When most people think about bees, they immediately imagine the pain of being stung.
What they don’t think about is the critical role that bees play in nature, and the wonderful substances they create. Honeybees are excellent pollinators and increase the production of whatever plants they can find near their hive. Additionally, honeybees are used in agriculture to pollinate 40% of all the food we eat.
The social structure of the hive is another notable aspect of bee culture. The gender breakdown of the hive is around 98% female, 2% male, with one queen. The queen is the only female that is able to reproduce. She attained this right by eating a different diet during her time as a larva. While the normal females ate honey and pollen, the queen ate royal jelly, (A substance secreted from glands in the heads of young female bees.) This diet is what makes the queen significantly larger than the average bee and also allows her to produce eggs.
The gender inequality is upheld by the queen, and with good reason. She can choose to lay a female (fertilized) egg, or a male (unfertilized) egg. The females, or workers, do all the work around the hive. This includes feeding the young, caring for the eggs, building comb, dehydrating nectar to make honey, and going out looking for flowers. The males, or drones, don’t do any work. Their only purpose in life is to fly around a few hundred feet above the hive, waiting for a newly created queen to find them and mate. This happens rarely enough that the vast majority of males never fulfill any real purpose other than sitting around and eating honey. It’s nice work if you can get it.
Honey is certainly the most famous, but not the only substance produced by bees. Honey is created when the foraging bees fill up a special gland called a “honey stomach” with nectar, bring it back to the hive, regurgitate it into the comb and dehydrate it by flapping their wings in front of it to remove water. Everyone knows that honey can soothe a sore throat, but did you also know that honey is powerful, natural antibacterial agent? The next time you get a cut, scrape or burn, try putting some honey on the bandages. The antibacterial properties also give honey a truly remarkable claim to fame: honey is the only food that never goes bad.
In addition to honey, bees also produce a hard, spackly substance called propolis. Propolis is used by bees to seal small holes in the hive. Propolis is also referred to as “Russian Penicillin” and when taken raw or as a tincture, propolis has even more powerful anti-microbial properties than honey. It’s also effective in combating viral infections.
A quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live. No more bees, no more pollination, no more men.” This is an appropriate quote for today’s beekeeper. Currently, bees are facing extinction from a series of issues collectively referred to as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. While not all the causes of CCD are known, the larger issues seem to stem from bees used commercially as pollinators. Bees are shipped around the country following different crops’ blooming schedules. The trauma of being packed up on the back of a truck and shipped thousands of miles, only to have one pollen type to eat for weeks on end is hard enough on the hive. Combine that with the fact that the pollen they eat is heavily dosed with pesticides makes for enough stress that pests such as the Varroa Mite, which can usually be handled by the hive, kills bees by the billions.
If you are interested in learning more about honey bees, or would like a tour of the hive, please check the Mountain Top Arboretum’s schedule for the dates of upcoming bee hive tours and events.