How Honeybees Show Up On Your Dining Table
Summer and Seeds
Most plants make seeds in summer to propagate (foster more plants), but some plants need help and the honeybee (technical name: Apis mellifera) comes to their aid year after year. Let’s track a Lily plant to demonstrate:
- The lily contains a sweet nectar liquid in its base; they also make a colored dust called pollen. Pollen is on the flower’s anthers.
- When the bees drinks the nectar they carry it back to the hive, which is a colony of thousands of bees where they live, to be turned into honey.
- As the bee looks through the flower for nectar, some of the pollen sticks to her furry body.
- The bee visits another flower and some of the pollen brushes off, catching onto the new flower’s stigma. This is called pollination. (A honeybee might visit 2,000 different flowers in one day).
- The lily creates a seedpod from this interaction and by fall, all the seeds are fully grown.
- When the lily dies, the seedpod splits open and the seeds fall to the ground to create a new lily.
The Bee’s Drive
Honeybees are driven by their nature to seek nectar, make honey and beeswax and care for their queen and her brood of new bees (up to 2,000 eggs!). When honeybees pollinate a plant, it is referred to in scientific terms as entomophily, or “flowers pollinated by insects.”
For this reason, their work is part of global agriculture, something that happens worldwide. Insect pollination, mostly from honeybees, is essential to one-third of the world’s food supply.
Inside the Hive
Back in the hive there can be 20,000 to 50,000 bees. There is a reigning queen, a few thousand drones and the worker bees. The drones are males whose function it is to reproduce. They will mate with the new queen mid-flight and can live up to five years. The female worker bees feed them all but, in the fall, the hive pushes the drones out to die.
A female worker bee’s first job is house cleaning. They clean perfect-shaped empty honeycomb cells that were used to hold larvae. When they reach adult stage, bee workers digest pollen and produce liquid brood food to feed the new larvae after the queen bee lays her eggs.
Young workers will also make royal jelly, a special food fed to the queen and some of the developing larvae, which they hope will become new queens.
Some workers make wax to store the honey and beebread, which is a combination of pollen and other nutrients.
Once they are about two weeks old, the young bees will fly to the entrance of the hive to collect nectar and pollen. They receive nectar through a special tube—a straw-like mouthpart—and the nectar mixes with the bee’s digestive juices and is put into cells. Then many worker bees fan their wings to increase airflow and evaporate some of the water, as almost 80 percent is water. The process is repeated until it becomes thick sweet honey and then it’s capped. On arrival, they also push the pollen into sacks they make on their hind legs. Other workers chew this and turn it into the high-protein food bees need called beebread.
At three weeks old, bees begins their lives as foragers, looking for more nectar. They will also learn to communicate and dance. When the bee scouts find a new food source, they return to the hive and do an intricate dance until others are convinced to go there.
This whole enterprise is a symbiotic relationship, because the plants need bees to grow more seeds and the bees need nectar and pollen. This mutual partnership benefits a larger group too: people.
Your Dinner Table
Some of the foods that bees pollinate are products that regularly show up at mealtime. For example, oranges, apples, raspberries, watermelon, coconut, coffee, beans, okra, cucumber, strawberry, celery, beets, mustard, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, turnips, peas, peppers, papaya, safflower, caraway, almonds and many more, need bee work. Without honeybees, you could be limited to eating oats, rice and corn.
Some foods such as soybeans or sorghum are wind-pollinated, while others such as bananas or plantains are self-pollinated or propagated from cuttings. Still others like root vegetables and salad greens need no pollination.
It takes 4 billion bees a whole month to produce mountains of almonds.
Other animals that pollinate include hummingbirds, butterflies, moths, beetles and bats. Even lizards, such as geckos, do their wee bit, but nothing is as prolific as the honeybee.
A Disaster of a Mystery
Many people keep and use bees as a business. This is referred to as “industrial animal husbandry.” In the United States in 2007, many beekeepers of a large scale got together. They had experienced losses of millions of bees dying off. They named the mysterious situation Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). By then it wasn’t a local disaster but a situation found around the world. Scientists joined in the process to find out what was killing the bees.
According to Reuters: “Total losses of managed honey bee colonies was 23.2 percent nationwide for the 2013-2014 winter, according to the annual report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the ‘Bee Informed Partnership,’ a group of honeybee industry participants.”
Here are some of their theories for bees dying:
- Mites called varroa that attach themselves to a bee and suck its’ blood.
- Chemicals that kill the mites.
- Fungus called Nosema ceranae, a distant relative to bread mold, that bees may get in their gut (from drinking infected water mostly), which attack the lining of the honeybee’s digestive system.
- Pesticides used to kill other insects, which also may be harmful to people.
- Travel and overwork. Large bee colony owners push their bees to work year-round by moving them from place to place to pollinate crops. Oftentimes a colony is split and multiplied by artificial means and manipulating the queen bee.
- Breeding and stress. Beekeepers who have bred (or crossbred) feral bees into docile bees create species who are weaker and more unable to fight off disease.
- Killer bees arrival and devastation.
What You Can Do
- Buy your honey from local sources
- Plant a garden or flowers that bees like
- Let weeds grow until flowers are finished blooming
- Don’t use pesticides or weed killers
- Encourage your community to leave areas for plants and gardens
- Become an apiarist (beekeeper)