Honeybees are a critical part of our food system, and they are also downright miraculous insects. Even the most well known facts about honeybees are somewhat unexpected, but the more you delve into their unusual lives, the more surprised you will be.
Instead of migrating like so many animals or hibernating through the freezing winter months, bees stay awake and are, in fact, quite busy during winter. They are not flying back and forth from flower to hive, but they are maintaining their hive and keeping their queen healthy.
Once the temperatures start to dip below 50 degrees F, honeybees gather in a “winter cluster” in the hive, beating their wings rapidly to keep the hive temperature between 40 and 95 degrees. They use all of the honey they’ve gathered over the summer to keep themselves well fed, and on warm winter days you will see them buzzing around, stretching their wings and tossing debris out the hive opening.
The average speed of a honeybee in flight is 15 miles per hour, but a hurried worker bee has been known to fly up to 20mph. This enables them to travel up to seven miles for nectar and return to the hive in a timely manner.
While most worker bees only live for a few weeks, and drones (the male workers inside the hive) survive for a few months, the queen bee of a hive can live for up to five years. As long as she is healthy and producing eggs for her colony, a queen will be well cared for by her hive and can keep producing for several years.
The average queen bee will lay 200 eggs a day, replenishing her workers and drones and giving the hive new life as it grows.
Honey is inarguably a pretty miraculous food. It may be the only food that never truly expires or goes bad. The eternal life of honey is thanks to its chemical make up, which is very low in moisture but is “hygroscopic," meaning it wicks moisture for the air around it.
The oldest jar of honey ever found was over 5,500 years old, and was found in what is now Tbilisi, Georgia. Scientists say that this ancient honey is still edible, and would most likely taste very similar to today’s honey, but it’s uncertain if any of them have actually tried it.
The painful, itching spot where a bee stings can also be good for your health. Bee venom treatments are not uncommon today, and are used to treat symptoms of various ailments including arthritis and MS. Bee venom contains certain compounds that help to block inflammation, which can lead to blessed relief for many patients.
Of course, bee venom therapy should only be conducted with great care. Most people react to a bee sting with a red welt in the area and some irritation and itching, but some will have severe swelling and pain, and those allergic to bees can go into anaphylactic shock.
Your little buzzing friend may well know exactly who you are. Honeybees are capable of recognizing individual human faces and can remember a person’s features from one sighting to another. Research has indicated that bees can recognize a face that provides them with sugar water, versus one that does not.
Female bees who are not the designated hive queen, known as “worker bees," are the only ones equipped with a stinger. Larger male bees, known as drones, rarely leave the hive and when they do they are relatively defenseless without a sharp stinger.
Unlike other insects which will usually bite their victims, honeybees only sting if they feel threatened and once they have stung, they will not survive. Other kinds of bees and wasps can sting and sting again, but the honeybee leaves behind its stinger. This self-amputating strategy is fatal to the bee.
Bees are some of the hardest workers in the world. To produce one pound of honey, a worker bee must visit two million flowers. This typically means flying over 55,000 miles for a single pound of honey — but the average individual bee only produces 1/12 teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. That means that the whole hive, between 20,000 and 60,000 honeybees, must work full time to produce 60-100 pounds of honey in a year. This amount of honey allows them to survive the winter with honey left over in the spring.
To show the rest of the hive the way to a nectar-rich patch of flowers, a worker be will do a little dance for the hive which is known as the “waggle dance”. This complex system of giving directions can also tell the rest of the bees the way to a water source or help them plan the location for a new hive. This completely unique “language” or method of communicating involves indicates the direction of the sun and includes a rapid vibrating of the bee’s abdomen.
It’s true that other insects and animals can pollinate our crops. In China, apple farmers spend hours hand pollinating their trees with delicate paint bushes. Wasps, beetles, butterflies, hummingbirds, and even bats do their share of pollinating. But that is only a small share of the pollinating needs of our world.
Scientists estimate that the humble honeybee is responsible for up to 90% of the pollination of all fruit, vegetable, and seed crops on Earth. With bees dying off at an alarming rate thanks to a combination of modern factors, the survival of the human food system becomes ever more endangered. Without the honey bee, it is hard to believe we would have any viable crops.
Kirsten Lie-Nielsen is rebuilding a 200-year-old homestead in rural Maine, using geese for weeding and guarding purposes, raising chickens for eggs, bees for honey, and maintaining vegetable gardens for personal use. Find Kirsten online at Hostile Valley Living's site, Facebook page, and Instagram, and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS blog posts here.
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