Busy as a Bee
Two weeks ago i got the opportunity to visit a local bee farmer in HK thanks to a good friend of mine, I have always been fascinated by the dedication of these so important creatures. We usually see them as a summer nuisance and fear their painful sting while they are actually pretty peaceful and on top they produce such nice gold…the honey…
We should keep in mind that the honey is just a by-product, what they really do for us is far more important , we could literally be starving without them when you take a closer look about how much of our food gets pollinated by them. Be it directly or indirectly…..without bees there wouldn’t be alfa-alfa so our meat production systems could collapse without them.
I invite you to take a look at the shortlist of our food that would disappear if our zooming friends wouldn’t be around: http://honeylove.org/list-of-food/ The numerous articles appearing about the massive decline in bee-colonies is really worrying, to me it makes no sense to fight over the main reason,as always it is a combination of factors in which us humans play a big role: viruses, habitat loss, pollution and not to be underestimated the use of chemicals and pesticides especially the famous or should i say notorious neonicotinoids. As always where there are big corporations (read money) involved there is a controversy whether they are the main cause of the mass bee decline in recent years , i guess similar to what happens these days with the banning of Roundup which for decades was considered the miracle solution in our industrial farming concepts . We are just loosing precious time over proof and evidence ,time that we unfortunately don”t have but right… denial seems to be a philosophy these days….
An early morning trip to the New territories got planned and it turned out to be an amazing experience .
We got an in depth round tour into the complex life of the bees by a very passionate Chinese beekeeper, the guy has been taking care of bee-colonies for over 30 years so yes an expert.
The more he explained the complex life of these magnificent creatures the more impressed I got. When it comes to dedication,loyalty and sacrifice our zooming friends are hard to beat….everything is set aside and sacrificed to secure the next generation….to a scary point sometimes!
There is so much to learn and say about them that it would require to write a book, this is by far not my intention , a short simple insight in the lifecycle of the bees will give you a good idea and sure your respect will grow for these creatures that are under huge pressure ,just this time we threatening ourselves much more then we might realise…
So let us have a closer look inside the bee’s world. Three different kinds of honey bees live inside a bee hive. The hive cannot survive unless it has all three. Each of the honey bees, the queen, the worker bees and the drones or male bees have their distinctive job to do.
Let us start with the queen bee, all of us think that she is the big boss of the hive and rules as a real Queen, she is essential for sure but she is not bossing anyone , there can only be one though! She has the longest body of all three types of bees. She also has a stinger, but unlike the worker bee stinger it does not have a fish-hook like barb on the end if it. As a result she can sting multiple times and not die from it. The major purpose of her stinger is to kill any rival queen bees that may be around when she first emerges from her cell. Quite cruel right ,first thing she does by instinct when she hatches is go find other queen capsules in the hive and pierce them to death with her sting…Shortly after emerging from her cell the Queen Bee will leave the hive to make her virgin flight to be mated multiple times by various drones ( male honey bees). This will provide her with enough semen to last her lifetime.This will be her only time out of the hive unless the whole colony moves out to a new home , in that case she would be surrounded by the whole colony guarding her at all cost, if she would be weak and die during that trip the whole colony would just stay with her and die from starvation.
The Queen’s sole job is to lay eggs. She has an army of young worker bees who stay with her at all times to feed her and take care of her needs.Yes she actually can’t eat by herself , if she would be surrounded by loads of honey in her own hive she would die without the workers , she actually takes the food from the mouth from her workers and can’t feed without them….During the egg laying season she lays eggs continuously and can lay up to 800 a day. This maximum production is intended to build up the supply of worker bees to be ready and get out there to gather nectar when the flowers first emerge in spring.
She can live three or four years . However, her egg laying ability may deteriorate in mid-life. In this case the worker bees will decide that it is time to replace her and will begin to build special larger cells, which resemble peanut shells, in which to raise new queen. This is a process called ‘supercedure’. If the queen cannot lay a sufficient number of eggs, then the chances of the hive being able to survive is not good so the worker bees will create a new queen and the circle starts again with only one goal, secure the next generation…we still have to learn so much about the communication within the hive about all these decisions .
It takes 16 days from the day her egg is laid to her eventual emergence as a mature Queen Bee.
Amazingly the egg is the same egg that can become a worker bee. It is believed that the quantity of food that is fed to the pupa leads to her becoming a Queen Bee. It has been observed that after three days of being fed, when the cell is sealed, a large quantity of food is left inside the sealed cell. This not the case when a worker bee cell is capped, genius it is!
During the summer honey flow worker honey bees travel about 55,000 miles to gather enough nectar to produce one pound of honey. Each individual Worker will only produce about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey and about 1/80th of a teaspoon of beeswax in their life-span.
She works so hard during the nectar gathering season that she actually wears herself out and dies in about three weeks.
In late fall there will only be about 12,000 honey bees living inside a hive, compared to the near 50,000 plus that live in the hive during the nectar gathering season. Most of these bees that are the youngest will still be alive inside the hive when Spring arrives.
While the worker bee is female she is not fertile and cannot lay an egg that can become a Queen Bee, if she stings she will die, as the fish-hook like barb the sting has at the end will tear out her intestines when removed…the worker bees have different jobs within the hive, from guards over fanning bees to keep the hive cool in summer ,cleaning out the hive, remove dead bees to foraging etc, nobody complains ,unity and efficiency at it’s best.
So this brings us to the last inhabitants of a hive, the male honey bees or drones. It’s not really helping men’s self esteem to write their function but i have to be complete….Men, sorry but forget about all the romantic stories about the birds and the bees and be grateful we are not male bees, no space for romance in the bee-world….The drone performs no useful functions inside the hive at all. It goes inside the hive to rest and eat. It also doesn’t have a stinger to defend itself or its hive. It’s sole function in its life is to fly around above the ground ever on the alert for a virgin queen bee on her once in a lifetime maiden flight.
Most men may think that this is the ideal lifestyle. Not really….as the act of sex with the queen bee will result with its seminal sack being ripped out of its body to be stored for future use inside the body of the queen bee…..still wanna be a bee?
Now if he is one of the many drones who don’t have the” good fortune” to hook up with a virgin queen bee, he is not much longer in this world anyway. When the colder weather comes along , all the drones are either kicked out of the hive or are no longer allowed to come inside. From the worker’s point of view they are not necessary for the survival of the hive through the winter as they serve no function, they just hang around and eat honey.
The worker bees can create new drones when they are needed the following spring.
After all this, it was time for some honey tasting, longan,lychee,mangrove flowers, the complex tastes were all just wonderful, very different from the pasteurised, all too often mixed with sugar honey that is commercially available! When it comes to honey…go for raw! A good way to test seems to be: if you put a spoon of raw honey into water it will just sink to the bottom and not easily dissolve unlike most commercial honey.
The beekeeper was keeping Asian bees as well as European bees so the cultural difference question became unavoidable , again it didn’t help the foreigner’s self esteem but I found it quite funny: the Asian bees are smaller but work harder he said,they get up early in the morning and go feed on all the flowers , around 10 am the European bees come out and are a bit more moody, seems they kind of complain there isn’t enough food left, we were joking that soon they will form a union and ask the government to provide more food:)
It was a very interesting visit seeing how bees live the ultimate serving life in function of the next generation , by doing that they pollinate a tremendous amount of our daily food and on top we steal their nice honey,propolis and royal jelly from them and make countless products from the beeswax, so we should really treasure and protect these magnificent zooming creatures with all possible means!
Personally I am triggered to build a hive and give beekeeping a try in the future !
Reference: Beekeeping for all,by Abbe Warre
photos: Marnick Vanelslander