← Back to Nature Notes

Nature Notes: Honey bees

Ed Robinson
May 1, 2015

In an old song titled Lazy Day, there is a phrase, “…Baby, you and me, and the honey bee.” There is a fair amount of truth in that, not only if you love honey, but also if you enjoy flowers and foods that depend upon the exchange of pollen for successful production. By collecting an estimated 66 pounds of pollen each season, busy little black and yellow honey bees are estimated to account for 80 percent of insect pollination. Someone once calculated that to collect enough pollen for one quart of honey, honey bees must fly an average of 48,000 miles!

David H Chipman photo

David H Chipman photo

Honey bees are members of the Apis genus, with seven recognized species and as many 45 subspecies around the world. They are a small slice of the roughly 20,000 bees known to scientists. Honey bees are distinguished by their habits of producing wax nests to support large colonies, and by their production and storage of honey as a food source. Humans have long harvested honey and bees wax, and are known to have cultured bees during the time when the pyramids of Egypt were being constructed. Native Americans also worked with native bees, enjoying the sweet taste of honey as much as we do.

The honey bees we see most commonly, Apis mellifera, are technically a non-native species, probably originating in east Africa, and brought here by European colonists to pollinate the wide range of plants imported for food production. Fortunately the bees adapted well to their new home, spreading far and wide, though they needed a little help from the Mormon pioneers in getting over the Rocky Mountains in the 1840’s. Today honey bees are a big business, and they are cultured in vast numbers for use in the agricultural industry, with an economic impact measured in many billions of dollars.

A bee colony is an amazing place. The leader is the queen bee: a large, fertile female who directs the activities of the hive with pheromones. There are 20,000 to 30,000 female worker bees, who do all the useful work of the hive, such as nursing, cleaning, construction, guarding, collection of pollen and production of honey, and even undertaking.

The hive will also support 300 to 3,000 male drones, whose only real value is in mating with a virgin queen bee (if it makes you ladies feel better, the poor drones die after mating, and they are expelled from the hive before winter sets in!). Larvae are housed in the individual wax cells of the hive and fed by the workers.

Bees survive on pollen, one of nature’s wonder foods. It contains up to 35 percent protein, 10 percent natural sugars, enzymes, minerals and a range of vitamins including A (carotenes), B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), C (ascorbic acid) and H (biotin). Once converted by worker bees into honey, a colony has all the nutrients needed to survive and regenerate from year to year. Bees use the nutrients to make royal jelly, a highly valuable substance used to turn a selected larva into a new queen. The bees secrete wax from special glands, and combine it with a sticky resin called propolis to build and maintain the hive. Finally, bees produce an apitoxin, or bee venom, that is injected by the detachable stinger to fight off creatures who threaten the hive (the bee dies after it stings an attacker).

Winter presents a tough challenge for honey bees.  With no pollen available, they are dependent upon their stored honey to generate sufficient energy to get through the cold season. As temperatures fall, the bees cluster or “ball” around their queen to share heat. Bees rotate from the center to the outer edge of the ball so as to increase the chances of survival. Scientists have determined that in this manner, a hive can keep the temperature above 45 degrees all winter. If a human or bear steals too much of the honey, or damages the hive, the colony cannot survive to the following spring.

For years, the population of honey bees, even with the assistance of commercial bee keepers, has been in decline. Many factors are thought to play a role in this population drop: changes in agricultural practices, unpredictable weather, pollution and pesticide use. In 2007, an unusually large die off occurred, resulting in a loss of up to 70 percent of hives in some areas. Scientists are working very hard to determine the causes of what is termed “colony collapse disorder.”  Viruses, parasitic flies and two varieties of mites are known to have a hand in bee deaths. If this trend continues, it will be a major concern for agricultural production in our country.

The ancient Greeks felt that lips anointed with honey could give the gift of eloquence. Napoleon had a fondness for honey bees, associating them with immortality and resurrection. Our interest in honey bees may be more practical – we love honey. But we can help protect these vital creatures by creating desirable habitat for them and other pollinators (e.g. butterflies) and taking great care in using lawn chemicals that may harm them.

If you like Ed Robinson’s writing, check out his two Nature Notes books! Click here for more information.