Honey bees are pollination workhorses.
It is estimated that honey bees are responsible for pollinating one-third of all U.S. agricultural crops, including herbs, melons, cucumbers, almonds, berries, butternut and other squash, apples, pears, and peaches. Honey bees are not native to North America, so there are no native plants that require pollination by honey bees. Just the same, most gardeners are very happy to see honey bees in the garden.
All bees are considered beneficial insects. Sterile female worker bees are either pollen, nectar, or water collectors. Water collectors are very important to hive health. Water is used to regulate temperature and in the creation of food. In winter, the water is used to dilute crystalized honey. If a water collector returns to the hive and is immediately relieved of her water, she will know that the hive needs more. If she must wait a while before an in-hive worker takes the water, she will know that demand is not critical and less bees will search for water.
As nectar collectors travel from flower to flower, drinking as much nectar as they can, pollen grains stick to their legs in cup-shaped containers. As pollen is knocked off these worker bees, a wide variety of crops and flowers can be pollinated. The workers then return to the hive, loaded down with nectar and pollen, which are handed off to other bees within the hive. The water in the nectar is allowed to evaporate and voila! Honey is made!
Honey bee taxonomy
Honey bees are distinguished from their non-stinging cousins by honey production and the creation of ongoing communal nests made from wax. Honey bees are members of the Apis genus. Their Asian and European ancestors have been around for 34 million years. The most commonly managed honey bee species is Apis mellifera and it was the third insect to have its genome mapped! Of the 20,000 known species of bees, there are 7 species of honey bee, with 44 subspecies. The study of honey bees is called melittology.
Honey bee identification
Most people are familiar with the fuzzy brown and gold striping of the honey bee and a few of us have experienced the painful sting of a honey bee on the defensive! Unlike wasps and bumblebees, honey bees die after stinging. People who work with honey bees, apiarists, use smoke to calm and subdue honey bees. They also wear white, which decreases the likelihood of being stung. [To a honey bee, we look an awful lot like dreaded bears. Wearing brown around a bee hive is just asking for trouble.] There are also black and brown bees - Russian, carnelian and others, but we don’t notice them as readily.
Honey bee lifecycle
Honey bees hatch from eggs laid by a queen in wax honeycomb cells. Before emerging as an adult honey bee, larvae are initially fed royal jelly (a liquid produced in the hypopharyngeal and mandibular glands of worker bees), and then bee bread, a paste of pollen and honey, as they go through several moltings. Then, they spin a cocoon and enter a pupal stage within the cell. Larvae intended to become queens are only fed royal jelly.
The queen is fertilized by multiple male drones from other colonies. The drones die after mating. Drones are produced by unfertilized eggs, while queens and worker females are from fertilized eggs. Each hive has a single queen, a few thousand drones, and tens of thousands of sterile female worker bees, depending upon environmental conditions.
During hot summer months, honey bees cool the hive with their wings and with a practice called bearding, in which bees hang on to each other and flap in the proverbial breeze until things have cooled off enough. During winter months, they huddle together in a winter cluster around the queen, to protect her from the cold. Honey bees consume honey stored in the hive during the winter
Honey bee communication
Honey bees communicate the location of food sources through a complex figure-8 dance called the waggle dance. They also instruct receiver bees to collect nectar from returning foragers with a tremble dance. Speaking of bee communication, it is traditional to talk to your bees, especially if you are going to be gone for a time, or if the beekeeper has passed away. Apparently, a hive will falter or fail if they are notified.
Honey bee pests and diseases
Honey bees have not evolved with an effective immune system. Their primary food, pollen, contains antibacterial components (if you are a bee). Varroa, tracheal and tropilaelaps mites, foulbrood bacterial infections, chalkbrood fungal infections, Nosema disease, and sacbrood virus are common honey bee diseases. If that weren’t enough, beetles, ants, wasps and hornets, wax moths and dragonflies attack bees or their hives.
Honey bees are also facing colony collapse disorder (CCD). This condition has many causes and was held responsible in 2008 for the death of 60% of the world’s honey bee population. It is considered normal to lose 10% of a honey bee colony during the winter months. Losses attributed to colony collapse disorder are reported as percentages of bees lost during a 12-month period, April through March. The figures I was able to find include 2014 (39%), 2015 (42.1%), 2016 (44%), 2018 (30%), and 2019 (37.7%). Unfortunately, accurate figures are difficult to find, but you get the idea.
How to attract honey bees
There are many plants that can be added to a landscape that will help you garner the benefits of improved pollination rates without raising bees. Of course, a small hive is simple to manage and fresh honey is amazing! Minimize the use of chemical pesticides and add these flowers to your landscape to bring honey bees into the garden:
In spring, it is not uncommon to see a swarm of honey bees. These bees are not dangerous. In fact, just before swarming, honey bees gorge themselves on honey so they are about as relaxed as they ever get to be. Unless, of course, you start flailing or threaten their queen. The swarm seen in the video was collected by beekeeper friends of mine only to discover that the bees had been sprayed with insecticides. All the bees died and my friends' equipment all had to be cleaned.
If a swarm starts collecting on your property, contact your local bee guild or County Extension Office for safe removal or start raising honey bees for yourself. Under no circumstances should you spray these garden helpers with pesticides or insecticides. Please educate your neighbors.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!