My fascination with bees started when we became beekeepers. I couldn’t stop watching them, reading about them, and writing about them. Everything I learned cast greater light on why bees hold such luminous status in myth and scripture. Coincidentally, our first experiences with bees resurrected our own hope during a difficult time in our lives.
Honeybees live in marvelously complex colonies. As worker bees mature they graduate from simple to more complicated tasks. They care for their brood, protect the hive, create perfectly structured chambers and forage for nectar. As beginning beekeepers we learned, reading the work of Abbé Warré (free to download), that the pre-formed cell size of today’s conventional hive isn’t optimal for bees. These creatures thrive when able to create different cell sizes to accommodate the colony’s changing needs and conditions. That affirmed what we already believed to be true—the less interference with nature the better. Because bees are best suited to live in hollow trees, as beekeepers we’re experimenting with Warre hives, top bar hives, and other honeybee accomodations.
Bees are able to regulate the temperature of the hive throughout the seasons. In the winter the bees cluster around the queen and take turns moving to the cold exterior of the cluster. In the summer they cool the hive and dehydrate the nectar into honey by fanning their wings. If the temperature of the hive rises due to extreme summer temperatures the bees, via a signal known only to them, alert all colony members. In response the bees stop what they are doing, even those foraging for nectar at a great distance. These tiny insects each collect a drop of water to bring back to the hive to cool it, rushing back and forth with a cargo of moisture until the heat emergency is over.
The queen bee is the hub of the hive. Each colony produces new queens in response to complex factors. The first queen to hatch flies free in the sunlight. She mates in the air with drones. Research has found that the more drones inseminate her, the better the outcome in subsequent hive health. After that mating flight the queen returns to the hive and spends the rest of her life in darkness, laying hundreds of eggs a day, tended to by her sister bees.
Bees have evolved to live on nectar and pollen brought in from a variety of forage sources found in a balanced ecosystem. Bees will fly farther in search of different blooms if large amounts of nectar have already been gathered from one type of plant, presumably to balance the nutrient levels of the resulting honey.
When bees are exposed to single plant sources repeatedly (as they are when used to pollinate monoculture crops typical in today’s agriculture) they do not have a full range of vitamins and minerals to raise a healthy brood or maintain strong immune systems any more than we would survive well on a diet of nothing but broccoli. Bees need to feed on a wide diversity of blooms.
The beautifully natural organization of the hive is often subverted by conventional beekeeping techniques. Bees cannot regulate the hive temperature when the hive is closed for transport. Beekeepers commonly “strengthen” the colony by replacing the queen with a younger queen. But they don’t wait for the colony to hatch a virgin queen of its own. They open the hive and crush the reigning queen. They also scrape away the queen cells containing unhatched queens, preferring to introduce an inseminated queen that has been purchased and shipped, often from across the country. This practice does not allow the strength of a local population to build, nor does it encourage the natural resilience developed by multiple inseminations. Beekeepers also treat hives with several different chemicals to minimize the danger of hive beetles, mites, and other threats to honeybee health. Unfortunately biology works against them. The pests build resistance, so stronger doses and new chemicals are needed. Meanwhile bees fail to build sufficient resilience to ward off the predation.
Perhaps worse, bees are commonly fed with corn syrup to replace some of the food they’ve worked so hard to produce for their colonies. That very corn syrup is made out of corn that is most likely from genetically modified (GM) corn. In the U.S. more than half the corn crop is GM. These GM crops are planted in the first place because they are herbicide resistant and/or insect resistant. And what are bees? Insects.
There are many ways to build awareness and to help honeybees. I’m heartened to learn that a new documentary, Queen of the Hive, is being released. It highlights the wonder and beauty of bees, the lessons they have to teach us, and the ways we can co-exist.
Ways to Help Bees
~Vote with your dollar. Buy organic, non-GM foods. Whenever possible purchase foods grown on small area farms.
~Support local beekeepers by purchasing organically hived, raw honey.
~Invite a member of an area beekeeping club to speak at your nature center, educational program, garden club, ecology meeting, or wherever interested people gather in order to increase awareness. Find a beekeeping club here.
~Contact a local beekeeper if you discover a swarm of honeybees near your home. Hiving a swarm is a community service provided by beekeepers.
~Avoid using pesticides and herbicides.
~Leave wild areas for native pollinators to nest. If you have property, consider designating a portion as a wild area. Leave it unmowed, unweeded and alone. Even a small area will support a diversity of life and provide you with opportunities to enjoy watching birds, insects and other creatures. If you do not have a yard, influence your local schools, museums, businesses and city administration to set aside areas for natural growth.
~Even tended areas can provide forage. Pollinators need plants in bloom throughout the growing season. Yards with flowers and diverse ground cover support pollinators. Flowering window boxes and pots on apartment balconies are also helpful.
~Consider becoming a beekeeper. Small scale and urban beekeeping is undergoing a renaissance.
The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation (click on “Pollinator Conservation”) offers free fact sheets on creating habitat for pollinators. The organization also publishes Farming For Bees: Guidelines for Providing Native Bee Habitat on Farms and The Pollinator Conservation Handbook.
Beekeeping Naturally, a wonderful site replete with free information for the beginning as well as experienced beekeeper. Offered by leaders in sustainable beekeeping, Bush Farms.
The Buzz about Bees: Biology of a Superorganism by Jürgen Tautz
The Queen Must Die: And Other Affairs of Bees and Men by William F. Longgood
Little known details about links between conventional beekeeping practices and declining health of honeybees.