It was time for honey!
Warm, golden, sweet, clear, slowly flowing,
spicy, aromatic, sparkling with sunlight--
“Honey!” just as good as he’d remembered.
He lapped it up, and licked his paws for a long time.
written and illustrated by David Ezra Stein
Nancy Paulsen Books/ Penguin Random House, 2018
Good news! I’m not allergic to bees!
Bad news! I found out.
Good news! I only got stung once!
Bad news! It hurt like crazy (for a day and a half!)
Good news! It was a yellow jacket, not a honey bee. Wait, is that good news or bad news?
Well, I guess it doesn’t matter. A yellow jacket did sting me the other day, though. I discovered that yellow jackets are aggressive scavengers, not pollinators. Also, they’re wasps, not bees. So whether it’s good or bad, I started thinking about bees and wasps and yellow jackets. And hornets.
According to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, “the overwhelming majority of bees and wasps are tiny stingless creatures.” http://wildlife.ohiodnr.gov/portals/wildlife/pdfs/publications/id%20guides/Pub5488_Bees%20and%20Wasps%20of%20Ohio.pdf
Well, that was news to me! Except for honeybees, they all blended into something I thought of as sting-y bugs. But I’m not even sure I could tell a honeybee from a wasp.
I don’t know if the Pilgrims were troubled by wasps or yellow jackets when they landed on Plymouth Rock in 1620. They knew about honeybees, though. Honeybees arrived on our shores in 1622. They have become so important to our agriculture that many fields, orchards, vineyards, and citrus groves would fail if not for them.
A bee’s pollination work is purposeful.
Over 20,000 species of bees are known to scientists and 4,000 of them live in North America. Two of the most common varieties are honeybees and bumblebees.
Honeybees are hyper-social. They communicate by performing a complicated dance to tell each other where to find good sources of pollen. Wild honeybees build their hives in hollow logs. They live in colonies of several thousand and survive the winter by storing their excess honey. Their queen lives three or four years.
Honeybees can be domesticated. A responsible beekeeper will maintain several hives and “harvest” some honey for market, making sure to leave enough for the bees.
So it’s kinda like domesticated honeybees pay honey as rent to their beekeepers for the housing and better weather conditions.
But, bee colonies are declining. The increased use of pesticides is part of the reason. Malnutrition caused by limited flower diversity is another. Bees are shipped all over the country because beekeepers can get more money from providing pollination services than they ever could be selling honey. If the bees become disorientated, it will lead to stress. It’s hard to make up those complicated dances.
Most queens are descended from a few hundred breeder queens. This small gene pool leaves the bees susceptible to diseases. Rising global temperatures means that some flowers are blooming before the bees are ready to fly.
Bumblebees cannot be domesticated, but they are better pollinators. The native bumblebees are more efficient at pollinating than the non-native honeybees the Pilgrims brought, partly because they are bigger and can keep more pollen on their hairier bodies. Partly because they learn fast where to get the pollen, and partly because they don’t make any extra honey. They live in nests with a few hundred friends, but are not honey producers. They eat all they make and only the queen survives the winter. She hibernates underground.
Taking honey from bumblebees would deprive them of their food. And they probably would sting. And then they would die.
Most wasps are scavengers. They prey on stink bugs, flies, grasshoppers, and caterpillars as they find food for their young. They are attracted to rotting fruits and vegetables and meat, too. They love aphids, those pesky little critters that gorge on roses.
Many wasp species are particular in their food choice. Those are selected and bred in laboratories. They’re released as natural pest control.
But wasps are incidental pollinators. They visit flowers for the nectar. They don’t travel from flower to flower purposefully. They pollinate accidentally as they go.
Bees and wasps each have jobs to do, and they work together.
The bottom line is while a tiny fraction of bees and wasps sting, their value far, far outweighs the pain they inflict. Try telling that to a kid.
All of us were either terrified, horrified, or panic-stricken when a bee, wasp, yellow jacket or hornet flew into our games of tag, hopscotch, or jump-rope. My mom had the perfect solution. She told us, friends included, that the bees…were afraid of us. If we ran around, they would probably chase us, but if we stood perfectly still, they would think we were statues and sniff around a little and then get bored and fly away. Same for screaming. Screaming frightened them even more.
I’m not sure of the science behind Mom’s theory of bee behavior, but it sure helped us stay in control of ourselves. Not a bad lesson at all.
-—stay curious! (and safe)