The basics of bees, the fundamentals of apiology, the birds and the… wait, no that’s not right. No one’s here to talk about birds. Welcome to the kick-off of our blog about all things bee. Let’s start talking about bees!
A Little Bit of History
Bees have been around for ages. The oldest bee fossil dates back a hundred million years. It was discovered in Myanmar, trapped in ancient amber, and supports the theory that bees evolved from wasps. And thank goodness for that. Over a third of our agriculture depends on the busy work of bees, and they pollinate around 80% of all the plants on the planet. Without bees, our food choices would be significantly more boring — all rice and grains and no blueberries, almonds, coffee or colourful veggies.
Human beings and honey bees have been in a relationship for thousands of years. People started collecting honey from wild bees over ten thousand years ago, and the Egyptians domesticated bees around 4,500 years ago. It’s perhaps a bit of one-sided relationship, where humans have been using honey bees to help out with the farming, nicking their honey and painting them as the antagonists in our movies. They depend on us not to ruin their sources of nectar and pollen, although we haven’t been so good at that in recent years.
A Little of Bit of Taxonomy
Bees belong to the order of Hymenoptera (wee beasties with clear membraned wings like ants, wasps and bees), the superfamily Apoidea, and the clade Anthophila. The common honeybee is called Apis Mellifera (honey bearing bee).
Cool Bee Fact: The genetic regulation of honey bees is more similar to humans than to other insects.
Mild-mannered Apis Mellifera, originally from Europe, is the honeybee of choice for most beekeepers, since they are generally pretty tolerant of people mucking about in their hives.
African bees are a little more energetic than their European sisters. They defend their hives vociferously and will attack in the hundreds. A well-intentioned scientist brought them over to South America in the late 1950s, where they easily settled into their environment, escaped from quarantine and spread upwards into the southern United States, causing widespread panic about killer bees and a handful of B movies.
There are somewhere around 400-500 hundred species of wild bees in British Columbia. Wild bees include the adorably dopey bumblebees, solitary bees, sweat bees, bees that bite instead of sting, bees that nest in the ground and creepy vulture bees that feed on carrion.
A Little Bit of Hive Magic
Bees construct their hives by chewing on the wax produced by specialized glands in their abdomens, and shaping it into hexagonal honeycomb, into which they store honey and the queen deposits her eggs. Worker bees, as the name suggests, do all the work, while the queen mates and then hangs around in the dark, surrounded by her attendants, and lays eggs. The male drones do very little; they loaf around and eat until it’s time to mate with a young queen and then they die.
A worker bee flits from flower to flower, slurping up nectar into her honey stomach (bees have one stomach for eating and another for nectar storage). In the honey stomach, enzymes are added to the nectar, and she regurgitates and chews on it. Back at the hive, she deposits the chewed-up nectar into a cell of honeycomb and dries it out by fanning it with her wings. If she’s found a particularly good source of nectar, she’ll share samples of the nectar with her sisters and do the ‘waggle dance’ — a series of precise steps that shows how far away and in what direction the source can be found.
The process from nectar to honey is all about removing the excess water: nectar is 80% water and honey is 17%. It takes anywhere between one and seven days to turn nectar into honey. At which point, the cell is capped with beeswax and there it stays until the bees eat it or a beekeeper collects it.
Cool bee fact: Early voodoo dolls were made out of beeswax.
A hive can make twenty to sixty pounds of honey in a year; to survive the winter, a hive will need around sixty pounds of honey. A worker bee who does an average amount of foraging will make just one teaspoon of honey in her whole life. A thriving hive can have anywhere from 60,000 to 100,000 bees, each of them contributing its own tiny portion to the survival of the whole community.