Hi everyone! I was a guest speaker for honey bee appreciation day at the Belle Library. I had a great time mostly because I had a great audience. It was wonderful to talk about bees in front of people who seemed to love bees as much as I do.
In case you wanted to be there and weren't able to come I'm going to share what we talked about:
We talked about bees. Not just any bee, I was there there to talk about the cute little bug known as the European or Western honey bee, of the genus: apis mellifera. Why European bees? Why can’t we talk about good ol’ American bees? Because our American honeybees are European bees. I’m not trying to be confusing, but those European honey bees appear to have originated in eastern tropical Africa. Our local honeybees are called European bees because the ones here came to the United States with European colonists in 1622. Originally landing in Jamestown, Virginia, they spread across the country with the settlers; taking nearly two centuries to become common all the way to the west cost of the United States. Honeybees are not native to the United States. We have our own native bees and pollinators, more than 4,000 species of them, but they don’t get as much attention because they don’t offer us what the honey bee does...you know…honey. It’s important to remember that when I talk about the stressors for honey bees and what we can do to help, these things will also help our own native bees and pollinators as well. We don’t want to forget them.
And just in case anyone is still hung up on the fact that I told you that honeybees originated in Africa and you may have heard about those “Africanized killer bees” spreading through the United States. Let me clear up some common misconceptions. Killer bees aren’t quite what they’re made out to be in the movies. Yes, there are a species referred to as killer bees in Africa that are more aggressive than the European honeybee; they haven’t been domesticated. The killer bees in the US are from experiments done in Brazil and have spread north all the way to the southern United States. They are much more aggressive, but not more venomous than the standard honey bee. As far as I know they haven’t made their way as far north as this part of Missouri, only because they can’t survive our harsh winters. We require slightly more cold-hearty bees. And when it comes to bees being “killers” it should be noted that ANY hive of honey bees is fully capable of killing a human. Bees are mostly only dangerous very close to the hive. Killer bees are dangerous a little further from the hive than a standard honey bee and will initially attack in greater numbers. That’s the main difference.
Bees are normally pretty docile creatures. Being stung by a honey bee when you are not near the hive is extremely uncommon. No life-loving bee wants to sting anyone. A honey bee has a barbed stinger, meaning that when they sting, they have to rip off their stinger leaving it, and the venom sac behind. This will kill the bee, and I can imagine it’s would be deeply unpleasant for them as well. A bee will readily sting to defend the hive, but when they are out foraging, they generally only sting if it appears they might die. I kind of admire that, if they are going to die, they’re going to try to take you with them. So if confronted with a bee: if you stay calm, they will pretty much always leave you alone.
Honey bees can be divided into more than 44 sub-species of honey bees that can vary greatly in temperament, coloration, and productivity. I don’t think it’s terribly important to get into all the different kinds of honey bees unless you plan to get your own hive.
Speaking of hives, That’s something uncommon among bees in general: hives. Most species of bees are solitary. Only 10% of the world’s bees are social, and only a small percentage of those construct hives.
Honey bees however, are social insects who do live in a hive, which is a highly organized social community. There are only three different kinds of bees in any honey bee hive. The queen, the drones, and the workers.
For the first two or three weeks after a newborn worker chews her way through the wax cap on her brood cell, the young worker bee cleans the brood cells starting with her own and clears any debris from the hive. Bees are very tidy creatures. During this time, she will also feed and warm larvae, and attend and feed the queen. This is why I’ve often heard them referred to as nurse bees. They also have to produce wax and draw out the new combs where their food stores, and new larvae, will be housed. They basically do all the housework. Some of these bees will guard the hive’s entrance, laying down their lives to stop any threat to the hive. When a worker is about 18 days old her duties change and she will become a scout and forager bringing back nectar, pollen, propolis, and water. These bees are the one that perform the famous waggle dance, moving in circles while waggling to communicate to the other bees the location of the best forage. The worker’s short life ends when her wings wear out and she is either unable to return to the hive, or unable to fly from it. When they are no longer able to provide for the welfare of the hive those that are still in the hive will often leave to die. I’ve seen it myself.
Now that we know the purpose of the bees in the hive, we can talk about the hive itself and the way it changes over the year.
In the earliest days of spring, the queen bee will start to lay eggs again after her winter break. The exact moment that this happens will vary from year, to year, queen to queen, and species to species. Unless there is particularly fair weather, they will need to use their remaining winter stores to feed all the new workers and drones. This is often when some beekeepers will feed their bees. I haven’t fed my bees in years simply because I never take so much that they can’t live off what they have stored. Normally about mid-spring bees will have regular sources to collect nectar and pollen again, creating new stores for the rest of the year.
Late spring to early summer is often when my husband and I harvest honey, though a lot of people wait until the end of summer. Late spring and Summer are also swarm season. Bees go on their merry way collecting nectar, and pollen to feed the hive, collecting as much as they can. Swarming occurs when the hive is too full of either bees or honey. Remember what I said about queen bees being made from worker eggs? If the queen isn’t laying vigorously enough, or all the space in the hive is occupied, the workers will take it upon themselves to create new queens. These new young queens either take over the hive in the case of supercedure (replacing the old queen with a new one), or swarm (the process with which the hive splits.) When swarming a queen will take a large number of workers and leave the hive. The original hive continues as it had before with a smaller number of bees, and the swarm that left sets up somewhere else. When this swarm is looking for a place to live is when you will see massive bunches of bees resting in strange places. If you happen to see one of these bunches, don’t get alarmed and don’t harm them. They are as docile as they will ever be, and will likely move on soon. Swarming is how bees naturally increase their numbers in nature. Beekeepers who are raising the bees for honey don’t want this to happen, it will reduce output from a particular hive. I personally allow it to happen naturally. My hive has split many times throughout the years. I’m thankful for it because it increases the numbers of wild bees in my area. There are a lot of old sayings about the nature of honey bee swarms and when it’s fine to take them. One old saying goes like so:
"A swarm of bees in May, is worth a load of hay.
A swarm of bees in June, is worth a silver spoon.
A swarm of bees in July, isn’t worth a fly."
The reason for this is that bees needed to set up housekeeping and it was believed that a swarm found in July wouldn’t have enough time to build up the stores they needed to make it through the winter months. Which is true in this area if you don’t give them foundations and feed them, as it would be for wild bees.
When autumn rolls around the available nectar and pollen wanes, before disappearing completely. This is the time that bees know that they need to put their work towards making it though the winter. Honey bees do not hibernate. Because of this they prepare for the coming winter in two ways. One is that the queen stops laying, because the workers who are with her now will likely be with the queen through the whole winter. The other thing that will be done is to remove the drones from the hive. Drones have absolutely no use in the winter, and the bees will feed only the necessary bees. For this reason every male bee will be rounded up and thrown out to die of starvation, exposure, or by being stung to death by the guards if they attempt to return. No males will overwinter in the hive. It seems harsh but if they run out of food, they’ll all die. Thousands of worker bees have already sacrificed themselves to produce that food, now the drones must do the same to maintain it.
Winter has its own particular dilemma for bees. Bees are cold-blooded, so when the temperature drops in the winter, the bees will form a tight cluster around the queen. Her body temperature must be maintained at about 81 degrees Fahrenheit, all winter long. The workers around her manage this by vibrating their bodies. A vibrating worker bee can heat herself to 111 degrees but generally don’t to conserve energy. This vibration this takes a lot of food. It’s estimated that 2/3 of the honey in a hive will be used for heating. The bees on the outside of the cluster generally allow their temperature to drop to about 48 degrees before they crawl inside to warm themselves up, exposing other bees to the cold. This churning motion in the cluster allows all the bees to stay warm enough to survive the winter. When spring comes again, they will raise the temperature back up to about 93 degrees, so the queen can get back to the job of laying eggs for the new spring bees.
I know that it’s all fine and good to see what bees do for each other, but as we humans often ask, "How do bees benefit us?" To start with; honey bees are the only insects that produce food eaten by humans on a commercial scale.
Actually, there are five products that are produced by honeybees and used, or consumed, by humans. Can you guys name these five things? They are: honey, wax, bee pollen, propolis, and royal jelly.
When people think of the honey bee, obviously they think about honey; that sweet sticky substance that’s so good on toast. Other bees can produce honey as well. Bumblebees for instance; but they only produce enough for the queen to survive the winter, nowhere near enough to feed a human. Honey bees are the only bees that make enough honey for humans to eat too. But what is honey, and how do bees produce it? Honey starts its life as nectar, a sweet watery solution collected from flowers containing a variety of substances including sugar which is a bee’s main source of energy. The nectar to produce a pound of honey requires foraging bees to fly about 55,000 miles, that’s about 2 million flowers. Each honeybee will produce only about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its life. Seriously, a teaspoon of honey is the life's work of 12 bees. Bees have glands that secrete an enzyme that’s mixed with the nectar in the bee’s mouth. She will store this enzyme and nectar mixture in her honey stomach to carry back to the hive. This nectar will be delivered to the indoor bees and may be passed mouth-to-mouth from bee to bee until its moisture content is reduced from about 70% to 20%. Other times the bees will put it directly into the honey cell to allow evaporation to occur naturally from heat and air movement. When the nectar mixed with enzyme is fully evaporated it becomes what we know as honey and the bees will cap it with wax to keep it from reabsorbing water and fermenting.
The next thing people think of when it comes to bee products is normally beeswax. It’s still a widely used commodity today, being used in: furniture polish, cosmetics, pharmaceutical products, leather conditioner, coatings for candy, and all kinds of crafts and hobbies. But where does this wax come from? First a bee will feed on large quantities of honey. It’s estimated that 5.5 – 8.5 lbs. of honey are used to produce just a pound of wax. When the bee is well fed, it will cluster together with other bees and raise their temperature. In a day or so it will begin to secrete wax scales from glands on it’s abdomen. The bee will then chew on these adding saliva and other secretions to make it malleable before adding it the hexagon-shaped cells that are designed for maximum efficiency.
The next product: bee pollen is the very fine powder that collects on the bees while they are foraging for nectar. Every few flowers the bee will wipe herself down and moisten the pollen
with a drop of honey and push it into pellets that will be stored in the pollen baskets on her legs. When they are full, they are visible to the naked eye on the bee’s back legs. It’s then stored in the comb as bee bread to be used by the nurse bees to feed larvae and the queen. Not as many beekeepers collect pollen. The pollen collected at the opening of a hive is different than the pollen in the comb. The pollen in the comb contains honey, enzymes, and propolis. Bee pollen is eaten by people as a health food because it is one of the richest foods in nature, containing a wide variety of proteins, minerals, fats, and vitamins.
Less commonly known is propolis, or bee glue. A resinous substance collected from trees and plants. Bees use it to seal unwanted gaps in the hive, as well as coating the body of an intruder that is too large to remove who has died (such as a mouse,) to keep it from decomposing in the hive and contaminating the colony. Sometimes they even use propolis to coat the walls as a sealant to protect the colony from infection. It’s collected by bees who will chew on tree resin until it’s malleable enough to be placed in the pollen basket and carried back to the hive for use by the workers there. Historically it was used by the ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Romans as a remedy for a number of ailments, swellings, and sores. Today is used for it’s antibiotic, antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and antifungal benefits. Being used for everything from wound healing to tooth care.
The last, and most rare thing that humans use that bees produce is royal jelly. Isn’t that the stuff that’s used to make a worker egg into a queen bee? Why yes, I’m glad you remembered. It’s simply a thick, creamy-white liquid that’s rich in vitamins, proteins, fats, sugars, and other components. This substance is created by the nurse bees from regurgitated nectar mixed with secretions from their hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands. Because of its ability to make workers into queens it’s associated with increased energy, immune function and general longevity. For this reason, it’s added to health supplements, soaps, and cosmetics. I’m not aware of any studies proving any of these beliefs, so, the truth of the claims about royal jelly is something you’ll have to decide for yourselves.
Are you amazed by what the humble honey bee offers to us humans yet? Would you be surprised to know that the items that bees produce are not even the full extent of what they do for us? What else could there possibly be I hear you gasp. Let me tell you that bees are deeply connected to more of our food than just honey. Fully one third of the food we eat requires pollinators. Do you like apples, cranberries, melons, broccoli, blueberries, cherries, beans, tomatoes, onions, carrots, almonds, and literally hundreds of other vegetables and fruits? Most of these would not exist or would be very scarce without the help of pollinators. Of the approximately $20 billion dollars worth of US crop production supported by pollinators, commercial honey bees make up about half. Wild bees and other pollinators take care of the rest. Who knew how important insects could be?
After getting to explain to you how wonderful the honeybee is, I have something to tell you that might be a little hard to hear. There was a 40.7% decline in the honey bee population this last year, which is only a little bit higher than the losses the year before. Obviously, this is an unsustainable problem.
There are a lot of factors contributing to these losses in population. Varroa mite, loss of habitat, and exposure to pesticides appears to be the biggest contributions. These factors can all lead to the death of a hive or the dreaded colony collapse.
Beekeepers can work to control varroa mites in their own hives, and hope the wild bees are strong enough to exist alongside these mites.
What about loss of habitat? What’s causing that? Haying, grazing, demanding green weed-free lawns, and monoculture (the growing of only one kind of plant for huge stretches of land,) are all reducing the bees access to the variety of plants they need to continuously collect nectar and pollen from spring to fall.
Lastly there are the dangers of pesticides and herbicides. One very dangerous herbicide glyphosate (Roundup) is the world’s most widely used herbicide, and was long touted as harmless. What a shock that something we’ve been told was harmless turns out to actually have ill effects. Glyphosates sprayed directly onto a bee is not immediately lethal to the bee, this is true, but it does disrupt and kill crucial bacteria in their gut which is necessary for their immune response. This makes them more vulnerable to lethal infections. In one study only 12% of honey bees fed glyphosate survived a serratia marcescens infection (a bacteria commonly found in beehives) compared with 47% who survived who had not been fed glyphosate.
Another commonly used pesticide that is extremely dangerous to bees are the neonicotinoids. These also don’t kill the bees immediately, instead they poison them slowly over time. I read an article about how these neonicotinoids affect bees, the study of which was printed in the British Scientific Journal. Basically, it stated that when bees are offered food laced with a neonicotinoid pesticide, they begin by avoiding it, but slowly over time, they begin to prefer it, and in larger and larger doses. It targets nerve receptors in the insects that are similar to the receptors on humans that react to the addictive properties of nicotine. In other words, bees are becoming addicted to it. Now it’s one thing to have a single bee who needs its nicotine, but these bees are the foragers for a hive. They bring back all the food for the colony, and in essence poison the entire hive. California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation has released a report which concluded that neonicotinoids cause a significant risk to the bee population and that any plant that produces nectar or pollen should not be sprayed with neonicotinoids at any time.
These are just two of the many herbicides and pesticides that bees have to contend with, making modern agriculture very dangerous to the bees and pollinators that it relies on.
What is the federal government doing to help? The US Department of Agriculture recently announced that it has to suspend its collection of data about honey bees due to budgetary reasons. That’s what. I don’t know what the government’s plans are regarding protection of pollinators going forward, but I don’t think I’m going to count on them to fix it all for us.
So what do we do? First, we need to admit that the main reason for the decline in the population of honeybees is us. There are things that beekeepers need to focus on, such as controlling varroa mites and good management practices. There are things that farmers can do such as research more sustainable methods of agriculture, set aside land that they will neither graze nor cut, and turn away from the use of pesticides and herbicides that harm our pollinators. But they aren’t the only ones who can do something. There are things that literally every person can do to help save the bees.
You can decide never to use Roundup and similar weed killers again. Did you know that there are safer alternatives? No kidding. A quick internet search will yield lots of homemade weed killers. The two I use personally are boiling water, and pure vinegar. Boiling water can be poured directly on plants that you want to kill without doing any long-term damage to the surrounding soil. It’s a little dangerous but it works. The second, and safer option is pure, undiluted vinegar. Put it in a spray bottle and just spray whatever you want dead. It seems to be most effective at mid-day. Some particularly hearty plants may take several applications. Re-apply whenever you see new green growth. You will starve those roots out with persistence. The best part is that you don’t have to worry about your pets, children, or wild animals coming in contact with the vinegar. It’s food.
The next thing we can do while we’re talking about that lawn, is to be less picky about having it cropped short and made up of just grass. There are many wild flowers that bees depend on that will bloom before that grass gets terribly overgrown. Dandelion and white clover are some of my favorite things to see on the lawn. As a beekeeper I to love to see kids blowing dandelion fluff around like guerrilla warfare. What’s it going to hurt to let your lawn get a little longer than your neighbor’s? Give the bees a few days with those flowers, then cut them, they’ll grow back. It’ll save you a few mowings every year and it will feed countless bees.
That is just part of the effort to help restore the habitat that we’ve been stealing from our pollinators. Bees need rich diverse areas of wildflowers and other vegetation. They need to find something flowering for the entire growing season. No one plant will do that. One of the more fun things we can do is plant flowers. Bee friendly flowers that bloom in various seasons, especially early spring and late autumn when they need it most, can be planted around your home, in pots, and even in window boxes if you don’t have a lawn or patio of your own. Some subdivisions and housing developments are very strict about the lawn, but I’m not personally familiar with anyplace that doesn’t allow flowers. So have fun. Plant flowers, mow less, avoid herbicides and pesticides, and if you have the space and the courage, consider keeping a hive of honeybees at your home, or the home of a friend or family member.
Maybe together we can all save the bees.
I have an ongoing interest in dystopian fiction, both reading and writing it. I’m a fan of simple living and draw inspiration for my writing from my love of old-fashioned skills and my small hobby farm.
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