When you’re speeding along on the highway and see a stack of white boxes near a farmstead, you might say, "Gee, all of those boxes are full of honey! Not so.
The lower two boxes house about 40,000 bees, one queen and 20 frames of pollen and honey. It requires a lot of food to take a colony through a tough Missouri winter. They’ll raise a lot of new bees before the main honey flow in June. Worker bees will direct the queen to lay thousands of eggs in time for hatching before that labor-intensive time.
Worker bees kill the drones in the fall to save food and space. However, after a blizzardy winter, the bees will have to be fed sugar water or some of the honey harvested last fall. Worker bees see to it that the queen lays thousands of eggs, in time for hatching before that busy time begins in June. Thus egg laying, care of the larvae, spring housekeeping and other chores must begin before new pollen and nectar are available.
Each stack of white boxes is a separate colony; sometimes an apiary has dozens - or hundreds - of colonies. Each bee knows, perhaps by the aroma, which home is hers. On a warm calm day, the beekeeper opens each hive to evaluate the queen and to check for mites and diseases.
The queen is larger, but she is not "queenly." Workers direct her every move. They groom her, comb her hair, even feed her because she’s simply an egg-laying "machine" obeying the workers’ commands to the letter.
Some queens are capable of laying up to 3,000 eggs in a day, but half that many is more usual. Workers prepare each cell just before she enters. She inspects the cell, backs out and fertilizes an egg with a tiny bit of sperm from the sac deposited during her mating flight.
She turns around, backs in tail first and attaches the fertile egg to the end of the wax cell. That egg will become a larva, then a female bee and on the 21st day, she will slowly chew her way out through the cell cap.
As this new member of the complex team emerges, she stretches, then makes a "bee line" for one particular cell, walking on several fellow workers as she goes, and immediately begins housekeeping chores before taking time to eat or to announce, "Hi, gals, I’m here!"
If the beekeeper finds a failing queen, the workers will have already directed the old queen to lay nonfertile eggs in each of several large or irregularly shaped cells. These eggs will produce drones because the queen has not added the sperm. As with only a few other insects and algae, male bees have no fathers! That unusual situation is called "parthenogenesis."
Some older bees work themselves to death; others, with worn-out wings, are carried far away by two young bees, one on each side - and are left to die. I watched that happening once, in the glass tube of my observation hive. Two young workers struggled a long time and finally left for the woods with the old comrade who could never find her way back.
That thought gives an aged female beekeeper pause - and a few unpleasant thoughts! However, I’m happy to relate that the old bee put up a good fight and went out "kicking and screaming," saying, I think, "I’m too busy to go on this trip."