Remarkable Facts about Honeybees

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There are only 7 species of honeybee in the world.
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“Planting for Honeybees” by Sarah Wyndham Lewis teaches gardeners to use their backyards to give the honeybee population a helping hand.

Planting for Honeybees (Quadrille, 2018) by Sarah Wyndham Lewisis a guide to help gardeners attract these friendly buzzing bees to their yards all season long. Wyndham Lewis also gives readers a look into the world and history of honeybees, showing why it is so important that they stick around. In the following excerpt, she tells readers her favorite honeybee facts.

The more we learn about honeybees, the more fascinating they are. They live not as individuals, but as a super-organism in a perfectly ordered society and they are in every way adapted to live purposeful and productive lives without wasting time, energy or natural resources. Here are a few glimpses into their complex world.

1. Of an estimated 25,000 known species of bee worldwide, only seven species are honeybees.

2. Honeybees have been on earth, making honey, for about 100 million years. (Modern humans have only been around for a fraction of that time – around 200,000 years.)

3. Honeybees are unique in storing honey to allow them to overwinter as a colony or to survive lean times. No other type of bee does this.

4. Honeybees play a role in pollinating around 30 per cent of our vegetables and fruit and 90 per cent of wildflowers. Good pollination leads to better cropping, feeding not just people, but also many animals, birds and insects.

5. Honeybees evolved as tree-dwellers and still need to gather the majority of their forage from trees and shrubs rather than from garden flowers or wildflowers.

6. Honeybees are vegetarians. They visit flowers to gather pollen (protein to feed their brood) and nectar (carbohydrate for energy), which they turn into honey to feed adult bees as well as to lay down as winter stores. Every year, each hive needs to gather around 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of pollen and 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of nectar just to survive before any honey crop can be taken.

7. All worker bees are female. Male bees (drones) do no work in the hive; their sole purpose in life is to fertilize a queen.

8. Honeybees’ antennae detect sound and vibration and give them an amazing sense of smell, allowing them to detect specific forage sources up to 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) away. They also use them like cats’ whiskers, as a physical gauge of space.

9. Honeybees tend to forage within a 4.5-kilometer (3-mile) radius of their hive. They can fly farther afield, but the energy requirement to do this leads to diminishing returns for the hive. They navigate using a variety of means, including physical landmarks, the position of the sun (which their polarizing eyes allow them to see even on cloudy days) and a magneto receptor in their abdomen that senses the Earth’s magnetic field.

10. Scout bees locate sources of forage and return to the hive with samples to share. If the samples pass muster, the scouts then communicate the source’s whereabouts by ‘waggle dancing’ the directions to their sisters.

11. Honeybees have five eyes: a large compound eye on either side of their head and three small eyes (ocelli) on the top of their head that act as a navigation system. They see in color, but are most sensitive to the blue end of the spectrum and into ultraviolet. Hairs between the compound lenses detect wind conditions, helping them stay on course.

12. An individual honeybee visits 100 or more flowers in a single foraging trip. Unlike many other pollinators, honeybees will only forage on a single type of flower on any one trip.

13. Flowers give off a positive electrical charge for some time after being visited by a bee, and the bees also leave a chemical ‘footprint’. These and additional signals alert other pollinators not to bother visiting that bloom for nectar at that time.

14. Honeybees will visit about two million flowers and fly around 80,000 kilometers (50,000 miles) to make a 454 gram- (1 pound-) jar of honey.

15. During its entire lifetime, a single foraging bee will collect enough nectar to make one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey.

16. The normal top speed of a worker bee is around 24–32 km/h (15–20 mph) when flying to a food source and about 19 km/h (12 mph) when returning fully laden. The ‘buzz’ that a bee makes is the sound of its wings, which beat up to 16,000 times per minute.

17. Year round, the bees keep the core hive temperature at between 32 and 35 degrees Celsius (89 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit). In hot weather, they dispel heat by fanning their wings. In winter, they isolate their flight muscles, using them to generate heat through ‘shivering’ without wing motion.

18. In high summer, a busy hive can contain as many as 70,000 female worker bees, plus the queen and several thousand drones (males). In winter, the colony will drop to around a quarter of its summer size.

19. Spring- and summer-born worker bees perform a series of predetermined jobs during their five- to six-week lifespan (bees born in the autumn will live through the winter until spring). In the first three weeks of their lives, they progress from cleaning the comb and feeding larvae to receiving pollen and nectar from incoming bees. Other jobs include beeswax production. Only in the last stage of their lives do they leave the hive to work as a forager.

20. Bees do not hibernate. In autumn, the female workers throw the drones out of the hive to avoid feeding them through winter. The remaining colony clusters around the queen and will fly whenever the outside temperature is above 10 degrees Celsius (50 degrees Fahrenheit).

21. Drones die in the process of mating, which takes place in flight. The queen makes just one nuptial trip in her life, during the course of which she will mate with many drones. She collects a lifetime supply of sperm, which she stores in her abdomen.

22. The queen is larger than the workers and has a fertile life of three to four years. Her key function is to lay eggs, which she does mainly in the spring and early summer, peaking at the summer solstice in June, when she might be laying as many as 2,000 eggs a day. As she is unable to care for herself, attendant bees follow her around to feed her, groom her and take away her waste.

23. Every queen has her own unique pheromone ‘signature’ which is spread throughout the hive from bee to bee. Amongst their many functions, her pheromones act as a ‘password’ so that intruder bees from other hives can quickly be recognized.

More from: Planting for Honeybees

The History of Bees with Plants and People
Top 10 Tips for Planting for Honeybees

Excerpted with permission from Planting For Honeybees by Sarah Wyndham Lewis, published by Quadrille March 2018, RRP $16.99 hardcover.