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The buzz about honeybees: our important pollinators.

The honeybee has a built-in contrast. Its honey is one of nature's sweetest bounties while its sting can sour anyone's day. Loved and feared, the relationships between honeybees, plants, beekeepers, and consumers are complex and important to our state's agriculture. A recent Cornell study suggests that honeybees are directly responsible for over $15 billion in annual crops in the United States. More than 50,000 hives dot the New York State landscape, and with peak population nearing 70,000 workers per hive during warm weather, as many as two trillion blossoms are visited by honeybees in the state each day. With numbers like these, it's easy to see why bees are so important.

Facts About Honeybees

Honeybees live in large social groups called colonies, hives or clusters and are one of the few insects that have learned to live through the winter and emerge in the spring ready to pollinate the earliest blossoms. Bees born in the warmer months have a life cycle of just 28-35 days--literally working themselves to death. Generations of honeybees must collect and store food during the spring and summer to enable an unborn generation of worker bees to survive the winter.

Honeybees collect two foods from blossoms: pollen and nectar. Honeybees mix the pollen with nectar to form a mixture called beebread that is a protein-rich food used to feed larvae. Bee pollen contains enzymes, phytosterols, free amino acids, fatty acids, minerals and whole vitamin complexes.

Research suggests that it is an important source of nutrition for honeybees. Although there is some debate about pollen's value as a human food source, many tout it as a healthy dietary supplement.

Important Relationships

While collecting nectar, bees accidentally spread pollen to plants, fertilizing flowers and enabling them to produce seeds, fruit, vegetables, and nuts. Honeybees have evolved special bodies and behaviors to become excellent pollen carriers, including a faithfulness to a particular blossom type during a flight. In this way the honeybee pollinates a particular plant species, and later on may switch to another.

Honeybees are incredible navigators that efficiently locate--and then communicate to others in the hive--where concentrations of nectar can be found. Scout bees return to the hives with samples of nectar and perform a special dance in complete darkness within the hive, communicating the direction and distance to promising new fields of blossoms.

From multiple dances occurring at one time the bees somehow choose the best locations and deploy the field force in an optimal way. With a little practice you can interpret the wiggles of the dance and estimate the angle to the sun and distance that must be traveled to reach new nectar flows. Karl yon Frisch was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1972 for verifying this "dance hypothesis."

Queen Bees

Because worker bees only live about six weeks in the warm months, the single queen in each hive must produce as many as 2,000 eggs each day. A queen bee is able to produce these fertile eggs year-round because she is born with an ovary full of eggs and another pouch called a spermatheca. Soon after her birth, a queen mates with as many as 18 drones from other hives and the spermatheca becomes filled with a lifetime supply of sperm. This enables the queen to fertilize eggs herself, thereby propagating the entire hive.

During the coldest part of winter the queen lays few eggs, but at the end of February, while snow is still on the ground, the queen resumes laying eggs in large numbers. This enables the colony to rebuild its population just in time for the arrival of spring blossoms.

Attracting Bees

Seed-producing plants, or angiosperms, have evolved special structures to attract bees. Aromas, patterns, and the color of the blossom guide bees to the final location. To a honeybee the blossom appears as a target that points to the nectar-producing organs called nectaries.

During the process of slurping nectar into its mouth, the hair-covered honeybee accidentally picks up and drops off pollen. This process of carrying pollen from the anthers of one blossom to the stamen of another is called cross-pollination. Although many insect species pollinate plants, none rival the honeybee in importance.

From Nectar to Honey

Nectar is a watery sucrose mixture and its conversion into honey is a fascinating process. Honeybees have a straw-like mouthpart called a proboscis through which nectar is drawn into their mouth with the help of a rapidly-darting hairy tongue. Next, by compressing their mouth, the nectar is pumped into the first of three stomachs, called the honey stomach. Chemicals in that stomach break the unstable sucrose molecule into two smaller sugar molecules--fructose and glucose. This helps to concentrate and stabilize the mixture.

The mixture is then regurgitated into the mouths of receiver bees at the hive entrance who add still more chemicals and deposit the mixture into open cells. Bees called fanners then line up in single file from inside to the outside of the hive, flapping their wings in unison to create airflows throughout. In time this evaporates the moisture content to about 17 percent, at which time the cells are covered with a thin layer of wax. These waterproof wax compartments, called honeycombs, are impervious to wild yeast spoilage and dilution by moisture and the honey stored in them becomes the bee's winter food supply. Beeswax is used to make candles and other related products.

Beekeepers

While honeybees may fly more than two miles from the hive in search of nectar sources, they choose nearby blossoms when available. From the end of April until mid-May, beekeepers may move hives into apple orchards for a fee. Ideally, the hives are moved at night to avoid losing foragers that would be flying during the day.

To properly assess a hive, beekeepers must employ sight, smell, and hearing. Strong hives have many takeoffs and landings, and returning foragers should be carrying pollen pellets on their hind legs. Certain diseases have distinctive odors, and angry bees have a unique scent. Both a queenless hive and a swarm taking flight make distinct sounds. It takes years of field experience to become a veteran beekeeper. Reading about beekeeping is important, but it is not sufficient. Apprenticing with an experienced beekeeper is a good way to get started.

Beekeepers are busiest from April until October. Beginning in April, they split their strongest hives in half. This is an inexpensive way to increase the number of hives, and it helps to deter swarming. Swarming is the natural way that bees begin new hives, and for beekeepers it can result in dramatic losses in honey production as half of a healthy hive leaves to find a new home.

During spring, beekeepers also check for diseases, medicate the hives and reverse the bottom two boxes. This helps to create more space above the cluster of bees, which further deters the urge to swarm. Special traps constructed with precisely spaced screens strip most of the pollen pellets brought in by foragers. Spring is also the time when pollen is collected, dried and packaged for sale.

From May until the end of July, beekeepers add more boxes on top of their hives, providing space for incoming nectar. Early but limited honey flow comes from dandelions. The main honey flow occurs during June and the first half of July when clover is in bloom. Later, smaller flows come from buckwheat, which produces a very dark honey, and goldenrod. Basswood honey, produced in June, is light in both color and flavor and usually commands a higher price, as does the buckwheat honey produced in early fall.

Honey is usually harvested in August and September. Frames containing combs filled with honey and sealed by a thin layer of wax are brought to the honey house, where the wax caps are removed. The frames are spun to extract the honey and then returned to the bees. At this point, medication may be applied if mites are numerous.

In late fall, weak hives are combined by placing one box over another with a sheet of newspaper in between. The beekeeper must kill the weaker queen to help aid the combination process. All hives are prepared for winter by adding entrance reducers to discourage poachers and to keep mice out. Dark paper wraps are used to capture solar energy, a tactic that helps bees survive the cold.

During winter, bees need a few warm days for cleansing flights to rid themselves of waste. Also, without a few warm spells, they cannot shift inside the hive to regroup over honey, and they may starve. Some beekeepers feed their hives during the coldest months.

Mite Problems

New York State beekeepers face special problems. In recent years, two species of mites--the varroa and the tracheal mite--quickly became resistant to medication and have been particularly devastating. Beekeepers medicate sparingly before and after the main honey flow to reduce chances of contaminating the honey. Without miticides, however, most hives would become infested. Research is underway to find alternative medications or bees with self-grooming behaviors enabling them to rid themselves of these parasites.

Regional Differences

Beekeepers in New York have distinct considerations that can vary from region to region.

For example, the Catskill area is notorious for black bears that smash apart hives for the honey inside, though fences and noisemakers help. On the other hand, the Adirondack Park has a dearth of blossoms, a short growing season and long winters. Therefore, hives can have problems amassing the 120 pounds of honey necessary for survival during the winter. The St. Lawrence, Champlain and Mohawk valleys enjoy good honey harvests, as does Long Island. Believe it or not, some people in downtown Manhattan keep hives atop their apartment buildings, from which honeybees descend to the flowerpots, streets and parks below to collect nectar.

Consumers

The final important element in this scenario are the consumers of honeybee products--honey, pollen, and items like beeswax candles. Purchasing honey from New York beekeepers supports the local agricultural community, and some people believe local honey is more nutritious than the store-bought variety. The pollen it contains might even improve your health.

Sweet Surfing ...

While researching this stow, Conservationist staff discovered an incredible amount of information on the internet about bees, beekeeping, honey, beeswax, and related products. For example, many people use beeswax candles in their homes. Did you realize that honeybees' wings stroke more than 11,000 times per minute? For more information about anything and everything related to honeybees, visit the National Honey Board's web site at www.nhb.org or check out www.honey.com, a great site for kids!

Rick Green is the author of Apis Mellifera AKA Honeybee. He talks regularly to school groups and libraries about honeybees and welcomes questions and comments at gothoney@aol.com.
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Author:Green, Rick
Publication:New York State Conservationist
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Words:1794
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