Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Insects by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Honey-Bee

Teacher's Story

dropcap image URING many years naturalists have been studying the habits and adaptations of the honey-bees, and, as yet, the story of their wonderful ways is not half told. Although we know fairly well what the bees do, yet we have no inkling of the processes which lead to a perfect government and management of the bee community; and even the beginner may discover things never known before about these fascinating little workers. In beginning this work it might be well to ask the pupils if they have ever heard of a republic that has many kings and only one queen; and where the citizens do all the governing without voting, and where the kings are powerless and the queen works as hard and longer than any of her subjects; and then tell them that the pages of history contain no account of a republic so wonderful as this; yet the nearest beehive is the home of just this sort of government.

In addition to the interest of the bee colony from a nature-study stand-point, it is well to get the children interested in bee-keeping as a commercial enterprise. A small apiary well managed may bring in an acceptable income; and it should be the source of a regular revenue to the boys and girls of the farm, for one hive should net the young bee-keeper from three to five dollars per year and prove a business education to him in the meantime.

Bees are perfect socialists. They have non-competitive labor, united capital, communal habitations and unity of interests. The bee commune is composed of castes as immutable as those of the Brahmins, but these castes exist for the benefit of the whole society instead of for the individuals belonging to them. These castes we have named queens, drones and workers, and perhaps, first of all, we should study the physical adaptations of the members of these castes for their special work in the community.

The Worker

There are three divisions to the body of the bee, as in all insects—head, thorax and abdomen. The head bears the eyes, antennæ and mouth-parts, (p. 448, W.) There are two large compound eyes on either side of the head and three simple eyes between them. The antennæ arise from the face, each consisting of two parts, one straight segment at the base, and the end portion which is curved and made up of many segments. There is also a short, bead-like segment where the antenna joins the face. A lens is needed to see the jaws of the bee, folded across, much like a pair of hooks, and below them the tongue, which is a sucking tube; the length of the tongue is very important, for upon this depends the ability of the bee to get nectar from the flowers.

The thorax bears three pairs of legs below and two pairs of wings above. Each leg consists of six segments, and the foot or tarsus has four segments and a pair of claws. The front leg has an antennæ comb between the tibia and tarsus, (p. 447, F, a,) the hind leg has a pollen basket, which is a long cavity bordered by hairs wherein the pollen is packed and carried (p. 447, A, pb.) On the other side of the large joint beyond the pollen basket are rows of spines which are used to remove the pollen from the baskets (p. 447, B, pc,) and between these two large segments are the pincers for removing the wax (p. 447, B, wp.)

The front pair of wings is larger than the hind pair. The wings of the old bees that have done much work are always frayed at the edges.

There are six segments or rings to the abdomen, plainly visible from above. If the five segments next the thorax are marked above with yellow bands on their front edges, the bee is an Italian. On the lower side of the abdomen, each segment is made up of a central plate with an over-lapping plate on each side; just at the front edge on each side of the central plate is a wax pocket which cannot be seen unless the bee is dissected under a microscope. From these pockets are secreted little flecks of wax (p. 448, X.)


1. Queen bee;   2. Drone;   3. Worker; all enlarged;
4. Queen cells.

From How To Keep Bees—Comstock.
Drawn by A. J. Hammar.

The Queen

The queen bee is a truly royal insect. She is much larger than the worker, her body being long, pointed, and extending far beyond the tips of her closed wings, giving her a graceful form. She has no pollen baskets or pollen comb upon her legs, because it is not a part of her work to gather pollen or honey. The queen bee starts life as an ordinary worker egg, which is selected for special development. The workers tear down the partitions of the cells around the chosen egg and build a projection over the top, making an apartment, (p. 446, Fig. 4.) The little white bee grub, as soon as it hatches, is fed for five days on the same food as is given to the worker grubs for three days; it is a special substance, secreted by the worker bees, called royal jelly. This food is very nourishing, and after being reared upon it, the princess larva weaves around herself a silken cocoon and changes to a pupa. Meanwhile the workers have sealed her cell with wax.


Legs of worker honey-bee: A, outer surface of hind leg showing the nine segments and claws;  pb, the pollen basket of tibia; B, inner surface of part of hind leg;   wp, wax-pincers; pc, pollen-combs;  C, inner surface of part of hind leg of queen; D, inner surface of part of hind leg of drone;  E, part of middle leg of worker;  s, spur;  F, part of fore leg showing the antenna cleaner a; G, part of antenna showing sense-hairs and sense-pits.

Drawn by A. J. Hammar. 

From How To Keep Bees—Comstock.

When the princess-pupa changes to the full-grown queen she cuts a circular door in the cover of the cell and pushes through it into the world. Her first real work is to hunt for other queen cells and if she finds one, she will, if not hindered, make a hole in its side and sting to death the poor princess within. If she finds another full-grown queen, the two fight until one succumbs. The queen never uses her sting upon anything or anyone except a rival queen.

After a few days she takes her marriage flight in the air, where she mates with some drone, and then returns to her hive and begins her great work as mother of the colony. She runs about on the comb, pokes her head into a cell to see if it is ready, then turning about thrusts her abdomen in and neatly glues an egg fast to the bottom.


D, head of drone;   Q, head of queen bee;   W, head of worker;   X, worker bee seen from below, showing plates of wax secreted from wax pockets.

From How To Keep Bees—Comstock.
Drawn by A. J. Hammar.

When the honey season is at its height she works with great rapidity, sometimes laying at the rate of six eggs per minute, often producing 3,000 eggs during a day, which would equal twice her own weight. If the workers do not allow her to destroy the other queens, she then takes a portion of her colony with her and swarms out, seeking a home elsewhere.

The Drone

The drone differs much in shape from the queen and the worker. He is broad and blunt, being very different in shape from the queen, and larger than the worker, (p. 446, Fig. 2.) He has no pollen baskets on his legs and has no sting. His eyes are very much larger than those of the queen or the worker and unite at the top of the head (p. 448, D.) His wings are larger and stronger than those of the worker or queen. It is not his business to go out and gather honey or to help in the work of the hive. His tongue is not long enough to get honey from the flowers; he has no pollen basket in which to carry pollen; he has no sting to fight enemies and no pockets for secreting wax; he is fed by his sister workers until the latter part of the season when the honey supply runs low, and then he is stung or bitten to death by these same sisters who have always given him such good care. The drone should be called a prince or king, since his particular office in the hive is to mate with the queen.

References—How to Keep Bees, Comstock; The Bee People, Morley.

Lesson CIII

The Honey-Bee

Leading thought—In a colony of honey-bees there are three different forms of bees, the queens, the drones, and the workers. All of these have their own special work to do for the community.

Method—In almost every country or village community there is an apiary, or at least someone who keeps a few colonies of bees; to such the teacher must turn for material for this lesson. If this is not practical the teacher may purchase specimens from any bee dealer; she may, for instance, get an untested queen with attendant workers in a queen cage sent by mail for a small sum. These could be kept alive for some time by feeding them with honey, during which time the pupils can study the forms of the two castes. Any apiary during September will give enough dead drones for a class to observe. Although ordinarily we do not advocate the study of dead specimens, yet common sense surely has its place in nature-study; and in the case of the honey-bee, a closer study of the form of the insect is desirable than the living bee might see fit to permit. There are no more wonderful instances of adaptation of form to life than is found in the anatomy of the workers, queens and drones; moreover, it is highly desirable if the pupils are ever to become bee-keepers, that they shall know these adaptations.

A lens is almost necessary for these lessons and a compound microscope used with a low power would be a very desirable adjunct. This lesson should not be given below the fifth grade; and it is better adapted to eighth grade work.

The Worker


1. How many divisions of the body are there?

2. What organs are borne on the head?

3. Are there small, simple eyes between the large compound ones?

4. What is the difference between the large eyes and the small?

5. Describe the antennæ.

6. What can you see of the mouth? Describe it.

7. Look at the tongue under the microscope and see how it is fitted for getting nectar from flowers.

8. What organs are borne on the thorax?

9. Study the front or middle leg. How many joints has it?

10. With a lens find the antennæ cleaner on the front leg. Describe it.

11. Describe the feet and claws.

12. Compare the third segment of the hind leg with that of the front leg.

13. Note that this segment of the hind leg is much wider. Note its form and describe how it forms the pollen basket.

14. Study the next segment of the hind leg, and note the wax pincers and the pollen combs.

15. Compare the front and hind wing as to shape and size.

16. How many rings are there on the abdomen and how are the rings colored above?

17. Study the lower side of the body; do you know where the wax comes from?

18. Write an English theme on the development of the larva of the worker bee; the duties of a worker bee from the time it issues from its cocoon until it dies working for the colony.

The Queen Bee

1. How does the queen differ in size and shape from the worker?

2. Has she pollen baskets or pollen combs on her hind legs?

3. How does the shape of the abdomen differ from that of the worker?

4. Write an English theme on the life of a queen bee. This should cover the following points: The kind of cell in which the queen is developed; the kind of food on which she is reared; the fact that she never stings people but reserves her sting for other queens; why she does not go out to gather honey; how and by whom and on what she is fed; she would not use pollen baskets if she had them; the work she does for the colony; the length of her life compared with that of a worker; the time of year when new queens are developed, and what becomes of the old queen when a new one takes her place; why she is called a queen.

The Drone

1. How does the drone differ in size and form of body from the worker?

2. How does he differ in these respects from the queen?

3. Has he pollen baskets on his legs?

4. Has he a sting?

5. Compare his eyes with those of the queen and worker.

6. Compare the size of his wings with those of the queen and worker.

7. Write an English theme on the drone. This should cover the following points: In what sort of cell is the drone developed; does he go out to gather honey or help in the work of the hive; how he is fed; how he is unfitted for work for the colony in the following particulars: Tongue, lack of pollen baskets, lack of sting, and of wax pockets; why the drone should be called a prince or king; the death of the drones; when and by what means it occurs.

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