September 24, 2023

The Busy and Buzzy World of the Hive

Rehoboth Ramblings

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Have you ever thought of all the work that goes into a jar of honey? There’s a reason we call bees “busy”.  For example, making one pound of honey requires the work of around 60,000 bees visiting two million flowers! This is just one of many fascinating facts that Prof. Jim DeTerra of Bristol Community College explored in his talk “The Mighty Honey Bee” at the Blanding Library in May. A master beekeeper, Jim also brought a small portable hive of bees for his listeners to examine.

Here are some bee facts: Bees can flap their wings 240 times a second, much faster than hummingbirds. No wonder that there’s a lot of buzzing going on. The average colony has 30,000 to 60,000 bees. There is only one queen in a colony and she lays all the eggs, as many as 1,500 a day. The other bees feed and clean her. Queens live 3 to 5 years. When she can no longer lay eggs, the colony gets rid of her and find another. The male bees are drones and they die when they mate with the queen. The worker bees are all female and they live about 8 weeks in the summer.

The bees’ highly sensitive antennae are a vital part of their anatomy and help the bee sense a variety of signals to navigate their world. Did you know that bees can be trained to sniff out explosive material and possibly human illnesses such as cancer? Their sense of smell is 10 times more powerful than those other super-sniffers, dogs. Bees also have five eyes and see colors in somewhat similar way than we do with some exceptions. Red looks black to them.

You may have heard of the bees’ most remarkable behavior, the waggle dance. Bees can’t talk but they communicate very effectively through “dancing”. A bee’s particular wiggling movements tell other bees in the colony about the location of a nearby flower source, its direction and distance away from the hive, and the quality of the flowers/nectar. They use the sun for navigation. This is all rather complicated but you can find much more about the waggle dance on the web.

My first thought was that these bees are much better at spatial relationships than I am and that the bees evolved this sophisticated behavior about 100 million years before humans invented GPS. The more you know about the animal kingdom the more you wonder why we ever use the phrase “dumb animals”. Anyone wanting to know more about animals’ amazing abilities will want to read “An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden World Around Us” by Ed Yong, available at the library.

The other remarkable and vital thing about bees is their importance to pollination. After Prof. DeTerra’s talk, I looked up more information on bees and found the FDA’s “Helping Agriculture’s Helpful Honey Bees”. They say: “But the greatest importance of honey bees to agriculture isn’t a product of the hive at all. It’s their work as crop pollinators. This agricultural benefit of honey bees is estimated to be between 10 and 20 times the total value of honey and beeswax. In fact, bee pollination accounts for about $15 billion in added crop value. Honey bees are like flying dollar bills buzzing over U.S. crops.”

The FDA continues, “Today, the commercial production of more than 90 crops relies on bee pollination. Of the approximately 3,600 bee species that live in the U.S., the European honey bee [the honey bee actually came over to America with the first European colonists] is the most common pollinator, making it the most important bee to domestic agriculture. About one-third of the food eaten by Americans comes from crops pollinated by honey bees, including apples, melons, cranberries, pumpkins, squash, broccoli, and almonds, to name just a few. Without the industrious honey bee, American dinner plates would look quite bare.”

So yes, the honey bee has an extremely important role to play in our world, and any threat to them such as disease and habitat loss is not to be taken lightly. Only a few people would probably want to actually take up beekeeping, and it’s true that those with severe allergies to bee stings must avoid them. But there’s an easy and pleasant way to help our busy and buzzing little friends. Prof. DeTerra said, “You don’t have to become a beekeeper. Just plant flowers!”

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