Toronto Star column – published November 22, 2014
Bees Make the Best Pets
“When bees disappear from the face of the earth humans will only last four more years.” ~ Maurice Maeterlinck (but often attributed to Albert Einstein)
There has been a lot of buzzing about bees in the last while. Seems everyone has an opinion about the potential banning of a certain classification of pesticides called ‘neonics’ which, arguably, may be responsible for the drastic reduction in bee populations over recent years. Whether you eat honey, raise bees or are indifferent to them, everyone has an interest in the welfare of bees.
It is timely, then, that a small tome should cross my desk from Conari Press, an American publisher of the new book Bees Make the Best Pets (not ‘pests’!). It is written by an experienced apiarist (beekeeper), Jack Mingo, who uses a friendly, sometime humorous approach to the topic. Here is my take on a book worth putting on your Christmas list if you have even the slightest interest in bees, their future and our future (to the extent that our futures are linked together, which Einstein may have said they are …but probably not).
First, some useful trivia and facts about bees:
– When bees fly they do so in the note of B (as they should) or 248 vibrations per second.
– Worker bees are all female. Males are used for sex and then shoved out of the hive to fend for themselves or simply put to death and disposed of. More on this later.
– Bees use their wings to air condition the hive on a hot day, heat it on a cold day and vent it when things get a little stale inside the hive (they are fastidious housekeepers).
– A queen bee can be several months to several years old. A worker bee generally lives for up to 6 weeks and then drops dead (likely from exhaustion). Yes, it is possible for a bee to work itself to death. All for the common good of the hive, however.
– The rumours are true: bees perform a dance to communicate the location of pollen-producing flowers so that other workers in the hive can find them. It is important not to move a hive once established for this reason.
– A foraging bee can fly with 40 grams of nectar back to the hive, which is roughly 30% of its body weight. Once the nectar has been delivered, another worker bee (they have very specific job descriptions) can carry 100 grams, or more than 80% of its body weight, into the bowels of the hive (now, you try that).
– While a pint of water weighs about a pound (or 454 grams) a pint of honey weighs a pound and 6 ounces (or 726 grams). Honey is dense!
– Bees find the most nectar-rich flowers by their scent, not their sight. For this reason they return to the hive with the wind at their back, or, put another way, on most days they travel west to forage and east to get home. They can travel up to 10 kilometres to find food.
– In addition to pollen, worker bees forage for water and propolis, a sticky substance exuded by evergreen trees and used to patch up the colony.
– Five eyes. “Ocelli” are three eyes that each bee has on the top of its head. These are light sensitive sensors that help orient the bee while in flight. The two big eyes on either side of its head are for sensing danger and locating pollen and water sources.
– Bees have two pairs of wings, six legs and a pair of antennae. With a brain that is less than 1,000 times smaller than our own, they manage just fine with all of these appendages, thank you very much.
– Bees are much needed in the world of agriculture and horticulture as primary pollinators. Their fur, which covers most of their body, has an electrostatic charge, like you get when you rub a balloon against your hair. This charge causes pollen to be attracted to their whole body while attending flowers, covering them head to toe in the stuff.
– Busy bees do need a rest from time to time. A bee finds respite by sticking their head into an empty cell in the hive, with its rear end sticking out. Ahhh. Peace at last.
– There are over 20,000 bee species, most of them solitary or clustering in groups of 50 to 100 (like native bumble bees). Only honey bees cluster in hives of up to 50,000 per.
– Wasps are not bees but bees evolved from wasps, of which there are over 100,000 known species
Why buy locally produced honey?
I am no sommelier of honey (or wine) but I can detect a difference between the locally produced stuff and the mass produced branded honey. The flowery notes and hints of our seasons disappear in the pasteurizing of honey. When they heat it up, the flavonoids (a word that I made up) are effectively killed off.
Ok, we have to talk about this as without it there would be no bees (or ‘us’ for that matter). The need to discuss it here springs from the fact that sex as we know it is about as unorthodox as you could possibly imagine in the world of bees.
Bees are hatched from eggs, which are laid by the queen bee. There is only one active queen in a hive at one time, unless the colony is in the course of changing queens, which is a different matter. A queen bee is ‘made’ or ‘crowned’ by worker bees who decide that one young, juicy, sporty looking bee qualifies for the job and is therefore fed propolis and other fortified substances until she is ready to be fertilized by drones.
Drones are male bees whose only purpose is to have sex with the queen, who stores the sperm in her body for the day when she needs it. After she makes love with a few of the healthy drones, they die an unspeakable death (‘unspeakable’ cause this is a family newspaper) or they are just not made welcome at the hive, and, if they are lucky, are picked off by a bird for dinner.
A queen lays about 1,000 and 1,500 eggs each day. She lays mostly female eggs (as they are needed in great numbers to do all of the work) and occasionally when the cadre of drones calls for it, a few males.
You may see a swarm of bees huddling on a branch of a tree in summertime when a queen decides that she has had enough of living indoors making babies and hightails it outside. Up to one half of the working colony of bees will follow her. If you see a swarm, leave it alone or, better still, contact your local bee authority (an apiarist) to have the queen moved back to her home, where the workers will dutifully follow her.
The life of bees can be mysterious and complicated but the book Bees Make the Best Pets is sweet with useful information and anecdotes. It is equally informative as it is humorous. The book will not help us answer the questions about whether or not we should ban neonics, but it will make you sound smart and informed next time you gather with co-workers around the water cooler (an indulgence foreign to the busy bee).
One more bit of trivia:
It is instructive to note that one worker bee produces about one teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. Think about that when you next sit down for breakfast and scoop the life’s work of several bees onto your toast or into your tea.