Read All About the Amazing Honeybees and
Why They Are So Important To Us

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Honeybees Throughout History

early beekeepingHoneybees have inhabited the earth since prehistoric times. Throughout recordings of history we read about the uses of honey. Since the Bronze Age people have enjoyed Mead, a fermented drink made from honey. It is believed that Egyptians were the first beekeepers. Beeswax was used in embalming and mummification, and was carried into the Christian Era in the use of candles for religious services. Artists have used beeswax in writing, painting, and sculpting. Honey and beeswax have been used for its medicinal value throughout history, primarily for its antibacterial properties when used as a wound dressing. Early colonial settlers brought bees from Europe to America. Not only did they use the honey for a sweetener, but they needed the wax for candle making and the bees to pollinate their orchards and crops.
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Honeybees as a Pollinator

pollinationBees have always shared a symbiotic relationship with the flowering plants. Honeybees benefit from the flowering plants because they use the flower's nectar and pollen. Plants, on the other hand, rely on the bees to spread pollen, which is a very important step in the plant's reproductive process. It would seem that bees and flowers were designed for each other.

For this reason it is vital that we not allow honeybees to become decimated by the diseases, pests and chemicals that increasingly threaten them today. read more about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)

The Hive

the combThe natural home, or nest, for a honey bee colony is a tree cavity, or a hollow space between walls, floors, or ceilings of a building. There they build a comb to serve as a nursery and storage area. The comb is constructed from wax secreted by glands in the worker bees and then shaped with their legs and mandibles into back-to-back hexagonal cells with walls only 2/1000 inch thick, but able to support 25 times their own weight.

Each comb is exactly 3/8 of an inch apart, just enough space for the bees to move about, yet still cozy and warm. Some of the hexagonal cells will be sized for rearing worker bees and some a bit larger for the drones. A few (10 to 20) conical cells will hang from the comb edges for the rearing of queens. The honey will be stored in the upper and outer regions of the nest, while the lower and more central area is designated for the brood nursery. There the temperature can be more easily regulated. Pollen is stored around this brood area for easy access.

Beekeepers provide artificial hives for their "apiary" (apiary comes from the Latin name of the honeybee: Apis mellifera). These hives have been designed to accommodate the precise characteristics of the natural nests. They took into consideration such things as: dimensions and shape. In placement of the hives they considered: a nearby water source, a sunny location for cool climates and shade for warmer regions, facing the hive towards open country for ease in flight.

The hive is made of large wooden boxes standing on supports a few inches off the ground. It is comprised of different sections that fit neatly one on top of the other. On the bottom is a base. Above that is what is called the brood chamber. It is here that new bees are bred. Above the brood chamber is the honey super. It is within these six inch deep chambers that the honey is stored. Inside the super as well as the brood chamber are wooden support frames that contain wax combs. These can be easily removed from the hive.

Castes Within the Colony

Honey bees are social insects and each colony will consist of 60,000 or more bees of three types (or castes), each having its specific job to perform:
male drone

Male drones are in the minority and only present during the spring and summer, their only function being to mate with the queen. As the young drone emerges from his cell, he is fed the first few days by the worker-nurses, after which he will feed for himself from the honey cells. When fully mature (in about 2 weeks) he begins his mating flight. This usually takes place in the afternoon and lasts about 30 minutes. Drones have huge eyes to help them find a queen. Only the fastest drones catch the queens and have a chance at breeding. Once a drone catches a queen and successfully mates, he dies. Most drones die before actually ever mating. They do no work and they are driven out of the nest to die as the colony prepares for winter.

female worker

The female worker bee's duties depend on it's age. She spends her first three days keeping the hive clean. For the next week, a worker serves as a nurse, caring for eggs and larvae. Then she will assume the duties of building the comb cells, converting nectar into honey, caring for the queen, and defending and controlling the temperature in the hive. A worker's last few weeks are spent scouting for and collecting nectar or pollen.

queen bee There is only one queen. She lays the eggs and controls the activities within the colony by her production of pheromones, chemicals that strongly effect the other bees' behavior and physiology. She can lay approximately 200,000 eggs a year.

Queen Bee and attendentsHoneybee Reproduction

An egg laid by the queen has the potential to develop into any one of the three castes. Unfertilized eggs will develop into drones, the fertilized eggs will develop into workers or queens depending on what type of food the larva is fed. As the queen lays an egg, she feels to determine the size of the cell and whether it is sized for a worker or for the larger drone. If the egg is going into a drone-sized cell she will not release any sperm as her egg is traveling down the oviduct. On the other hand, a release of sperm will produce an egg capable of becoming a worker or a queen.

As the egg is laid the queen glues it to the floor of the cell. All three castes pass through the same stages: egg, larva, pupa, and adult . The larvae remain curled up at the bottom of the cell and just feed on the secretions from the nursing worker bees. While royal jelly is the sole food of queen larvae, worker and drone larvae are fed royal jelly only for their first four days. After that time they are fed bee bread. Bee bread is made from collected pollen. Two pollen pellets are dropped into a cell, which are then mixed with honey and secretions from worker bees and then pushed into the cell until it is two-thirds full.

The workers then cap the cell with wax and the larvae uncurl and spin a cocoon (the pupa stage). The developing bee molts, then chews its way out of the capped cell and emerges as an adult. The timing of this development depends on the caste (approximately 16 days for a queen, 21 days for a worker, and 24 days for the drones. After emerging, the young bee develops over the next several days with additional feeding.

Through the Seasons

The colony survives the winter inside the hive by reducing the population (kicking out the drones since they have no function at this time). They feed off the stored honey left in the hive by the bee keepers for that purpose. They cluster together to keep warm and rotate positions within the hive so that each takes his turn being on the colder outer area and the warmer inner area. To generate extra heat when needed, workers will consume honey and move in and out of the center all the while raising their body temperatures by contracting the flight muscles in the thorax without moving the wings.

In the early spring the colony population begins to once again rise, and if a colony finds itself overcrowded it will swarm. The old queen, taking half of the workers with her, leaves the nest to start a new one. They may temporarily cluster together attached to a tree branch forming a "living" hive until scouts are sent out to search and an appropriate home is found. There they begin the construction of new wax combs and quickly commence the work of rearing new brood and storing pollen and nectar. Back in the original nest, new queens are reared and upon hatching they fight to the death, and the single survivor mates and begins to lay eggs. Swarm prevention is, of course, one of the management issues of beekeepers. They add supers (extra boxes) stacked above the brood chamber to give the colony population more room to expand. Some swarms will still occur which they capture and locate to a new prepared hive.

Spring and summer is a busy time (thus the expression "busy as a bee"), spent gathering pollen and nectar, making honey, and rearing new brood to keep the population replenished. While the queen may live up to 5 years, drones live only 4 to 6 weeks and workers live about 5 to 6 weeks ( the overwintering workers may live 4 to 6 months).
Here a swarm has temporarily clustered in a tree

Making Honey

Bees use nectar and pollen for food. The worker bees of the hive are assigned to this task. In the spring and summer months, worker honeybees scout the area around the hive for good sources of nectar and pollen such as clover. When they find a source they report back to the hive and communicate their findings to the other bees by performing an intricate dance, shaking and wiggling their tails and spreading the scent of the sample they have brought back. The movements and vibrations of this dance give the other bees directions to this food source with amazing accuracy.

They indicate the direction of the food source from the hive, in relation to the sun, by the angle of their "wiggle". They indicate the distance of the food source from the hive by the number of "wiggles". The bees fly from flower to flower sipping nectar and collecting pollen.

Collecting Pollen

bee pollenPollen is the male seed of a flower blossom. Worker bees have a unique structure on their legs. Its two hind legs contain tiny pollen baskets, and the two middle legs have stiff hairs that brush the pollen into these baskets. The bee collects pollen and mixes it with its own digestive enzymes to make "bee pollen".

The bee pollen is often referred to as nature's most complete food. Human consumption of bee pollen is praised in the Bible, other religious books, and ancient Chinese and Egyptian texts. Research has shown that bee pollen rejuvenates your body, stimulates organs and glands, enhances vitality, and brings about a longer life span. Bee pollen's ability to consistently and noticeably increase energy levels makes it a favorite substance among many world class athletes. Bee pollen contains most of the known nutrients, including all of those necessary for human survival. Bee pollen is approximately 25% complete protein containing at least 18 amino acids. In addition, bee pollen provides more than a dozen vitamins, 28 minerals, 11 enzymes or co-enzymes, 14 beneficial fatty acids, 11 carbohydrates, and is rich in minerals, the full spectrum of vitamins, and hormones. It is low in calories. It provides energy, stamina, and strength, and enhances performance levels. Don't confuse bee pollen with the pollen that is a common cause of allergies. Bee pollen is heavier and stickier and rarely causes any allergic reaction.

honeybee collecting nectarCollecting Nectar

Honeybees use flower nectar to make honey. Nectar is almost 80% water with some complex sugars. In fact, if you have ever pulled a honeysuckle blossom out of its stem, nectar is the clear liquid that drops from the end of the blossom. In North America, bees get nectar from flowers like clovers, dandelions, berry bushes and fruit tree blossoms. They use their long, tube-like tongues like straws to suck the nectar out of the flowers and they store it in their "honey stomachs". Bees actually have two stomachs, their honey stomach which they use like a nectar backpack and their regular stomach. The honey stomach holds almost 70 mg of nectar and when full, it weighs almost as much as the bee does. Honeybees must visit between 100 and 1500 flowers in order to fill their honey stomachs.
honeycombThe honeybees return to the hive and pass the nectar onto other worker bees. Who then "chew" the nectar for about half an hour. During this time, enzymes are breaking the complex sugars in the nectar into simple sugars so that it is both more digestible for the bees and less likely to be attacked by bacteria while it is stored within the hive. The bees then spread the nectar throughout the honeycombs where water evaporates from it, making it a thicker syrup. The bees make the nectar dry even faster by fanning it with their wings. Once the honey is gooey enough, the bees seal off the cell of the honeycomb with a plug of wax. The honey is stored until it is eaten. In one year, a colony of bees eats between 120 and 200 pounds of honey. One pound (.45 kg) of honey equals the life work of approximately 300 bees and a flight distance of two to three times around the earth! Because the bees produce such an abundance of honey, far more than they can eat, we can harvest the excess.

Honeybee Stings

beekeepers white suitsHoneybees sting only as a defensive measure, and only the females have stingers. Bees do not get angry or seek revenge, they merely react instinctively and predictably to an intruder. Stinging away from the hive only happens when we do something harmful like stepping on a bee. If one bee is buzzing around you, she may smell perfume, soap, or something you are eating thinking the smell is nectar . She will check you out to see if she can find the nectar, but if you stand very still, she will realize there is no nectar and go away.

Most of the honeybee's defensive behavior occurs near the hive. Bees are not sensitive to man-made sounds, but they do react to vibrations, odors, movement and color. Darker colors are more likely to stimulate aggression, thus beekeepers wear white suits while tending the bees. Beekeepers suits have protective head covers with veils.
beekeepers smoker They also use a smoker (a can with bellows attached) to emit enough smoke to fool the bees into thinking there is a fire in the area and they should return to the hive to feed in preparation for a possible evacuation. Being busily occupied on feeding, they will not be as interested in aggression.

Often a bee will fly towards an intruder and "bump" him a few times as a warning before stinging. A bee has a poison gland in her abdomen. When she stings another insect (like a wasp), she can pull the stinger out of the wasp's body and get away. So if a bee is fighting another insect, she can sting many times. But if a bee stings a person or a large animal the stinger sticks in the animal's tough skin and keeps pumping poison. The bee flies away, but she gets torn in half and dies. The stinger and poison sack remain in the skin of the victim. So if you should get stung remember it is best to always scrape the stinger and poison sack out of the skin with your fingernail; never pull it out because this squeezes the remaining venom into the skin.

Africanized honeybees are an exception. Swarms of these so-called "killer bees" have headed north to the United States from South America. These bees pose a threat to humans and pets because they are much more aggressive and prone to attack in defense of their hives than the common European honey bee. When disturbed, Africanized honey bees will attack in larger numbers, faster and sting more often. Beekeepers make every effort to keep these Africanized bees out of their hives. Even to the extent of replacing the queen in a hive that shows too much aggression. In areas where these bees have already infiltrated caution must be taken, especially when approaching a feral (or wild) hive. More info can be found on the University of Georgia site.

Today Honeybees Are In Trouble

Most people today are aware that honeybees (and all pollinators in general) are declining in numbers. They can be considered the “Canaries in the coal mine” and their disappearance should be alarming to everyone, since we are dependent on pollination either directly or indirectly for most of what we eat.

In late 2006 it was reported that many beekeepers were loosing large numbers of their colonies and mysteriously there were very few dead bees left in the colonies. Usually the queen, a small amount of brood and very few workers – too few to take care of the brood remained. The rest simply disappeared. While it initially seemed to be primarily affecting the large commercial beekeepers that move their hives around the country for pollination, today it is affecting all beekeepers both large and small. Many beekeepers are being totally wiped out with losses of 100%.

The University of Georgia is the lead institution of a multi pronged USDA study to learn the causes of what has now been named Colony Collapse Disorder or simply CCD. There are as yet no definitive answers as to its cause. Today, rather than being the result of a single cause, the current thinking is that CCD is the result of several causes in combination. So stay tuned along with the rest of us. 

What can you do to help?

You can help by supporting a local beekeeper. Large commercial operations cannot afford to cease the use of antibiotics and chemicals, the risk is too great for them. Hobbyist beekeepers, on the other hand, are experimenting with innovative alternative methods that lessen or even do away with antibiotics and synthetic chemicals.