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The ABCs of bees

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Man-made beehives are designed to make honey harvesting easy. The hive is a stack of wooden boxes. The bees enter the hive through a gap at the very bottom of the stack. The top box has a lid, and the bottom box has a floor, but the boxes in between don't have tops or bottoms. Each box is hung with frames. Inside the beehive, the bees move freely from box to box and frame to frame - except the queen bee.

MacKimmie removes the honey-filled upper boxes. Underneath one is a metal grid called a "queen excluder." Bees like to store extra honey at the top of their hive, and the small worker bees can easily pass through. But the queen is too big. By keeping the queen in the lower boxes, the beekeeper makes sure that only pure honey - and no bee eggs - are in the upper boxes.

MacKimmie takes off the excluder and lifts out a frame. This is the bee "nursery." The hundreds of worker bees on the frame don't fly away. They are so intent on their bee tasks they don't seem to notice us.

A developing bee passes through three stages: egg, larva, and pupa. MacKimmie points out bee larvae: They look like tiny white slugs, each curled up in its own honeycomb cell. The cluster of brood cells is ringed by other cells filled with pollen and honey. "It takes one cell of honey and one cell of pollen to raise a bee," he says.

Worker bees feed the larvae pollen and honey. Each larva gets larger and larger until it almost fills up its cell. Worker bees cap the cell when the baby bee reaches the final pupa (cocoon) stage. From egg to bee takes about 21 days.

MacKimmie spots a baby bee just coming out of its cell. The baby bee pushes off the wax cap. Two little antennae pop out and wave around. A tiny round head emerges. Two worker bees march over the struggling newborn. Finally, she slides out. Her wings are still wet. "It's easier to be born if someone isn't walking on your head," says MacKimmie, laughing. "In a beehive, it's every woman for herself."

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