Two thousand times a day—the queen stops to drop
a single egg into a single cell.
Half the size of a grain of rice.
Each will grow into a bee.
from Honeybee: The Busy Life of Apis Mellifera
written by Candace Fleming
illustrated by Eric Rohmann
Holiday House, 2020
Several summers ago, I was stung by a bee. It was my fault. My thyme was draping itself beyond its square foot of my square-foot garden, flowing into the parsley and tarragon. I like the wild-ish look of a slightly overgrown garden. The plants are showing me they are healthy and strong.
But even I have limits. I got my pruners and began snipping away, parting the leaves and tiny flowers as I went. My bees must love thyme flowers, because they were in there buzzing around, doing the work they do. I was an intruder.
I felt something tickle my neck below my right ear. Silly me for not connecting the tickle with the bees I disturbed. The first bee sting of my life was sharp and fast. The severity of it lasted only a second. I felt a dull pain for the rest of the afternoon.
But I was not deterred.
Last summer, I put up a bee house. I had heard how useful they are for attracting backyard bees. After searching several stores, I found one at my local garden shop. I hung it, well, my husband did that, in a sunny spot on the east side of my house and bees came.
The bees that come to my bee house are not social. Each only needs space for herself. Social bees, like honeybees build hives. Bumblebees make nests.
Honeybee hives are home to 20,000 to 100,000 individuals. Each honeybee has a specific task. The queen lays eggs, 1,000 to 2,000 every day. Worker bees are female. They do all the work outside the hive; gathering pollen and nectar and communicating to their sisters where to find the best sources for nectar, and inside; building the hive, cleaning the hive, making the honey, storing the pollen, grooming the queen, caring for the baby bees, watching over and feeding the drones.
Drones stay in the hive, waiting around for a turn to mate with the queen. That’s it.
As a honeybee (or other pollinator including butterflies and moths, birds and bats, beetles, and other kinds of bees) travels from flower to flower in her search for nectar, she inadvertently collects pollen. Pollen is is the fine, powdery, yellowish grains necessary for a plant to reproduce. When the bee visits the next flower, she collects more nectar, and inadvertently leaves pollen from the last flower. In this way, plants depend on insects (and birds and bats…) to create their next and next and next generations.
Nectar, the sweet liquid secreted by plants to attract bees and other pollinators, is collected by the honeybee and delivered to an indoor worker bee. It is passed mouth-to-mouth from bee to bee until its moisture content is reduced from about 70% to 20%. This changes the nectar into honey.
Each bee makes several one to one-and-a-half hour trips per day and visits about 1,000 flowers each trip. Bees visit over 4,000 flowers to make one tablespoon of honey.
But bees need pollen, too. They transport the pollen that does not get knocked off when they flit from flower to flower, back to their hives to nourish themselves and their youngsters. Pollen is essential to the bees. It is the principle source of protein, fat, and minerals. Nectar provides necessary energy.
Pollen is mixed with nectar and is fed to the larvae.
When it’s not needed right away, worker bees pack pollen tightly into the cells of the hive, add honey, and seal the cells with wax. It is stored in readiness for the arrival of newborn baby bees. Baby bees need protein-rich pollen too, for the bee community to flourish.
When the summer gathering frenzy is behind them, the hive can rest. The bees who worked so hard during the spring, summer, and fall, have died off. The males have all died off, too. The winter bees are plumper to hold more heat and have much longer lifespans, several months, instead of several weeks. The the whole hive-full of winter worker bees clusters tightly together, holding the queen in their center, the warmest spot. To sustain themselves and their heat, the cluster moves about the hive as one, to reach the stored honey reserves.
For a variety of the regular reasons, (climate change, habitat loss, pesticides) bees, especially honeybees, are in decline.
A newly-created Global Map showing where the more than 20,000 species of bees exist now, will serve as a baseline for populations of bees as they continue to decline around the world. Michael Orr, postdoctoral fellow at the Institute of Zoology at Chinese Academy of Sciences says, “This is an important first step for [conservation], and in the future we can begin working more on threats to bees such as habitat destruction and climate change, and to better incorporate pollination services into ecosystem service analyses.”
Our own USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) reminds us “One out of every three bites of food we eat exists because of animal pollinators.”
Protecting the pollinators will help secure our own future, too.
-—stay curious! (and look for sweetness in your life)