While we were eating some fresh-baked biscuits with our favorite honey on the porch the other day, a bee landed on one of our flowers and wiggled inside for a snack. It reminded us of our days in Ohio, where we lived on a small farm and kept bees.
We spent hours watching the bees coming and going through the little slot in the bottom of the hive. Wondering what was going on inside, we opened our honey bee book (instead of the hive).
We were amazed to learn how much work went into our cherished honey, and it is not the males who get the credit. The hive keeps only enough males around to participate in the queen's one and only romantic indulgence. The rest are female.
The queen, having been raised on a special diet, is the only bee that can lay eggs. The nursery bees, which are themselves maturing for their later flights into the field, tend to the many hungry mouths. Every month they must graduate about 50,000 bee-lets from the nursery to replace those retiring from the field.
Our biggest surprise was how far the field bees range, how many flowers they visit, and how short their careers are. Bees live only about five weeks.
The first three weeks are spent inside the hive moving from infancy through the various assignments, including fanning (with their wings, in order to cool the hive), guarding, housekeeping, building and filling combs, and of course nursing.
The last two weeks are spent gathering nectar and pollen, out of which the hive bees make beeswax and honey. This process takes place inside the comb cells after each little morsel has been chewed for 20 minutes to blend in some enzymes.
Bees generally fly a mile from the hive and return with a load almost equal to their own weight. They perform this labor about 10 times each day.
Depending on the nectar flow, it can take between 10 minutes and three hours to collect a load. This involves visiting about a thousand flowers.
So when we finally took a share of the honey from the hive that fall, we knew we were harvesting the efforts of 500,000 bees, flying more than 1 million miles, and visiting more than 1 billion flowers.