. It's too big a response. Your blood vessels dilate so much that you lose blood pressure and fall over, which is called anaphylactic shock.

Chuck: That's right. And that can kill people dead. And if you are allergic to bees, you almost 100 percent in likelihood have an epinephrine shot with you because it's dangerous stuff, and that will constrict the blood vessels, and save your life, hopefully, if you get it in time. I imagine it depends on the person.

Josh: Fingers crossed.

Chuck: Fingers crossed. Like we said, there's 20,000 - approximately 20,000 bee species under the super family Apidae. How do you say that?

Josh: Let's go with Apidae.

Chuck: And depending on the bee, you're gonna have a different kind of nest, but they are similar in a lot of cases, so we'll break it down into honeybees and bumblebees for the nesting purposes.

Josh: And for social, they're both social kind of bees.

Chuck: That's right, they are.

Josh: You've got - among honeybees, you have perennial nest, which is always around.

Chuck: That's kind of call. They build the same nest for life, I love that.

Josh: And for generations, and they build it by secreting stuff out of their glands because bees are like the pubescent children - human children of the insect world. They're always secreting stuff out of their glands, but they make good use of it, and one of the things that they use it for is wax to build nests, hives.

Chuck: Yeah, and these are all ladies, by the way.

Josh: It's a very important point.

Chuck: Yeah, these are all little women workers, and the reason why is because male bees for the most part, are around to fornicate, and that's about it. In fact, they don't even have a lot of the parts that you need to be a real bee.

Josh: To collect pollen or anything like that.

Chuck: Yeah, they don't even have that stuff.

Josh: They're there to reproduce and that's it.

Chuck: Yeah, in fact, they will even get kicked out of the hive if things get a little too crowded and food is scarce.

Josh: Or winter's coming.

Chuck: The women will say, all right, it's time for you guys to leave. We're gonna have a party on our own.

Josh: Yeah, you don't have to go home, but you can't stay here.

Chuck: That's right. I wonder what they do.

Josh: They probably say I'm gonna sting you if you don't get out of here.

Chuck: No, I wonder what the males do though.

Josh: They go off and die.

Chuck: Do they die or do they form their own little like boys' club?

Josh: They freeze. I have the impression that male bees are kind of too oafish to think of that kind of thing.

Chuck: Dummies.

Josh: Yeah, so if you see a bee collecting pollen, in almost every species, that's a female bee. If you see a bee stinging you, or feel a bee stinging you, that's a female because the stinger is an ovipositor, which makes it a female part. But as we were saying, the nests that are built and maintained and stocked are all done by females with the honeybee, and it's perennial.

Chuck: Yes, and in that little nest, if the queen bee is - the queen bee will be delivering a queen substance. It's a pheromone, and if -

Josh: Yet another secretion.

Chuck: Another secretion, and if the little lady bees start getting less and less of this, they'll say, you know what, we need to split up and make a new queen, and a new hive, and let's just go ahead and start this process now, and let's pick a new queen, and start feeling her royal jelly, another secretion, and raise her right on this royal jelly.

Josh: Right, so about half of the workers and the old queen take off and found a new hive.

Chuck: I guess that's too much pressure on the new queen to start her own - like we got this place built for you, you just grow up and take care of it.

Josh: Right, and that's what happens. The new queen grows up and the hive basically divides like a cell into two, which is pretty cool. Yeah, solitary - not solitary - bumblebees, they found annual nest. And basically -

Chuck: I like that idea, too though. New digs every year.

Josh: Not getting attached to something. So they - in the fall, the queen mates, spends the winter underground. In the spring, she lays some eggs that turn out to surprisingly, mostly be females, if not all females. And they help her build the nest. In the summer, she lays some more eggs. Those hatch into males. Those males fly off, and all of the male bumblebees, somehow - scientists haven't figured out how they do it - they get a - they say hey, we're all gonna be over here to mate this Friday, we'll see you guys there. Then all the queens from all the individual nests from miles around come over and everybody copulates, and then -

Chuck: They leave the scrunchi on the door.

Josh: And then that's that. And that's the - the cycle starts anew. The female lays eggs or goes back underground for the winter.

Chuck: That's right, and these are the social bees, like we said. However, less than 15 percent of bees are social, even though they're the ones we usually think of more, as far as like hives and nests and things. My favorite are the solitary bees.

Josh: Why?

Chuck: Because they're doing their own thing. My really favorite reason why is because of the different ways they make their home. I just think it's really cool.

Josh: Yeah, so like social bees are known from the type of hives they have, is kind of how they're divided. But yeah, the way that they make their homes for solitary bees, that's - yeah, that's a good definition.

Chuck: And solitary bees, they'll get together on occasion, if they need to band together for defense or something, but they generally do their own thing. So some of the different ways that these guys can make homes, like carpenter bees, which are my favorites, they bore holes in wood, in unpainted like raw wood.

Josh: Yeah, and they usually are like the spitting image of a bumblebee, but if you see a bumblebee going into a hole in like your door jam, that's a carpenter bee.

Chuck: I like carpenter bees. I think it's cool.

Josh: They've got the little tool belt. They always have a pencil behind their ear.

Chuck: Yeah, and they're always late, and the job is never done on time.

Josh: But they'll tell you straight, this is gonna cost two to three times what I originally estimated.

Chuck: Exactly. I just think it's cool that they can actually bore into the wood like that, it's amazing. And they're always like perfectly little round holes, too.

Josh: I know. What's surprising is they use their eyes to bore, little lasers shoot out of them.

Chuck: Oh, wow. I don't think I knew that. Tracy skipped that, too. There are the plaster bees. They dig little holes and tunnels, and line them with another secretion that's sort of like plaster. Makes sense. The leaf cutters, what do they do?

Josh: They use those grasping claws, remember, and then they bite leaves apart with their mouths, and line their nests with them because they like to be nice and comfy.

Chuck: Mason bees - I used to be a mason bee.

Josh: Yeah. And I would secrete something from my jaws that basically was like mortar, and put sand and pebbles together and make a nest. That's a strong nest. This is like basically the three pigs of the bee kingdom. We're going from like --

Chuck: I didn't think about that.

Josh: We're going from leaves to -

Chuck: Wood.

Josh: Yeah, wood and sand. Nice. The carter bee. They like fully wooly parts of plants, and that's - so basically, they're like Bob Guccione bees.

Chuck: I bet that's a homey nest.

Josh: Yeah, and they wear silk robes and stuff like that.

Chuck: And then my favorite thing is when Tracy points out a few species actually will like check out an empty snail shell and say, that looks like a very nice little apartment. I'm just gonna move in there. And you want to move in? Let's just divide it up with more secretions, and you take that half, we'll make it a duplex. That is really cool.

Josh: Or others will go into an old anthill or termite hill, or a wasp nest, and be like, hello. And if they hear back, hello, hello, hello, they'll say, well, this is where I'm gonna lay my eggs.

Chuck: It's already built.

Josh: Yeah, and the cuckoo bee -

Chuck: These guys are dumb.

Josh: They go - they're a parasitic bee, not in that they eat other bees, but that they lay their eggs in other bees' nests, and just say sainara, good luck raising my kid.

Chuck: And they rely on their pollen. It's like - I feel like they're dumb. They can't figure it out on their own, so they just kind of sneak in there in the dead of night and do their thing. Sweat bees, remember those little guys.

Josh: Very aptly named.

Chuck: They are after your sweat. I thought that was sort of a wives' tale.

Josh: No, they're sweat bees. The orchid bee is another good example of co-evolution. They think that the orchid bee, with its extremely long proboscis, basically evolved to get the nectar out of orchids, which keeps its nectar very deep in the flower blossom.

Chuck: Evolution, staring you in the face. The scariest bee, Josh - is there such a thing as a killer bee?

Josh: No, that's kind of a media hype. I mean any bee, especially if you had a bee allergy, could kill you.

Chuck: But what are killer bees?

Josh: So back in the '50s, I think 1957 in Brazil, some apiarists, some beekeepers imported some African honeybees, and they got loose. And they went and mated with the European honeybees that were already in the area, and what you had was Africanized honeybees, which are virtually identical to European honeybees, but they are far more aggressive, especially if they think you're messing with their hive, and they will sting you.

Chuck: I wonder how that happens, you know, like Africans and Europeans mating, that makes them aggressive, that's just interesting how you combine those two, and all of a sudden, they're just pissed off.

Josh: Yeah, but then at some point the media got a hold of it, as they started to approach from Brazil upward toward America.

Chuck: Yeah, we have some here right in the States.

Josh: Yeah, and they made it to Texas, Florida, I believe, maybe even Georgia.

Chuck: California, Arizona. I bet there's some in South Georgia.

Josh: And the media went crazy over killer bees.

Chuck: That seems like a '70s thing. I sort of remember that.

Josh: I thought it was '80s.

Chuck: Was there a movie or something?

Josh: Oh, I'm sure.

Chuck: Like a swarmy movie.

Josh: Yeah, I think there had to be.

Chuck: Or there should be. So reproduction, the fun sexy stuff. This is actually really fun I think because bees can live up to five years, some of them - honeybees.

Josh: I think that's the queen.

Chuck: Just the queen?

Josh: Uh-huh.

Chuck: Okay, that makes sense because I didn't get - because Tracy also said that some of them don't even live through the winter, I guess it just depends.

Josh: Right, that's why I think it was the queen that she was referring to, up to five years life span.

Chuck: That's amazing, for an insect?

Josh: Sure.

Chuck: That means she's well taken care of.

Josh: Yeah, she doesn't have to do a lot.

Chuck: That's right. The males, like we said, are there to deposit their male parts in, and unfortunately, they don't leave with their male parts.

Josh: Yeah, depending on the species of bee, they may - much like stinging a mammal, once they copulate - does that work for bees?

Chuck: Copulation?

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Sure.

Josh: They leave their - like you said, their man parts in the female, and die as a result. They tear their abdomen out.

Chuck: I get the feeling the woman takes it more than he leaves it.

Josh: Oh, is that right?

Chuck: I don't know, I just have the feeling. The female bees just seem like they're the smart ones.

Josh: Ha ha.

Chuck: Yeah, exactly, like I have you - you know, what's it called?

Josh: Your -

Chuck: Not penis.

Josh: No, it's not a penis. Their endophallus.

Chuck: Okay, I've got your endophallus, and I'm not giving it back.

Josh: Exactly, and now you're dead.

Chuck: That's right.

Josh: So with honeybees specifically, I think the queen bee is the only one that lays eggs. Is that correct?

Chuck: No, the queen - honeybees, females will lay like a few eggs during their lifetime, but the queen bee lays thousands.

Josh: Okay, all right. So it is possible for a female honeybee to lay an egg, okay, but for the most part -

Chuck: Yeah, but just a few.

Josh: Carrying on the hive, that's up to the queen.

Chuck: Oh, yeah, big time.

Josh: Right. And then once an egg is laid, it goes through the same stages that like a caterpillar will.

Chuck: Yeah, I never knew that either. That's pretty cool.

Josh: So like you lay an egg, and it hatches into a larvae, which looks like a little worm, a little sick, gross white worm. And it's fed by workers for a couple of days, fed royal jelly, which you said they secrete from their heads, right?

Chuck: Yeah, do the - I don't think the regular bees get the royal jelly, do they?

Josh: For the first two days.

Chuck: Oh, for just two days, that's right.

Josh: Right. If you want to make a queen, you feed that bee - you feed any female larva royal jelly the whole time you're raising her.

Chuck: Until it hatches.

Josh: Yeah, until she spins a cocoon. So they get royal jelly a couple of days. They molt. The workers seal off the honeycomb, which is an egg chamber in this case.

Chuck: Yeah, each little one of those like build a little door basically.

Josh: Yeah, and it's one per, no more, no less. And then the larva spins a cocoon, and it eventually emerges as an adult. And I've heard tell that the first thing a bee does when it's born is clean out its egg chamber for the next bee.

Chuck: They're very busy and tidy, and like they've got a lot of stuff to do.

Josh: For sure.

Chuck: And here's the other cool thing. Males will get a little bit larger cell, but the queen can actually decide whether or not to have a male or a female. That's remarkable.

Josh: Yeah, because a queen will collect sperm, enough for her lifetime.

Chuck: In one shot?

Josh: Yeah, in one mating season, as I understand it.

Chuck: You know what I mean.

Josh: And then she'll dole it out depending on what kind of bees the hive needs at any point.

Chuck: That's amazing.

Josh: So what's the magic sauce then?

Chuck: How she does this? She stores - all right, if she used stored sperm to fertilize the egg, then she hatches female. If she leaves the egg unfertilized, then it's a male, so it's up to her.

Josh: Right, and what's crazy is this - it all depends on what kind of state the hive's in, like do you need more workers to go gather more food, or do you need more males to reproduce? It's pretty cool.

Chuck: Yeah, how they strike that balance with that tiny little brain. I guess years of experience. How do they pick the queen, too, do you know that?

Josh: I don't know.

Chuck: Is it just random, and then they start them on the royal jelly, and that just gets the process going?

Josh: That's the impression that I have, that as long as it's a fertilized egg, that will become female, then I think you could feed any of those royal jelly.

Chuck: It's probably one of the queen's daughters though, as opposed to one of the few of the others, don't you think, to keep that royal blood line intact?

Josh: Yeah, I would think, yeah.

Chuck: That's just a guess. I bet somebody knows.

Josh: I mean what if they accidentally raised a cuckoo bee's egg as a queen, what a colossal nightmare that would be. It would be like [inaudible] taking over or something.

Chuck: Hasn't Pixar made a movie like that? Okay, so the little eggs hatch, and the little worker bees, they have different jobs, according to their age, but they are going to be taking care of the young at this point. They're gonna be feeding them pollen or bee bread, which is pollen and nectar mixed together. It sounds delicious actually.

Josh: It is, and you know, a lot of people think that bees are just only after nectar. No, they collect pollen on purpose as well, and they use it to make bee bread.

Chuck: That's right.

Josh: And bee bread does sound very delicious.

Chuck: Doesn't it? And so, as you get older though, you're gonna have different jobs, and at first you're a nurse, and then like you said, once you get a little older, you might be a maid or a butler - not a butler, I guess a maid, and start cleaning out the other empty cells, even though you said they're supposed to do it yourself, I guess they - some are lazy maybe. Some other worker bee has to come behind and take care of their business.

Josh: And they're like, I'm gonna keep my eye on you.

Chuck: Exactly. And then they also learn at that point, how to forage for food, and make honey, and this is where things get kind of fun.

Josh: And those are the oldest ones. The oldest ones are the scouts, and the ones that forage are the oldest bees in the hive.

Chuck: Yeah, the followers.

Josh: Yeah, and I want to say real quick, too, first Chuck, that was social bee reproduction. Solitary bee reproduction is very sad sometimes. In some species, the mother lays an egg, seals up this - whatever she's used as the nest, with a little bee bread, a little honey, whatever. And then takes off and dies.

Chuck: And they never see their little baby bee.

Josh: Nope.

Chuck: That is sad.

Josh: Isn't that sad?

Chuck: It is. So bees find their food in pretty remarkable ways. They can smell like really, really well, and like we said, they can recognize color patterns and things, and they have their solar compass. So this allows them to see where the sun is. They also have an internal clock, so when they go out, the scout bees, and find the food, they know well, the sun's right there, and I flew 300 yards. Now I'm flying back and the sun is right there, so they can actually use those together to pinpoint or pinpoint for the others where the food is because they're going back to tell everyone hey - and they let them taste - like this is what you're after, taste a little bit of this. And now, come with me by way of this dance.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: Literally.

Josh: They can remember and judge and measure where they went, where the food source was, but then they also can communicate it, like you said, through dancing. And if food's really close by, they'll just basically run up a vertical wall of a honeycomb, which they call the dance floor. And not just us.

Chuck: No, it's called the dance floor.

Josh: That's what people who study bees call it. And they basically just run up or down in the direction of the food source, in relationship to the sun, not in relationship to the hive. When they go out, they'll be like, oh, okay, the sun's over here, it's in this direction. That's pretty cool.

Chuck: Yeah, that's called the round dance, and they depend on their sense of smell because they don't get super specific with the round dance. They're like, I'll get you out there, and then you'll know, trust me.

Josh: Exactly, because bees can smell from meters away, which is - that's a really far distance, considering how small bees are. And when the food's a little further away, they do the actual waggle dance, and basically, this is running again, in a line in the direction of the food, and then making these little circles in opposing directions at the end of the line. So they'll run up, and then go to the left in a circle, and then run up and then go to the right in a circle.

And that tells everybody where the food is, and then the quality of the food source. How tight the circle is I think kind of says it's really, really good. Or if it's a big loping circle, then they're like it's okay, we've had better. And then the bee's also flapping its wings at the same time, and all the bees that have gathered around, like you said, are called followers. They're the oldest ones in the hive, and they're taking all this information in, and a specific group of them are gonna be directly behind the bee while it's doing this waggle dance.

Chuck: Feeling the wind.

Josh: Flapping it's - yeah, flapping its wings. And that wind is gonna tell them about how long they need to travel for, and then all the bees take off, when they get to about the right area. They go into like a search pattern, until somebody finds it, and then they start making trips back and forth.

Chuck: Yep, I mean they're delivering a lot of information here, very specific information, and they make about a dozen trips. Each bee can carry about half her weight in pollen or nectar, which is amazing. And then when they come back to unload the stuff, there's more communication going on because the little unloaders that are back at the hive will behave differently according to how much more food they need. If they're like come on, come on, give it, give it, give it, that means keep going, keep going. And if they're like oh, you know, I guess I'll take it since you brought it, but we're really doing okay. That means they're stocked up.

Josh: Right, and after that, they're like, all right, well, I'm not going to get anymore if you're just not gonna be excited about it any longer.

Chuck: Let's just find some men to have sex with.

Josh: Or let's turn this nectar into honey, just because for storage purposes, honey has far less volume than nectar. It's basically concentrated nectar, so you can store more of it, right?

Chuck: That's right, so they transform nectar into honey, in a kind of a gross way. They regurgitate it over and over and over, which evaporates the water out of it, and they also flap their little wings to use air to do the same thing, and so honey is a bunch of regurgitated bee stuff.

Josh: It's bee vomit.

Chuck: Yeah, I mean there's bee stuff in there as well.

Josh: Yeah, it's not just nectar, like they're sucking the moisture out, but they're also adding enzymes and stuff.

Chuck: Yeah, their own junk.

Josh: From their body to make honey, it's not just dehydrated nectar, it's - honey is a different thing that's made by this stuff, but it has some pretty amazing properties to it. One of the things that's added during this regurgitation process is called glucose oxidase, and when it's fed to the young, it's broken down into glucose, which gives them tons of energy because there's a lot of sugar calories in honey. But it's also broken down into hydrogen peroxide, which is one of the things that gives honey it's anti-microbial, anti-bacterial properties.

Chuck: That's right, and that's why humans have been using it and eating it for thousands and thousands of years, to treat wounds occasionally, and it can be good in a pinch if you're a survivalist.

Josh: Yeah, especially an open wound. So I mean you've heard that honey is - like it keeps forever basically. Obviously, it doesn't keep forever, but it will keep a very long time. That's one of the big reasons. Another reason is that it has a high osmotic pressure, and it's hygroscopic, which means it wicks moisture out of the air around it, and since it has a high osmotic pressure, it does it really strongly. So if you're a little nice moisturized piece of bacteria, and you come in contact with honey, it's gonna suck the moisture out of you and kill you, so antibacterial.

Chuck: Wow, that's pretty amazing. If you come across a beehive in the wintertime, and they just seem like they're all in there asleep, hibernating, not so. They're still pretty active. They will leave eh hive to poop and pee because - well, I guess they don't pee - but they leave the hive to do their business because they don't want to go in their little cell, which again, they're very tidy little creatures. They know not to like wallow in their own feces - not feces, but bee scat.

Josh: Bee scat.

Chuck: But they are still pretty busy in there because they have to keep warm, so they - and especially keep the queen warm, and so they tremble, just like humans kind of shiver, just to increase the warmth, and in the summertime, they will flap their wings to kind of keep things climate controlled on the cooler side.

Josh: And drip water on the honeycomb, too.

Chuck: Oh, yeah, that's amazing.

Josh: They are pretty amazing creatures if you ask me.

Chuck: And I still hate them.

Josh: Oh, we should also say real quick that while bee - honey has a lot of antibacterial properties and antimicrobial properties, one particular bacteria that is impervious to honey's defenses is clostridium botulinum, a.k.a botulism, the bacteria that gives you botulism. And since it's soil born, it's very easy for C. botulinum to get into honey. It's in honey, any honey you eat is gonna have it in there. It's not in large enough measure to affect us, but it could be life threatening to a baby, which is why they always say like never give honey to a baby.

Chuck: Oh, yeah?

Josh: Ever.

Chuck: Huh. You know, I don't think we mentioned either, the honey, you know, you have different flavors of honey. That depends on what the bee has been - what kind of flowers the bees have been hanging out with. It's like orange blossom honey -

Josh: Or clover.

Chuck: Is orange blossom and clover, so I never knew that either. Makes perfect sense.

Josh: Bees

Chuck: I thought it was like an added flavor or something, you know, like we have this honey.

Josh: Yellow No. 5.

Chuck: Yeah, whatever, you know, we'll make different flavors of honey. I didn't know it was like naturally occurring.

Josh: You're like when are they gonna make bacon honey?

Chuck: Man, I bet that's good.

Josh: Just cook some bacon, pour some honey on it.

Chuck: Yum. And you know, we did a podcast on colony collapse disorder, so I would encourage people to go listen to that as well, in the archives.

Josh: It was a good one. You got anything else?

Chuck: I got nothing else.

Josh: Okay, so that's bees. If you want to learn more about bees, you should go check out this very thorough article on You can type in bees, and it will bring it up, and you can learn even more, including about colony collapse disorder, and beekeeping as well.

Chuck: Yeah, maybe we should do beekeeping one day.

Josh: Okay.

Chuck: I don't mean a podcast. I mean just start our own little side business.

Josh: Oh, got you. Haven't we already? Don't you have like a smoker and everything?

Chuck: Yeah, TV will tell you I do.

Josh: Okay, so since I said search bar - I think I did, at, then that means it's time for, of course, listener mail.

Chuck: All right, Josh, I'm gonna call this correction from a librarian. Remember we did our book banning podcast. That's her correction. Yeah, that's all she said. And that is from Carly, thank you Carly. Hey guys, love your show. As a librarian, I was excited to hear what you had to say about book banning. However, I'd like to clear up a misconception about the role of the librarian in banning books. You said if a customer or patron approaches a librarian and wants a book banned, it is up to the librarian to decide. This could not be further from the truth in 99 percent of the cases.

Public libraries are run by boards of trustees, volunteers in the community who set policies for the library. These community members are not librarians, and when someone wants a book removed, they must fill out a form and submit it to the board. Then the board reviews the material and the objection. The board of trustees - it is the board of trustees who decides whether or not to remove the item.

The board of trustees may consult with other like librarians, review sources, the community at large, etc., but it is not the librarian who decides whether to ban the book. I hope to hear this corrected, she says, because it is unfortunate to hear one's profession misconstrued in an international public forum. So that is from Carly, and she says, thanks and keep up the good work, and shush.

Josh: Thanks Carly, appreciate that. I think everybody got that. It's pretty clear and concise. It is not librarians in most cases who carry out the banning.

Chuck: It sounds like she might have been yelled at by somebody because of our podcast.

Josh: Maybe. Well, she just yelled at us.

Chuck: No, she was nice.

Josh: If you have a correction for us, we are always very much open to those. We want to hear them so we can pass them along because we like correcting ourselves and getting things right. You can Tweet to us at syskpodcast. You can join us on, and you can send us a good old-fashioned email at

Female Speaker: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit

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Duration: 44 minutes