February 1, 2012

Six Reasons to Love Bees. ~ Will Curley

Update: European honeybees are being poisoned with up to 57 different pesticides, according to new research. A new method for detecting a whole range of pesticides in bees could help unravel the mystery behind the widespread decline of honeybees in recent years, and help develop an approach to saving them. (phys.org)

Let’s consider a half-dozen reasons why honey bees might just be our best friends.

Reason 1: One of the first things people think of when they consider bees is honey.  Everyone knows honey is really sweet and is good to spread on toast, but here are some facts not as many people know. Honey is the one food substance that never goes bad.  Pots of honey have been found in Egyptian tombs that are still as edible now as they were over four thousand years ago.

Reason 2:  Honey has antibacterial, antiviral, and antimicrobial properties. In addition to toast, it is good to put on cuts, scrapes, and burns. Honey is also good for your skin, working to both exfoliate and moisturize. If you have allergies, try eating bee pollen that has been harvested locally. It contains minute traces of the pollens that are responsible for your itchy eyes and runny nose. Eating local bee pollen can help boost your immunity to these irritants.

Reason 3: Honey and pollen are not the only products bees make that are good for you. Propolis is a spackly substance that bees create from tree sap. They use it to block small holes or tears in the hive, but humans can use it as a home remedy during cold and flu season. It can be taken in tincture form or swallowed, but be careful! Do not chew propolis. It will spackle your teeth together just as effectively as it joins a crack in the hive.

Reason 4:  Do you enjoy food? Imagine a delicious meal on your dinner plate. Now scrape off almost half the food. That’s how much bees contribute to your meal. They are responsible for pollinating a full 40% of the food we eat.  Bees pollinate everything from cabbage to watermelon, onions to broccoli and much more.  Unfortunately, the current agricultural practice of monoculture is hostile to bees. They cannot survive when the blooming season of a large region is a single week or two.

Big Agriculture’s answer? To use commercial beekeepers that ship their bees on big flatbed trucks across country in order to follow the blooms of different crops. This is not good for the bees, and is one of the contributing factors to Colony Collapse Disorder. Bees, like humans, stay healthy with a varied diet, so farming a variety of crops and flowers is an excellent way to encourage the survival of bees. And we need bees!

Reason 5:  Bees have a unique and fascinating societal model. Most animals maintain a 50/50 gender distribution. Queen bees maintain a 95% female to 5% male ratio in every hive. The female worker bees earn their name by doing all the work: caring for the eggs and newborns; cleaning the hive; looking after the queen; defending the hive; and foraging for pollen and nectar. The male drones have only one mission in life – to impregnate a newly created queen.  However, this is very rare, because the drone only lives for about 3 weeks, while a queen can live as long as 5 years and only mates once during that time.  Being a drone is nice work if you can get it.

(Will is pointing out the queen.)

If you caught that I said “a newly created queen” in the last paragraph, then you were paying attention.  Queens are not simply born, they are made.  The youngest adolescent females (known as nurse bees) decide when to create a queen.  If they detect a problem with the current queen–if she’s not producing enough eggs, if her pheromones are weakening, or if she sustains a serious injury–the nurse bees launch into action.

They sneak down into the brood chamber (where the eggs are laid) and build a special cell called a “queen cup.”  Next, they herd the current queen down to the queen cup and have her lay a female egg. Once the egg is in place, they scrape together all the royal jelly they can (secreted from glands in their heads), pack it in with the egg and seal it. The queen is the only bee who eats royal jelly throughout her life. Everyone else in the hive lives on a diet of pollen, nectar and water. When the new queen matures, she breaks out of the queen cup.

Assuming that the new queen was made to replace an ailing queen, and not to swarm off with some of the hive to deal with overpopulation, there are now two queens in the same hive. This means war. The newly-born queen will demonstrate how fearsome she is by shouting her battle cry. Known as “piping,” the new queen will sound the note G sharp for two seconds, and then again in quarter-second toots.  After she has announced her presence, she must find the current queen. Once they meet, they fight to the death.

Reason 6: Bees are accomplished mapmakers and dancers. When bees go foraging, they are able to provide other bees with a map showing where the best resources are. When the bees return to the hive, they are greeted by guard-bees who smell them to make sure they aren’t spies from another hive. Once they are allowed in, other bees confront the foragers. These bees will lick and head-butt them to determine what they are carrying. If they have found something good, they will then tell the other bees where it is by doing the “waggle dance.”

The waggle dance is a circle walked by the bee, and then bisected in a wiggly line through the center of the circle by the bee as she shimmies and shakes, pointing in the direction of the location she is referring to.  The length of the waggle phase denotes how far away the location is (1 second of waggling equals roughly 1km), while the intensity of the waggle tells the other bees the quantity of flowers. Here’s where the bee dance gets really interesting. Bees not only have a built-in solar compass to tell them where they have been in relation to the sun, but they also understand that the sun moves. Their dance takes into account where the sun was versus where it will be when other bees make the same journey.

Next time you come across a bee, take a moment to appreciate all that she does. Bees are more than our friends: they are vital players in the ongoing health of the planet


Edited by Kate Bartolotta.

Will Curley was born and raised in New York City.  After spending 4 wonderful years in Boulder attending Naropa University, he has returned home to New York. He was trained in the art of beekeeping by Andrew Cote, founder of Bees Without Borders.  When Will is not busy with work or the bees, he can usually be found making vegan soap, or missing the mountain sun.

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