The Wonderful World of Honey Bees
By Kym Car
Have you ever seen a honey bee at work? These important pollinators are among nature’s hardest working creatures, collecting nectar and pollen from flowers to produce honey and other products. A single bee visits over a hundred flowers to collect one load of nectar and pollen to take back to the hive, often traveling significant distances to do so. Overall, a honey bee hive will tap approximately two million flowers and fly over 50,000 miles to make one pound of honey!
Honey bees are fascinating creatures as well as an important part of the world’s agriculture and economy. Their relationship with mankind is as old as civilization and one that has always been mutually beneficial. Honey bees (Apis mellfera) have been well-cared for over centuries by apiculturists, who are rewarded with bee products for their efforts.
As part of The Fells’ mission to educate and foster good stewardship, it seems all too appropriate to welcome these important pollinators to its grounds. Two hives of honey bees, on loan from Beekeeper and Master Gardener Tressa Gaffney, will reside at The Fells starting in April and be part of its renowned gardens, pollinating the many flowers and complementing the work of the landscaping staff.
In addition, The Fells will offer special programs about bees and pollinators, including “The Bee Lady”, Wendy Booth’s program How Sweet It Is. The Fells Master Gardner series will also offer programs with information about pollinators and gardening, along with other educational exhibits in the John Hay Ecology Room in the Main House, and school programs.
One doesn’t have to be a beekeeper to help honey bees survive and even thrive. Such programs offer members and guests the opportunity to learn more about helping bees and other pollinators survive and even thrive in home gardens. The ideas may include alternatives to chemicals and pesticides which can be harmful to honey bees and other pollinators, as well as what flowers to add to the landscape to attract and sustain bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Did you know red and purple flowers are a favorite since they often produce more nectar than other colored flowers? The Fells and its Master Gardener programs are a wonderful way to learn more.
Learning to enjoy a colorful lawn of dandelions can also be a big help to honey bees. Dandelions, often thought of as weeds, are one of nature’s earliest blooming wildflowers and important to honey bees and other insects. (The dandelion’s leaves and roots also provide health benefits to humans.) Likewise, learning to tolerate other blooming grasses in the lawn such as wild clover is also beneficial.
No doubt, many readers have heard of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) currently affecting many hives. According to the US Department of Agriculture, CCD is defined as “a dead colony with no adult bees or dead bee bodies but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present.” Despite this latest problem, honey bees continue to prosper with good management practices.
While CCD may be a new problem, honey bees have always had enemies in the animal kingdom. Bees are susceptible to a number of predators and diseases: many other insects such as hornets, yellow jackets, wasps, praying mantis, and spiders are a danger as are amphibians such as toads and frogs. Mammals such as bears, skunks, raccoons, opossum who appreciate the bees and their honey also pose a threat.
More often, the biggest threat to a colony’s health is the number of bacterial and viral diseases, and parasites. In the 1990s, Foul Brood Disorder threatened honeybee colonies and decimated feral bee populations. (Since honey bees are not native, non-managed hives are considered feral rather than wild.) Were it not for beekeepers over many centuries, honey bees may be endangered or even extinct. Instead, honey bees contribute $14 billion in value each year to US crop production, according to the American Beekeeping Federation. That’s a tidy sum for an insect not even native to the Americas.
Honey bees are notoriously hard-working, as often heard in the phrase “busy as a bee.”. A single worker bee can fly two miles to collect nectar, with some distances recorded as far as six miles. The hive is highly organized and structured with distinct divisions of labor and social caste. One could say that hives are one nature’s first factories, a model of industry producing honey as well as beeswax, bee pollen, and propolis (bee glue).
Of the more than 20,000 species of true bees worldwide, only about eight species actually produce and store honey. According the US Department of Agriculture, honey production in 2014 increased by 19 percent from the previous year. A recorded 2.74 million colonies produced a total of 178 million pounds of honey in the United States, a sweet deal for producers and consumers.
This is an impressive number for insects especially considering honey production ceases in winter, though the industrious bees work year round and don’t hibernate. One hive produces an average of 25 pounds of honey and even as much as 60 pounds. Honey is a complex blend of simple sugars with antibacterial and antimicrobial properties. It has medicinal uses in many countries as well as a food source. Honey is graded according to the color and consistency. The type of flower determines the color of the honey, with clover being among the lightest and buckwheat among the darkest.
In addition to being a highly organized, efficient sweets factory, the industrious honey bees are also amazing engineers of nature. The honeycomb structure is a stroke of nature’s engineering genius. Whether found in nature or man-made, the columnar hexagonal honeycomb design allows the minimal amount of material needed with minimum density while having high compression and shear properties. Though honey bees have used it for thousands and thousands of years, modern manufacturing and engineering, particularly in the aerospace industry, are fairly new to making use of this fine design. What a wonder that beeswax can be strong enough for the storage of so much thick, sweet honey and broods of developing bees.
Honey bees are truly fascinating creatures. The Fells invites you enjoy the world of honey bees next time you visit, whether in one of the many wonderful gardens or at the John Hay Ecology Exhibit Room or though one of several special programs.
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