Friday, March 11, 2011

The Honeybee: Working For Humanity's Sake

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that out of some 100 crop species which provide 90% of food worldwide, 71 of these are bee-pollinated. In Europe alone, 84% of the 264 crop species are animal-pollinated and 4,000 vegetable varieties exist thanks to pollination by bees.
UNEP: Global Honeybee Colony Disorders
and Other Threats to Insect Pollinators, 2010

Starting the Honey-Making Process: A European honey bee (Apis mellifera) extracts nectar from an Aster flower using its proboscis. Tiny hairs covering the bee's body maintain a slight electrostatic charge, causing pollen from the flower's anthers to stick to the bee, allowing for pollination when the bee moves on to another flower.
Photo Credit: John Severns, 2007
In a previous post, Where Have All the Bees Gone, I wrote about the importance of bees and the as-yet unexplained phenomena of colony collapse disorder, or CCD, in which bees from a hive disappear. There is further news. In an article, published yesterday in The Guardian, Alison Benjamin comments that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) report gives some answers, but not enough:
Most significantly, the Unep report does not look at honeybees in isolation but as one of the insects and animals that contributes €153bn globally by pollinating crops. Taken together it concludes there is insufficient data to demonstrate a current worldwide pollinator crisis.

Yet it points to a potential crisis unless we reverse the loss of habitat and flowers that are threatening wild pollinators such as bumble bees and solitary bees and rightly calls for famers who plant wild flower margins and set-aside land to restore habitats and food for pollinators to be financially rewarded.
It's a step in the right direction, but let's hope the politics of Big Business, in this case, agribusiness, does not get in the way of sound science and sound policy to protect our food supply.  There is too much at stake here for humanity to let decisions of that nature to become compromised. The health of the honeybee, among other insects that polinate our crops, is too important to ignore for long.

So, what about the humble and hardworking honeybee and the inner workings of a colony? The honeybee, Apis mellifera, in addition to pollination,, plays an important role in the manufacture of honey. Bees have 6 legs, 2 eyes, and 2 wings, a nectar pouch, and a stomach.

Now, in a colony of 50,000, three classes of honeybees reside: one queen, the workers, which are female; and the drones, which are male.
  • THE QUEEN: The queen is the only sexually developed female in the hive, and is the largest bee in the colony. A two-day-old larva is selected by the workers to be reared as the queen. She will emerge from her cell 11 days later to mate in flight with approximately 18 drone (male) bees. During this mating, she receives several million sperm cells, which last her entire life-span of nearly two years. The queen starts to lay eggs about ten days after mating. A productive queen can lay 3,000 eggs in a single day.
  • THE WORKERS: These are female, numbering 50,000 undeveloped females who do all the work.
  • THE DRONES:  Numbering in the hundreds, drones are stout male bees that have no stingers. Drones do not collect food or pollen from flowers. Their sole purpose is to mate with the queen. If the colony is short on food, as is the case during winter months, they are sent out of the hive.

Honeybee carrying pollen: A 12-mm long Apis mellifera returns to its hive carrying pollen in a pollen basket. This photo is taken in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, on a private facility.
Photo Credit Muhammad Mahdi Karim, April 2009.:

The honeybee's wings stroke 11,400 times per minute, thus making the distinctive buzz sound. Bees store their venom in a sac attached to their stinger; and only female bees sting.That is because the stinger, called an ovipositor, is part of the female bee’s reproductive design. A queen bee uses her ovipositor to lay eggs as well as sting. Sterile females, also called worker bees, don’t lay eggs. They just use their ovipositors to sting.

The primary purpose of a drone bee is to fertilize a new queen. Multiple drones will mate with any given queen in flight, and each drone will die immediately after mating; the process of insemination requires a lethally convulsive effort.

Bees can see all colors except the color red. That and their sense of smell help them find the flowers they need to collect pollen. Not only is pollen a food source for bees, but some of the pollen is dropped in flight, resulting in cross pollination. The relationship between the plant and the insect is called  symbiosis.

Here are some more honeybee facts:
  1. The queen's job is simple—laying the eggs that will spawn the hive's next generation of bees. There is usually only a single queen in a hive. If the queen dies, workers will create a new queen by feeding one of the worker females a special diet of a food called "royal jelly." This elixir enables the worker to develop into a fertile queen. 
  2. Bees live on stored honey and pollen all winter, and cluster into a ball to conserve warmth. Larvae are fed from the stores during this season and, by spring, the hive is swarming with a new generation of bees.
  3. A bee can fly for up to six miles, and as fast as 15 miles per hour. A honey bee visits 50 to 100 flowers during a collection trip.
  4. A worker bee (female) gathers 0.0288 of an ounce of honey. About 556 worker bees are needed to gather a full pound of honey.
  5.  The average life=span of a worker bee during the working season is about six weeks. Three weeks of this time is spent on work within the hive, and three weeks as a field bee gathering nectar and pollen.
  6. Bees have 2 pairs of wings. The wings have tiny teeth so they can lock together when the bee is flying. Bees communicate through chemical scents called pheromones and through special bee dances. 
Their value to bettering the lives of humans is undeniable, and pretty impressive for an insect that is so small yet so important. It is the only insect known to produce edible food for humanity, in the form of honey. 

Leonardo da Vinci, the great Renaissance artist and scientist, placed the creative power of the honeybee in context: “The men of experiment are like the ant; they only collect and use. But the bee gathers its materials from the flowers of the garden and of the field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own."


Note: To find out more, I would recommend the excellent documentary, Vanishing of the Bees, directed by George Langworthy and Maryam Henein, and narrated by Ellen Page.

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