What's All the Buzzzzzz About Bees?

When flowers and trees start to bloom in the spring, people love to stick their noses into the blossoms for a good sniff. But before you put your face into the nearest flower, take a good look. Someone else likes to get into those flowers, too: bees.

During the winter, most bees stay in their nests or hives. Social bees, like the honeybee, which live together in colonies, huddle together to keep warm.

The bees that live in colonies eat the honey they made before the winter as they wait out the cold weather. As the weather gets warmer, the queen bee starts to lay lots of eggs, so there will be plenty of workers when spring arrives. She can lay as many as 3,000 eggs a day. Soon the hive may have as many as 50,000 bees.

When flowers start to bloom in the spring, honeybees are ready to go to work. And they can be as much fun to watch as the blossoms.

There are thousands of types of bees. Some are solitary bees, which use the nectar and pollen from flowers for their own food. Others live in colonies and work together to make great stores of honey.

Making more than honey

If you watch a honeybee at work, you will see it taking nectar and pollen from the flower and storing it in pollen baskets on its legs. As the bee works, some pollen from the flower will rub off onto the bee's body. When the bee goes to another flower to get more nectar, some of the pollen falls off and other pollen is gathered.

This pollination is what produces new seeds, and this is what makes many of our fruits and vegetables, as well as the grasses that farm animals eat. So bees not only give us honey, they make sure we have many other foods as well.

And the wax that bees make to use in their honeycombs is also used to make such things as colored pencils, cold cream, candles, floor wax, and electrical insulation.

Most bees are pretty good-natured. They don't mind you watching them work. They only attack and sting if they feel threatened or if you bother their hive. So, if you're careful, you may find bees quite interesting. And they may also be interested in you.

Bees have no ears and cannot hear, but they have a very good sense of smell. They use their antennae, or feelers, to help them find flowers. This also means they can find you if you're wearing perfume. This includes the perfumes in soaps, shampoos, and fabric softeners. So you might smell interesting to bees. They may come up and hover around you to see if you're a flower.

Meeting a bee up close

If you want to discourage a bee that is flying around you, just hold still. Don't swat at it. You might also step into the shade or near a bush where it can't see you as well. A bee's eyesight is very different from a human's, and if you aren't moving, a bee can have trouble telling you apart from a nearby bush or tree.

If you want to make sure you don't upset bees, wear light-colored clothing and don't wear wool. Some animals, like bears and badgers, like to eat all the honey or developing offspring in a hive, and when honeybees see people in dark colors or wool, they can mistake them for a honey-stealing animal.

If you do get a bee mad, run into a building or car to get away. You may be able to outrun it, since most people can go faster than bees. But a bee may chase you as much as a quarter-mile before giving up. With most bees, you might also be able to hide in dense brush.

You may also spot a swarm of bees once in a while. When a colony gets too big or their hive is damaged, thousands of bees fly in a swarm in search of a new home. They crowd together on a tree branch, protecting the queen in the middle, while scout bees search for a new hive. When a scout finds a good location, all the bees follow it to the new home.

Where do bees live?

If you follow a honeybee to its home, you will find a hive. This might be in a hollow log, a tree, or in a box used by a beekeeper in order to harvest the bees' honey.

But most types of bees don't live in hives. Bumblebees nest in the ground. Another large, black bee, called the carpenter bee, doesn't live in a colony.

These bees chew tunnels into a piece of wood to make a nest for each egg. The leaf-cutter bee makes tunnels in old, soft timber instead of hard wood. It uses pieces of leaves to make a cradle for each egg that it lays.

Mason bees leave their eggs in empty snail shells, and cover them with grass or twigs to hide them. They may dig into clay or sand banks to make their nests.

While bees usually don't bother people, wasps are more likely to get in your way. Many wasps are longer and thinner than bees, with a very slim waist, which makes it easy to tell them from bees.

Unlike bees, wasps eat meat, and they don't wait for an invitation to dig in at picnics. If there are wasps around, you may need to keep all your food covered when you eat outdoors.

With wasps or bees, it's best to be polite. And as long as you remain friends, you might find that they can give you a good show.

What a Bee Sees

While you're watching a bee, it is also watching you. And what it sees is very different from the way you see objects. Honeybees have two large compound eyes. This means each eye is made up of hundreds of tiny eyes that all add to the bee's view.

Bee eyes don't move around to look at different objects, and bees cannot change the focus on their eyes. These eyes look forward, sideways, and backward at the same time.

Bees also see colors differently. They see well in the range of blue, green, and yellow colors. But red looks the same to them as black.

People can't see ultraviolet light, but bees can, and many flowers are visible to bees because of their ultraviolet color.

If you'd like to get an idea what things might look like to a bee, check out the B-EYE Web site on the Internet. You'll find it at: cvs.anu.edu.au/andy/beye/beyehome.html There, Andrew Giger, a neuroscientist, has created a program to help you understand what bees see.

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