Let It Bee

With all the talk of the drop in our bee populations - a very important issue for gardeners - some might ask where did honeybees come from originally? And what is bee culture truly like?

The answers are as complex as they are fascinating. Bees evolved from predatory wasps. Instead of eating other insects, their mouth parts, legs, and social structure evolved so honeybees could feed upon nectar and pollen. How Is this known? Angiosperms (plants with covered seeds) evolved around a million years ago, as did the bees. Some bees became specialized to feed upon only one species of flower and some flowers evolved to be pollinated by only one species of bee.

There have been approximately 20,000 species of bees identified. About twenty species of bees have been raised by people. Apis mellifera has been the most widely and successfully kept species by beekeepers, first in Europe, then in North America.

The genome of A. mellifera has been mapped. It is believed to have come from Eastern Africa and then spread to Europe and Asia Minor. Isolation and human selection have led to the development of many sub-species. Thus, strains of honeybees can differ in color, behavior, and anatomy but can interbreed with each other.

It is believed the honeybee was brought to North America around 1622 by European colonists. Not only did they bring along their bees, but many European plant species, which depended on the bees for pollination. Frequently when hives cast swarms, the swarms were not captured, and thus the honey bees crossed into the west before the settlers did! Because of this, native Americans called the honeybees "the white man's fly."

What is a bee hive like? A typical hive consists of a breeding female, the queen, whose task in life is to mate on what is called her "nuptial flight." The males who mate with her die as the abdomen explodes when he deposits his packet of sperm cells. I remember teaching a group of eighth graders about this and one student saying, "Lady, I'm sure glad that I'm not a male honeybee." This mating is not the same as fertilization. The queen returns to the hive. As she lays eggs the queen determines the sex of the offspring. She does this by choosing whether or not to release sperm onto the egg. Unfertilized eggs develop into male (drone) bees. Fertilized eggs grow into females, sterile worker bees or possibly a future queen. Therefore, it can be said that male honeybees have a mother but no father, whereas females have two parents.

The honeycomb of the hive is made and formed by the worker bees. The workers actually form circles with spaces in between and the still soft cells gradually assume the hexagonal shape. (Modern beekeepers make use of this by supplying bees with "foundation" which already is hexagonal. The workers build this up into cells.) Worker bees go through a progression of tasks through their life of about six weeks. When young, the workers clean the hives and feed the larvae. Next comes comb cell building. Then they move to receive pollen and nectar from the foraging workers. Finally each worker becomes a forager.

The males do no work in the hive. At the end of the season the males are driven from the hive. They die shortly thereafter. The hive itself should be thought of as an organism. Everything that occurs in the hive reflects this. For example, if the hive is of optimal size and the existing queen is healthy, the workers will kill the newly emerging queens. If the queen is unhealthy, the workers allow queen bees to emerge, The queens decide who will be the queen by a trial by combat. The winner is queen.

Forever Young Magazine - August 2008