By Steve Linenfelser • Outdoors writer
I stopped by to visit my friends Bob and Debbie Wilson the other day to see what was new. Bob told me just recently his next-door neighbors, Paul and Judy Blackburn, had told them a few days ago of a huge nest of bees swarming across the street.
The bees turned out to be swarming honey bees, and they eventually landed on the Wilson’s trumpet bush in their back yard. They decided to call an old friend, Bill Thompson who lives near Onsted. Bill just happens to be a bee keeper and he came out to take a look. Thompson put on his bee suit and hat and approached the bees cautiously. After spraying them with water to keep them from flying away easily, Thompson shook the bees in to a container and eventually ended up with about 2½ pounds of bees. I personally would have loved to witness this, but Judy Blackburn was kind enough to send me a few pictures. The queen apparently wasn’t able to be retrieved, and when I took a look later, you could still see honey bees coming out of a hollow spot in the Wilson’s trumpet bush. Pretty cool.
Honey bees not only produce honey, but are vital in nature to pollinate crops and flowers. They are also quite fascinating.
A colony of honey bees consist of eggs, larvae, pupa and adults. There is usually one queen, a few thousand to up to 60,000 worker bees, which are sexually immature females, and sexually developed male bees called drones. The number of drones vary depending on the size of the colony, which can be a few to over a hundred. Drone bees are hatched from unfertilized eggs. Larvae that are given a combination of honey and pollen become workers.
A queen bee is produced when a larvae that normally would develop in to a worker bee is fed a special gland food called royal jelly. Her cell is constructed to be larger, and hence a queen is produced. Several queens may be produced this way, but the newly hatched queen will seek out other queens and kill them. A new queen is produced if she is accidentally killed, or if she can no longer produce, or if the colony swarms.
The queen leaves the nest when it is time to mate, usually a distance away to prevent interbreeding. The queen then mates with several drones in midair, about twenty feet off the ground. Drones find her when she produces a pheromone that attracts them. They don’t pollinate flowers or crops, and have no stinger. The drones then die after breeding.
The queen lays the greatest number of eggs in the spring and summer. During peak season, she may lay 1,500 eggs a day! Just one queen may lay over 250,000 eggs a year and perhaps a million in her lifetime, which averages around 2-3 years. She may live up to five years. When a colony gets real big, bees swarm to find a new home.
The workers bees will maintain the nest by creating wax combs which stores their carbohydrate food (honey) and protein (bee pollen). Honey is an amazing food in that it is rich in nutrients and bacteria can’t live in it, so it doesn’t spoil. During the Civil War, soldiers would not only eat honey but also occasionally put it in their small cuts to keep bacteria out. Honey bees also work to keep the temperature in the nest around 93 degrees. They do this by bringing water inside the nest that will evaporate. During the fall and when the temperature drops, the bees will begin to form a tight cluster. The queen stays within the cluster and moves with it as they shift position.
During the fall, the workers collect Propolis from buds of trees to seal off cracks in the hive and reduce the size of the entrance hole to keep out cold air. The bees huddle to stay warm throughout the winter. The drones don’t get such a good deal. Late fall before winter they are dragged outside and are not let back in the hive. They eventually starve to death. Drones eat more than workers, so bees do this to conserve their food during the colder months. I’m glad I’m not a drone bee. Just saying.
We all know honey bees produce honey. They collect a sugary substance called nectar from the blossom of a flower. They store it in what’s called their honey stomach, which is different from their food stomach. The workers then pass this from one worker to the next until the water diminishes. Then it becomes honey. A hive of bees must fly 55,000 miles to produce one pound of honey. That equates to about two million flowers that must be visited! Yes, these bees are indeed busy.
Pollen comes from microscopic particles of male flowers. By the way, bee pollen is not safe for pregnant women, and children under one years of age should not eat honey. You see, honey can contain a spore of a bacterium called clostridium botulinum. This can cause a rare form of food poisoning, botulism, in babies. Of course, adults can eat honey, royal jelly, and bee pollen. It is good stuff and good for you.
Honey bees have few natural enemies. Bears will often tear in to a hive to consume the sweet honey within. Several years ago I knew of a bee keeper down in Kissimmee, Florida that was having trouble keeping black bears out of his bee hive. He finally found a solution. He put up an electric fence. The first night after installing the electric fence he and his dogs were woken out of a sound sleep about 3 a.m. when a bear tried to climb over the fence. After getting shocked, the bear attacked the nearest thing to him: a small tree. The bear ran off and was never seen again. The tree was torn up so badly that it died later.
Honey bees also are used commercially to pollinate huge fields of crops. The bee hives are carried on flatbed trucks and parked near different crop fields. This protects US agriculture, which is valued at over $9 billion dollars.
Honey bees are also now considered a threatened species. If you have a honey bee hive that is too close for comfort to your home and worry someone may get stung, contact a local bee keeper. It protects the honey bee and you may even be compensated financially in some cases.
Summer time is honey time. I do love it on my toast. So if you see some bees pollinating, know that one day you may be enjoying the fruits of their labor. And perhaps you’ll get lucky to witness a swarming hive, too.
Just remember to keep clear. Although honey bees are very docile, they do sting if you get too close to their nest. They love their honey. So much they kick their “boyfriends” out when they eat too much.