What all the buzz is all about

Honeybees and humans have had a long and close business relationship.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Humans have long appreciated the value of honeybees, and from the earliest times have harnessed their industry and harvested their honey. Over the centuries, close observation of their highly sophisticated society has taught us how to enlist their cooperation to our mutual benefit. In the process we have discovered some amazing things.

Today colonies of bees throughout the US impact the nation's economy to the tune of 270 million pounds of honey, beeswax and other products. Further, they play a critical role, pollinating some 90 different cultivated crops - about $10 billion worth of commercial crops - in this country every year.

Commercially raised bees are the linchpin of a significant portion of agricultural activity. Our increasing dependence on them is matched by their increasing dependence on us as they struggle with a changing habitat, as well as disease.

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Wild bees prefer the cavities of hollowed trees to establish their hives. Within their shelter they build layers of distinctive wax comb, uniform hexagonal chambers for food storage or eggs. Usually the egg chambers, or brood cells, are in the lower center of a layer of comb, the food-storage cells filled with honey and pollen surrounding them in a semicircle.

Since harvesting wild honey can be difficult and dangerous, humans soon figured out how to encourage bees to live in man-made structures more convenient for honey gathering. Eventually they devised modern hive boxes, which enable beekeepers to harvest honey without destroying the nest itself.

These days, as more and more natural areas fall to the bulldozer, the supply of sheltered arboreal homes for honeybees is drastically reduced, and wild bee colonies are rapidly disappearing. The problem exists in both the older suburbs and the exurbs, where sprawl has eliminated most open, wild areas with their derelict trees.

Honeybees, which periodically feel compelled to swarm from bulging existing colonies, have real difficulty finding safe shelter for new colonies. They also often fall victim to one or more types of parasitic mite infestations, that ravage wild honeybee colonies.

Consequently, these days, most honeybees live in the man-made hive boxes, specifically designed to accommodate their lifestyle, yet easy for humans to access. In the care of hobbyist or commercial beekeepers, they are protected and treated for mites.

Hives begin with a queen, acquired either by purchasing one as part of a "starter" package of honeybees, or adopting a remnant of a colony that has swarmed and is looking for a new home.

The queen is at the heart of honeybee society, because she is literally the mother of them all. By means of a process still somewhat shrouded in mystery, a colony will create a queen if there is none because she has been killed or is dying of old age. When she matures, she leaves the hive briefly for her maiden flight and an encounter with a male. Now fertile, the queen returns to the hive to spend her life laying eggs to populate the colony - up to 2000 per day in her prime - all devoted to her and related to her genetically. Eventually, the population of a hive will reach 50,000 at the peak of the honey season.

Most of the honeybees in a colony are infertile females, a smaller proportion being males, called drones, whose duties are limited to waiting around for a queen to fly by so they can fertilize her. (Ultimately, these otherwise useless hangers-on are unceremoniously expelled from the hive as winter approaches to reduce demand on the honey stores over the winter.)

Once the eggs hatch, the young bees embark on a sophisticated career ladder. As they age, they progress to jobs such as nurse, guard, then foraging field worker. They may specialize for short periods as designated maids-in-waiting to the queen, as water gatherers, undertakers, and groomers.

Typically in about 3 weeks most honeybees become pollen gatherers. Making the dramatic transition from life in the secure, dark hive to life in the bright, huge outdoors, they venture forth on warm, sunny days between 10 in the morning and 3 in the afternoon. They scout for flowers, communicating routes to food sources to fellow foragers by body language. Circular movements in a "round dance" indicate shorter distances, whereas their "waggle dance" indicates longer distances - possibly up to 6 miles.

Traveling up to 26 m.p.h., worker bees literally work themselves to death in a matter of days, ferrying load after load of pollen and nectar back to the hive. Converted to honey, it feeds the brood and, stored, sustains the colony during the winter, when there are no flowers. In a good season, a single hive produces 100 to 150 pounds of honey; although during drought they may produce only 50 pounds.

Research shows that maturation times of honeybees vary depending on the needs of the hive. In emergencies, bees mature faster. During the winter when they do not forage for pollen and nectar bees live longer, they mature more slowly.

Honeybees instinctively prefer large concentrations of the same flower to areas planted with diverse species. This "flower fidelity" assures efficient food collection for them and effective pollination for us.

Farmers and commercial orchards depend on the fact that, over the season as they forage for food, bees inadvertently pollinate various crops, and they "hire" them to do this job. Home gardeners are also in debt to honeybees for this service. They get it free.

These days, however, honeybees have trouble finding dense plantings of untainted food sources in the suburbs and exurbs, where, paradoxically, flowers bloom in abundance.

While garden flowers do not substitute for vanished natural habitat, ornamental plantings in residential yards and gardens can collectively provide crucial food sources to tide honeybees over during lean times in late summer and fall when they are almost the only flowers available.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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