All About Bees – Part 1

In June, Community gardener and beekeeper Bill Kiggen gave a presentation entitled “All about Bees” at Adams Farm.  His talk focused on honeybees, ampoule beekeeping and the bees’ role in pollination.

There are over 20,000 species of bees in the world.  Bees have inhabited the earth for many millions of years. The earliest recorded history of our relationship with bees was illustrated on a 10,000-year-old drawing from India depicting hunter-gatherers harvesting honey.  The ancient Egyptians were the first to build and manage portable hives; ancient hieroglyphs documented their beekeeping process.  Cave drawings in Spain many thousands of years old also portray honey gathering.  The Greeks decorated their coins with bees, noting their importance to the economy.

Life in the Hive

Honeybees live as a colony.  Queen bees are long and thin.  There is one queen bee per hive who will lay on average 1,500 eggs per day.  The worker bees are the smallest and are all female.  They build and maintain the hive by foraging.  The drones are larger than the worker bees.  As males, their job is to mate with the queen, spreading genetic diversity.  Once they have mated, they die.

The main characteristics of honeybees are cooperation, economy and industry.  It takes just 21 days for an egg laid by the queen bee in a hive to develop into a bee.  Worker bees are constantly busy.  Their wings, which beat 200 times per second, are worn out after a lifespan of just 6 weeks.  If honeybees sting you, they will die.  However, if you’re not perceived to be a threat, they will leave you alone.

When a bee colony gets too large, the hive splits in two.  Two-thirds of the bees remain in the existing hive, while one-third fill up on honey and leave to find a new home.

Pollination 

One-third of all the food we eat is created by pollinators.  Since wind is a very haphazard, inefficient pollinator, plants must attract other pollinators, hence the bright colors and simple shape of their flowers that bees can recognize.  When spring arrives, honeybees are ready to go.  They need the protein in the pollen and carbohydrates in the nectar of flowers, and are essential to the pollination of early-flowering crops.  About 85% of all plants exist because of bees.  A good way to attract bees to your garden is to plant star flowers, or borage which is self-seeding and easily controlled.  The bees love it.

On their first flights out from the hive, it’s important for the bees to establish the hive’s location, noting landmarks and orienting themselves by taking short flights before beginning to forage.  Bees can travel as far as 3 miles from the hive, visiting 50 to 100 flowers per trip.  They are constantly communicating where food sources are, using a complicated waggle dance to describe the location of flowers to other bees in the hive.

How Honey is Made

Before we discovered sugar cane and learned how to process it, honey was our only source of sugar.  Honey is the only food that includes all the substances necessary to sustain life, including water.  Honey found in jars in the tombs of pharaohs was still edible!  This is because honey never spoils.

Enzymes in the bee’s stomach convert the nectar it collects from flowers into honey.  The nectar is deposited in the hexagonal compartments of the honeycomb of the hive.  Each compartment is capped when the honey is ready.  If honey is harvested too soon, it will be too wet and will ferment.  In its lifetime, a bee creates just 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey.

Continue on to All About Bees – Part 2

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