What is it about the bee? Why does it captivate us? Why do we see the bee as a curious cocktail of beauty, legendary productivity (“as busy as a bee”, in fact) and, sometimes, danger?
The bee is an extraordinary creature. Of all the wonders of nature, the bee – especially the honeybee – has not merely captured our attention as a sign of summer and a maker of honey. Through a beautiful dance with pollinating plants, the bee has had a profound and extreme impact on our world.
The bee is also a marvel of science. From her incredibly effective and finely-tuned anatomy, to the fascinating way she lives her life, every aspect of the bee is a story unto itself. And yet, our perspective on the bee is very narrow. We think mainly of the honeybee, but also the bumble bee, perhaps the mason bee and a few others. However, when we step back and see the larger picture, it soon becomes clear there is even more to the bee than most of us expect. We will look at the scope and wonder of the bee across our world in a separate lesson.
Yet the honey bee alone is incredible.
Beekeepers form a surprisingly deep bond with the bees that inhabit our hives, as a relationship that takes on dimensions not always appreciated by the layman. Yet it is illuminating to step back and consider the true wonder of the bee well beyond our own colonies. Let’s look at just a few of the many reasons that bees totally rock our world!
This beautiful video explains the huge impact bees have on our environment, our world and our way of life.
Bees Feed the World
Bees are a powerful force of nature. The minute contribution of a single bee visiting a single flower and her subsequent trips, likely to flowers of the same species, don’t change our world in any noticeable way. But extrapolate to all the bees in a beehive and that singular moment is multiplied tens of thousands of times.
Extend that still further to many colonies – natural or in the form of our beehives – and consider all the regions thus pollinated. At this point the principle of “mutualism” rings loud and clear, through the miracle of pollination and the beautiful dance between bee and flower.
We’re making some rather sweeping assumptions here but when one considers that bees travel up to five miles from a hive to collect nectar and pollen, it’s clear that the impact of even a single hive is tremendous. Consider all the beekeepers in, say, the US – whether hobbyist or commercial – and the impact is, indeed, massive!
As bees leave their colony they will search for important resources, including nectar, pollen and water. In doing so, we see the miracle of pollination. This relationship is an example of “mutualism” and it is this that is the driving force behind the benefits we see from bees.
Our food chain depends very heavily on the role of the bee as it pollinates.
- Around 75% of native plants globally require animal pollination, much of which is through bees
- A significant portion of the food we eat is on our table due to the efforts of pollinators
- The economic benefits are huge, with pollinators being responsible for over $15 billion of food crops – in the US alone
It’s safe to say that the world would be a very different place without the bee.
The importance of pollinators, particularly the honey bee, is recognized not just scientifically but also by government, due to their immense economic value. The decline of bee populations in recent years was the catalyst for the creation of the Pollinator Health Task Force in 2014. This resulted in the publication of the National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Pollinators.
Did you know that in many places bees are “rented” as a utility, of sorts? The Californian almond industry – which accounts for the majority of the world’s almonds – needs 1.7 million hives to keep the production of almonds moving. That’s around 85% of the hives in all of the US! Almond growers can pay $200 per hive per season, as bees are brought in for the almond season. All told we’re talking about 80 billion bees or more (yes, that’s a ‘b’!).
Those are the hard, cold truths of why bees are important to us, globally. But they rock for other reasons too!
They Shower Us With Color and Fill Our Table
Pollination is a powerful force across the globe! But even locally, we benefit substantially. Many gardeners and homesteaders install beehives specifically to boost the local harvest. In many cases, this is done to brighten the garden with healthy, quickly-populating flowers. Fruits and trees benefit too and the impact can be very clear.
Many gardeners choose and plant flowers to bloom across the seasons. This can help our bees, since the staggered access to blooming flowers through the spring, summer and fall extends the periods during which they can collect nectar and pollen.
The time when bees have access to abundant sources of nearby nectar and can therefore produce the greatest volume of honey is called the honey flow. It is something beekeepers consider carefully as they plan their gardens.
The honey flow is about the ability of bees to complete the creation of honey, so it also about the weather being sufficiently accommodating to allow them to visit nearby flowers and collect nectar.
Homesteaders, in particular, can benefit from the power of bees. This varies according to whether the fruits can also take advantage of wind pollination but, for those that cannot, the increase in yield from pollination by bees can be miraculous.
It is not uncommon to see yields from an orchard grow by 50%, 60%, 70% or more when a beehive or two are installed.
They Bring Home the Honey
Aside from their pollination benefits, there is a more direct “output” from the honey bee – beautiful honey. For most hobbyist beekeepers, this is a bonus – a reward beyond the pure fascination of keeping bees. But it is clearly one of the more enjoyable aspects of beekeeping to taste pure, delicious honey made from the hard work of tens of thousands of bees.
Bees collaborate in amazing ways for this purpose. Each individual worker bee has the “capacity” to produce a whopping 1/12th tablespoon of honey, during her entire life! In isolation, that wouldn’t cover half our toast! But when this level of production scales to 60,000 or more bees in a single hive, the volume of honey can be a sight to behold.
The characteristics of that honey – its color, viscosity and taste – depend on many factors, but a primary influence are the flowers visited by our bees. The number of flowers necessary to produce honey is also difficult to believe. To produce a pound of honey requires in the order of 2 million visits to flowers! Just think about that for a second – two million trips to flowers, by many thousands of bees, to make that single jar of honey you enjoy over the breakfast table.
And the cumulative distance covered by bees for that single pound of honey? Oh, about 55,000 miles!
They Help Us Feel Better
From the furious industry of the bee comes a multitude of benefits, many of which are considered to be helpful to our own health. While this is not fully accepted or proven by science, there are many who consider the health benefits of honey and propolis to be beyond doubt.
Honey is a rare food that includes many of the substances necessary to help sustain life including vitamins, enzymes, minerals and water. It is also contains the antioxidant pinocembrin, which is associated with improved brain function.
Bees improve the structural integrity of their hives through the use of propolis, a glue-like substance they collect from the resin of trees. Many people believe that propolis has extraordinary qualities, including helping to improve the immune system.
Consider this – propolis is anti-septic, anti-fungal, anti-biotic, anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-microbial.
They Practice a Pure Form of Democracy
Our own democracy is often front and center in the news. Yet our bees exhibit a rather pure version of democracy that is hard to believe.
One of the most dramatic events in nature occurs when bees swarm. In a nutshell, swarming is the process through which a colony resolves issues of limited space. By having a significant portion of the inhabitants of the colony relocate – along with a queen – we see reproduction occur at the colony level.
From one colony, springs two.
The decision of where the swarm lays its metaphorical hat – the location to which it relocates – is one of life and death. A location too small for the storage of sufficient resources to see the colony through the winter is a death wish. Similarly, a location too exposed to the ravages of wind or with a chance of flooding is risky.
To start the process of finding a suitable locating away from the existing hive, the departing bees will move to a temporary location, not far from the original location. And then something extraordinary happens.
Hundreds of scout bees leave the temporary location in search of an acceptable final location, sometimes travelling several miles. They then report back and “dance” a message to their fellow scouts. The scouts then have a debate! While they may not use words or sounds we can hear, they carry out earnest communication and eventually vote in their own way.
After this extraordinary process has concluded, the entire swarm will fly to the chosen location. In this way, bees leverage the numerical and collaborative advantages that nature has bestowed upon them, to collectively decide on a prime location.
The process is extremely effective. Bees choose their homes very well and very carefully!
This may all seem unbelievable but it is backed up by decades of research. In particular, the author Thomas Seeley has published a beautiful book that has achieved iconic status among those with a passion for bees. Honeybee Democracy* documents the underlying research in glorious detail and in a style that is a joy to read.
If you are looking for a book that truly exposes the hidden richness of bee society we wholeheartedly recommend this beautiful read.
They are 60,000+ Amazing Pets
It’s perhaps awkward to call bees “pets”. This may seem a little obscure to the non-beekeeper, but once you have a beehive and watch the development of the colony, you start to care for them in a way you may never have imagined. While not exactly the same as a relationship with a dog or a cat, one builds a level of empathy as bees first establish themselves in the hive and then create and expand their home.
Then they start foraging and building their reserves, initially to support the expansion of the colony and eventually to help see them through the winter. They face many challenges along the way and, while beekeepers may choose to give them a helping hand, they are incredibly resilient and independent.
Come spring, many beekeepers witness the evolution of a relatively small group of bees (we would consider 10,000 bees as “small” – it’s all relative) as it grows through the summer to what one might truly call a hive of activity!
These bees soon become more than simply a way to obtain honey. Much more. In fact, for most beekeepers honey is a secondary consideration. Over time you will find yourself truly caring about the well-being of your bees in a way you might never have imagined.
They (Almost) Defy Belief
Want more? Here are some random facts about bees…
- After they are born, bees pass through a series of age-based roles
- Bees can communicate through vibration
- Foraging bees return to the hive and, through a merry dance, signal the distance, direction and quality of the resources they have located
- The first job for a queen after she is born is to check for any unborn sister queens – and kill them with her sting if any exist!
- The queen can lay up 2,000 eggs or more per day
- Larvae are each fed 1,000 times per day as they develop
- Worker bees live around 6 weeks – unless they are born in late fall, in which case they can live up to 5 months until the following spring
- Even when snow surrounds a beehive, worker bees inside will keep the queen at a toasty 93 degrees
- Male bees (drones) don’t help around the house, have one thing on their mind and get kicked out by workers, to die, in fall
They Might Even Shame Us
And finally, we humans can learn a great deal from the ways bees act. Their collaboration across the colony is legendary.
From birth to death, each worker bee has a well-defined role, which changes as she ages. From the nurse bee to the forager, the productivity of bees is amazing. They do this with no infighting (unless you are a drone in the fall!), with ways to communicate bordering on the miraculous and a willingness to give everything for the benefit of the many.
These characteristics and behaviors result in a society that is incredibly effective and efficient. They build their own home, they protect each other, they gather their own resources and they survive long, hard winters from these very same resources.
It’s true – bees rock!