Honeybees are invaluable friends of the garden, pollinating flowers as they gather pollen and nectar for the hive. These social insects live in highly organized, efficient societies. Listen to learn more about what it’s like to be a bee.
This segment of The Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden Musings podcast series was written by George and Becky Lohmiller and is read by Heidi Stonehill, an Almanac editor.
Man has been raising bees and harvesting their honey for thousands of years. Honey was a common food in ancient Egypt and until the development of refined sugar, was the only sweetener known to man. Bees wax, from which the honeycomb is made is also harvested from beehives and is used in a variety of products ranging from candles to cosmetics.
Far more important than the honey and wax that honeybees produce is the service that they provide for agriculture. Honeybees pollinate more crops than any other insect and without this transfer of pollen from one flower to another fruits and vegetables couldn’t develop.
Whether hidden in a hollow tree or kept in a beekeepers wooden hive, every colony of honey bees functions in the same way. A bee colony is made up of three types of bees; workers, drones, and a queen. Each type of bee has specific duties to perform. Most of the bees in a hive are workers, sterile females that can number in the tens of thousands. Young worker bees are called house bees. They build and maintain the hive, feed the young, make honey and wax, and tend to the queen. Older workers make flights from the hive to gather nectar and pollen for food and for use in making honey and wax.
There are about a hundred drones in a colony. They are males that develop from unfertilized eggs whose only job is to mate with the queen. During the mating ritual, the young queen flies high in to the air. The first drone to reach her does the mating and then dies. The other drones are allowed to stay in the hive until winter when they are driven out by the workers. There is only one queen in a hive, she can lay up to 2000 eggs a day and may lay a million eggs in her lifetime. When a new queen is born, the old queen leaves the hive with about half of her workers to form a new colony.
As a worker bee buzzes from flower to flower, she gathers nectar and stores it in a specialized stomach call a honey sac. She also picks up pollen in her fine hairs and combs it into pollen baskets in her back legs. Heavily laden with nectar and pollen she finds the shortest path home making a “bee line” for the hive. When a bee finds a large patch of flowers, she tells the other workers by performing a dance on the honey-comb. The “round dance” says that the flowers are close to the hive and sends the bees scurrying in all directions until they find them. The ‘wagging dance’ indicates that the flowers are not near by. The direction in which the worker wags her tail tells the location of the flowers in relation to the sun and the number of times that she wags it pinpoints the distance.
To make a pound of honey, a bee would have to fly 50,000 miles and visit nearly a million flowers. Although no one bee could ever do that, it certainly seems that they try. When flowers are in bloom, bees work nonstop from sunrise to sunset gathering pollen and nectar and pollinating flowers in the process. To be as busy as a bee is to be busy indeed.