Dear Honey Bees,
I am truly sorry for ever saying anything negative about you–especially for that time when I said, “All stinging insects are dirty rotten scoundrels who need to be eradicated because they are a bunch of jerks.” My ire was misguided and unfair. After all, none of you have ever stung me (that would be your nasty cousins). You have all been rather nice, in fact, and you make the delicious honey which I love so much.
So thanks, eh? Sorry about what I said. (Except for what I said about your cousins Wasp and Yellow Jacket. They’re real jerks. You shouldn’t hang out with them anymore.)
So I mentioned in a recent 365 post that I had attended an intro meeting for those interested in helping with the beehives at the SCAN allotment*, and let me tell you: it was awesome. I have a greater appreciation for bees now, and even used them as an analogy about charity and love when I spoke in church the next Sunday. Here are 10 interesting things I learned about bees:
- Monoculture is bad for bees. Bees only fly a certain distance from the hive, and if that area is filled with a single type of crop, they can’t gather the variety of nectar necessary for a balanced diet. (Are you listening, American Agriculture?) It also poses a problem when the crop in a monoculture field all flowers at once. If that flowering happens when the weather prevents bees from leaving the hive, they’ve missed their best opportunity to gather food. (Add this to my list of reasons to disagree with monoculture production in the United States.) Weeds, however, are good for bees for exactly the opposite reasons why monoculture is bad: they provide variety for the bees’ diet, and they have various flowering schedules. The beekeeper who taught the introduction lecture has convinced the local parks administration to let the clover bloom for a while before cutting the grass in the city parks. This way, the local bees have better access to clover nectar, which is both delicious and nutritious for them.
- There is a somewhat controversial study that claims the reason neonicotinoids are so bad for bees is because it affects their memory. The study presented evidence that suggests bees affected by these pesticides simply forget how to get home and die outside of the hive.
- Bumblebees nest on the ground. They also have longer tongues than honeybees do, so they can harvest nectar from flowers that honeybees can’t. They are also rather docile, and will only sting if you make them really, really angry. (They do sting, though, so anyone who tries to convince you that they don’t is misinformed. Also, I know from experience that they sting, but I’m still trying to figure out what I did to bother the one who stung me on the last day of 5th grade…)
- Varroa mites are nasty little creatures that attack honey bees and cause RNA viruses such as Deformed Wing Virus. However, the mites can be dislodged when the bees groom each other, and an easy way to induce grooming is to sprinkle the bees with powdered sugar!
- A queen will only leave the hive once in her entire life for a breeding flight. She breeds with several males and stores sperm in an organ called the “spermatica.” She will lay up to 2,000 eggs per day during her 3-4 year life span. If she leaves the hive again, it is because her colony is swarming.
- Drones (male bees) take the longest to develop from egg to maturity (24 days). They develop from unfertilized eggs. I don’t even understand how this is possible.
- Worker bees don’t automatically start flying around to harvest nectar. They start out as “house bees”, which are responsible for cleaning the hive, feeding baby bees, and removing dead bees. They only spend the last 2 weeks of their lives as flying bees.
- You can identify when a new queen is emerging when you notice a cell overflowing with “Royal Jelly”, a specially fortified nectar only fed to baby bees destined for greatness.
- Bees have different temperaments, which are affected by the temperament of the queen. If you have a docile queen, you will have a docile colony.
- When a colony is getting ready to swarm, they will gorge themselves on honey to give themselves enough energy to fly. Except for the queen, that is–her retinue will starve her for a few days so she gets light enough to fly!
One in every three bites of food we eat would not be possible without honeybees and other pollinators. With Colony Collapse Disorder on the rise, it’s more important than ever to care for the bees we have left. A lot of people think that means they need to become beekeepers and start their own hives, but it’s actually more efficient (and certainly less time consuming) to just grow plants specifically for the bees.** If you would like to know what plants are especially bee-friendly, the Royal Horticulture Society has a wonderful set of lists of garden plants and wildflowers that are perfect for pollinators. This list is designed for the UK, but I’m sure there are a lot of plants listed that grow in other parts of the world as well.
I really enjoyed learning about bees, and I can’t wait to get some hands-on experience later in the school year when we start working with the hives at the allotment. It’s gonna be sweet.
Sorry… I couldn’t resist.
*SCAN stands for “Student Community Action Newcastle,” and it’s basically university-organized volunteering opportunities. They organized the Guerilla Gardening I participated in way back in week 3. They have a plot at the county allotment where they grow vegetables and keep beehives. **Having too many beekeepers also causes a problem of overcrowding. When too many bees have to share the resources in a certain area, it leads to competition and bees end up starving.