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Beyond the Stinger

Learn about the fascinating lives of bees on this Moment of Science.

Unless you’re an entomologist or a beekeeper, bees typically inspire one thing: fear. But most bees are non-aggressive, and only sting when provoked. In fact, once you get beyond the stinger, bees are pretty fascinating. For example, honeybees are great builders.

Beehive construction begins with finding a suitable site. Scout bees seek hollow spaces in trees and human-made structures. Such spaces must be able to hold at least six and a half gallons, and have a small entrance that faces south for warmth.

Once they’ve found the perfect spot, the scouts prepare the site by clearing away loose wood or other rubbish and coat the space with a dried tree resin called propolis.

Worker bees then take over, secreting wax to build the hive. Starting from the top and working down, they build combs–layers of hexagonally shaped cells with passageways along the walls to allow bees to move between combs. Each layer of cells has a specialized purpose.

The uppermost cells store honey, followed by pollen-storage cells. The bottom layers are designated for infant-rearing. Just beneath the pollen cells are brood cells where larvae become worker bees, and off to the side are cells housing drone bee larvae. Last, but certainly not least, special cells are set aside to shelter infant queen bees.

A typical nest has about 100,000 cells with a total surface area of about twenty-seven square feet. Most of the cells are used to store the more than forty pounds of honey required to feed a bee colony during the winter.

They may not win any awards, but bees are clearly some of nature’s most accomplished architects.

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