Honey bees and flowers have an electric relationship. A bee in flight becomes positively charged through friction with airborne particles. Fortuitously, flowers have a negative electric charge – and naturally, positive and negative attract each other. The bee (+) detects the tug of the flower charge (-) and lands on it. Immediately two things happen. Firstly, charged pollen leaps onto the bee’s body, a bit like your hair will leap onto a rubbed balloon. Secondly, the flower loses its negative charge – this tells nearby bees that this flower has just been visited. The flower has time to ‘recharge’ itself and refill its nectary. It’s a sweet friendship: bees get food (pollen, nectar) and flowers get pollinated.
Archive for the ‘Bees’ Category
We fill our lives with honey and wax.. giving humans the two noblest things, which are sweetness and light. – Jonathan Swift, 1773
Honey bees provide us with many fascinating products apart from honey: wax, propolis, and pollen. Beeswax (made in the bees’ bodies) has oodles of uses, including in polish, cosmetics, jelly beans, artists’ media, dental floss and even for cleaning up oil spills. It’s a favourite for candles because beeswax gives off a sweet scent and a lustrous, smokefree light.
Propolis is the bee’s cleaning product – a sticky, germ-killing gum which they collect from plants. It’s used to plug cracks and keep the hive walls clean. Propolis fights infection in humans, especially in the mouth. Pollen is rich in protein and vitamins for the bees; but humans eat it too. The boxer, Muhammad Ali, ate pollen, which may explain his famous saying, ‘I float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’.
The second most complex language on the planet. – Professor James Gould
We communicate with the alphabet; honey bees are the only other creatures we know of that use symbols. Their dance moves describe where to find flowers. When a bee finds a patch of flowers she goes home and dances in the hive for her sister bees. The dance shows the other bees both the direction and the distance to the flowers. The direction is told by the angle of the dance: for example, if the bee dances straight up the honeycomb it means ‘fly straight towards the sun’.
The distance to the flowers is told by waggling. Each waggle of the abdomen means a set distance: eg. one waggle might mean 50 metres, so 10 waggles = 500 metres to fly. A faster waggle dance means the flowers have plenty of nectar.
Bees dance in the dark – the audience receives instructions through touch, sound, smell, and taste (nectar).
Photo: Sarah Anderson
The first human-made beehives (clay and straw) date back 3000 years (to Israel). For centuries beekeepers melted the wax comb to extract the honey, forcing the poor bees to rebuild the comb every time. Then in 1851 pastor Lorenzo Langstroth designed a hive like a filing cabinet that could be used over and over. Young Mary Bumby introduced honey bees to NZ in 1839, bringing them on a ship from England. Today, over 3000 Kiwis are beekeepers, mostly hobbyists. Our parliament building is shaped like a straw hive called a skep. Skeps were enlarged by adding layers called ‘ekes’ – hence the saying ‘to eke things out’. Bees thrive in our cities but Council rules say that bees are ‘inappropriate in residential areas’ – but in many countries beehives are now kept in city parks. Now that our feral bees are extinct we need more city bees to pollinate our home gardens. Photo: apiary in a public park in Paris.
Pollination: ‘a love story that feeds the Earth.’ – Louie Schwartzberg
We can’t survive without bees and bees won’t survive unless we love them. It’s the most unique partnership between ‘wild’ creatures and humans. Honey bee pollination gives us fruit, vegetables, and pastures – let’s respect them by providing a variety of flowering plants and clean habitats (avoid pesticides, especially neonicotinoids).
Human beings have fabricated the illusion that they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less, dependent on nature’s services. – Achim Steiner
A wax beehive is made and shaped by bees into perfectly hexagonal honeycomb. The comb is not only a pantry for storing honey, it’s also the bee’s kitchen, nursery, bedroom and dance floor. This photo shows cells in the comb used to store honey – the bees put a layer of white wax ‘capping’ over the honey to preserve it.
This next photo shows cells used to raise baby bees (the white larvae are visible in some cells). These larval cells are then capped so the bee can develop into an adult. Lovely photos by artist Claire Beynon (click to enlarge).
Honey bees have a body clock to keep track of time – this is vital because flowers produce nectar at different hours of the day – dandelions at 9am, for example. We have a similar inner clock but most of us rely on outer clocks to tell the time. If our devices were removed we’d probably switch to our body clock too. Bees learn very quickly: scientists trained some bees to feed (on sugar water) at 10.30am, and after that the bees turned up at exactly that time to be fed every day.
Honeycomb is one of the lightest, strongest, most efficient structures known. The comb isn’t just for honey, it’s the bee’s home: kitchen, nursery, pantry, bedroom and dance floor. Bees build these beautiful wax hexagons from flakes of wax (made in glands on their bellys) using their mouth and feet. Each identical cell tilts back at an angle of exactly 13˚ (so honey doesn’t flow out) and cells are joined at precisely 120˚. Bees use hexagons (not squares or triangles) because they use the least wax for the most space – hexagons are found elsewhere in nature where an efficient shape is needed.
Children’s fiction about honey bees is rare and this gem from 1957 is hard to find. A Swarm in June by Rosemary Garland is a charming junior novel that beautifully combines bee lore with childhood wonder. Seven year old Jonathan finds a wild swarm in June (‘worth a silver spoon’) but a visiting cousin is scared of bees. It takes an attack by a stoat to unite the cousins in the end. It’s an innocent tale and the bee wisdom is timeless: beating a gong to attract a swarm; tracking bees with thistledown; and ‘telling the bees’ about important events in our lives. Best of all is the way the boy is so comfortable around the bees.
How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour – Isaac Watts
For a long life, breakfast daily on honey. – Pythagoras
Human beings have fabricated the illusion that they have the technological prowess to be independent of nature. Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less, dependent on nature’s services in a world of close to 7 billion people. – Achim Steiner
Life is all one – as big as the world and as small as a honey bee. – Hattie Ellis
Bees … their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers. – Ray Bradbury
We have rather chosen to fill our hives with honey and wax; thus furnishing mankind with the two noblest of things, which are sweetness and light. – Jonathan Swift
The comb of the hive bee is absolutely perfect. – Charles Darwin
‘Neonicotinoids’ … a clunky word, but one that everybody should know. They (‘neonics’ for short) are the most widely used insecticides in the world – they’re now found in almost every managed landscape from farms to home gardens (and use is increasing rapidly). Neonics are non-targeted (ie.lazy) pest control: they’re usually coated on seeds and the poison stays in the plant as it grows. And the residue can remain in plant tissue, pollen, soil and water for years – it’s these residues that can kill beneficial wildlife: bees, birds, soil creatures and helper insects. That makes neonics a threat to our food supply because:
- Bees and other pollinators directly provide much of our food
- Soil creatures (worms, microbes) are vital for soil health
- Helper insects (predatory and parasitic species) provide natural pest control
Why would we want to harm any of these? The EU has put a two year ban on neonics (because of damage to bees)but they are still used in NZ and are available to the public. Let’s ask garden and hardware shops to stop selling them (Placemakers and The Warehouse have recently withdrawn them) and the EPA to ban them.
Honey, Nature’s Golden Healer by Gloria Havenhand is a superb book that deftly balances bee science, beekeeping expertise, folklore and health tips. Honey is more than just another spread for your toast:
‘Most people know very little about honey and its healing powers… Research has shown honey deserves to move into the serious league for healing.’
I thought I knew every fascinating fact about honey but I found many new insights here:
- Beeswax is made by bees only 10 to 18 days old who consume about 10 kg of honey to make 1 kg of wax.
- A little honey before bedtime fuels the brain overnight because the live stores the sugar (fructose).
- Raw honey is best to eat. Most supermarket honey is treated which removes vitamins, anti-bacterials and pollen nutrients.
- Always scrape out the honey jar – that last 1/10 of teaspoon represents the honey collected by one bee in her entire lifetime.
City life can distance people from nature and from the consequences of environmental damage. One solution is to bring nature to people’s door-steps, such as bringing beehives into the city. Murray and Heidi Rixon rent beehives into home gardens. They visit the hives regularly and teach their clients how to manage the bees and provide protective bee suits for the whole family. People can choose their degree of involvement with the hives and most are very keen to learn.
They say the Rentahive business has a ”massive feel-good factor” and people are driven by the urge to do something positive and proactive about the bee crisis. Customers are also excited to get a share of the honey. Murray and Heidi have just launched a schools’ project to teach children about bees. The children can partake in beehive construction, help with care of the hive and honey extraction.
There are many benefits having hives in an urban setting: bees get a longer flowering season and a wider variety of pollen/nectar sources; gardens are well-pollinated; honey flavours are unique; and best of all, people more fully engage with the environment.
A female bee lives for only about six weeks in summer. But it’s a life lived to the full because she’s constantly changing jobs: from cleaner to babysitter, builder, honey-chef, queen-groomer, guard, forager, undertaker and scout. Here is the diary of a teen bee:
Week 1 Dear Diary, So unfair! The work started the moment I hatched. I had to clean out my birth cell (ew!), then spend the whole week tidying the rest of the hive. My older sisters call me a ‘house bee’ and say I’m not allowed outside ‘til I’m 21 days. And I’m like, no way sister!
Week 2 Dear Diary, Yay! I’m a babysitter. The babies are sooo cute but totally exhausting. I have to check them 1300 times a day (okay, call me obsessive) to make sure they’re okay. Meanwhile the comb cleaning goes on 4EVAH…
Week 3 Dear Diary, I’ve graduated to building honeycomb, and I have to admit my hexagons are pretty groovy. I make honey in my so-called spare time – when I’m not still CLEANING!! Celebrated my 21st with my first flight and harvested nectar from flowers – it’s such a sweet job!
In the 1960s, Jane Goodall was criticised for saying chimpanzees have emotions. Today the evidence suggests she’s right although scientists remain wary of anthropomorphism – associating human traits with animals – often with good reason (eg. the gross inaccuracy of The Bee Movie in which boy bees did the work). Of course animals don’t see the world exactly we do, but we shouldn’t ignore what we have in common with them:
Anthropo-denial: A blindness to the humanlike characteristics of other animals, or the animal-like characteristics of ourselves. – F. de Waal
The weight of scientific evidence is that animal have thoughts, feelings and intelligence – animals are not mere ‘survival machines’. It’s now accepted that humans and animals share many traits (Marc Bekoff (The Emotional Lives of Animals); this fits nicely with evolution which teaches us animals are our relatives and all life is connected. Forgetting this relationship has led to the honey bee crisis, for example, as people have treated bees as tools rather than partners in pollination.
Acknowledged as individuals, those sparrows, salamanders and squirrels are not interchangeable parts of a species machine. They are beings with their own inner lives and experiences. – Brandon Keim (Animal Consciousness)
Using language that reflects our ‘common ground’ can help give children empathy with the natural world. When writing Flight of the Honey Bee I wanted accurate science yet also a sense of a bee’s experience. Should I use human concepts such as ‘know’, ‘remember’, captivate’, and ‘story’? Should I even call the bees ‘sisters’? The answer was yes. Honey bees have language, intelligence, and memory (and maybe something like emotions); and they’re more genetically sisters than humans.
They are not us, but to look into their eyes is to know that someone is in there. Imposing our own specific thoughts and feelings on that someone is in one sense too imaginative, in presuming he could receive the world in the way we do, and in another not imaginative enough, in not opening our minds to the full possibilities of his difference.- Caitrin Nicol (Do Elephants Have Souls?)
1. The bee and its place in history: article by Claire Preston, author of new book, Bee.
The bee is the only creature on the planet that is a true creative artisan. It gathers materials and transforms them to make not only architecture but food.– Claire Preston
2. The Trouble With Beekeeping in the Anthropocene: summary of Time Magazine’s feature on bees.
We are a species that increasingly has omnipotence without omniscience. – Bryan Walsh
Daleks exterminate, and humans do too:
We’re killing the bees, who make our food.
Bees make us honey, and food for free,
But Daleks love bees, so why can’t we?
Perhaps it’s because the Daleks have a ‘hive mind’, a collective consciousness – like honey bees which communicate by smell, touch, and democratic systems.
Listen to the Dalek High Commander speak:
Honey bees are the glue that holds our agricultural system together…Hannah Nordhaus
This handsome, respectful volume deserves a place on the shelf … it succeeds in accurately dramatizing honeybee behavior. – Kirkus Reviews
Flight of the Honey Bee review by artist, Claire Beynon:
“Given the state of our environment, the sooner we introduce our children to bees – to their intelligence, their intricate behaviour and increasing vulnerability – the better. Flight of the Honey Bee is the perfect book to do this, combining as it does Raymond Huber’s careful language and well-researched text with Brian Lovelock’s meticulously observed paintings. Cleverly formatted, fiction and non-fiction – story and fact – are woven together as two discreet yet interconnected strands: young readers can choose their flight path.
Exquisite to look at and a pleasure to explore.
Scout the bee – named after the feisty protagonist in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird – and her tightly-knit community of hardworking bees demonstrate these small creatures’ importance in the pollinaton of plants and the well-being of our planet. Flight of the Honey Bee is about bee behavior but it will also teach children about subtler things; wonder, beauty, the value of group functioning and collaborative effort, reproduction, risk, courage, the joys of flight – those rhythms and principles essential for any thriving community. The hum of the parts.
This book has all the essentials of a satisfying story: it asks questions and it informs. It invites observation and participation. There’s drama. Suspense. Conflict. Danger. Hope. And a happy ending. At the close of her adventure, Scout is a wily-er bee than she was when she set out from her hive on her first nectar-seeking adventure. As all characters must, she grows through her experiences. We come to care about her and her safe passage home.
Visually, Flight of the Honey Bee is exquisite to look at and a pleasure to explore – each double page spread is as stunning as the one preceding it. It will be immediately appealing to young readers. I was struck by how beautifully integrated the text and images are; they belong together like honey and honeycomb. The language is tender and witty (the line about ‘sun-powder’ is a wonderful change from ‘gun-powder’); and the paintings – a combination of watercolour, acrylic ink and coloured pencils – are spectacular; compositionally bold, delicate, exuberant and information-rich. Looking at them through my adult eyes, I can’t help thinking about fractals, the mathematics inherent in nature, the ever-present background dialogue between shape and sound, pattern and colour. Children will pore over them. And they will love Scout for her feisty resourcefulness.
- Beebuzz: Flowers have small electric fields that bees can detect and use to distinguish the flowers with the best nectar.
- Beespresso: Several types of flower have traces of caffeine in their nectar which bees are more attracted to than flowers without.
- Beetox: Honey detoxifies bees by triggering genes for making anti-microbial chemicals.
- Beefriend: Bees use their right antenna to tell friend from foe: it has more of the smell sensing hairs on it than the left antenna.
- Beestill: Even non-fatal amounts of pesticides will eventually fatally erode a beehive.
In late autumn the male bees (drones) were pushed outside the hive to die. The female worker bees can’t afford the honey to feed them all. Now it’s winter, the large bee family has hunkered down. They huddle in a tight ball which traps the heat of their bodies. It’s amazing that even when it’s way below zero outside, bees can keep the cluster at around 35 ̊C (95˚F). To adjust their temperature, bees vibrate their wing muscles and constantly change places with each other within the huddle. This close cooperation means bees can control the temperature and survive in cold climates. They eat honey in winter and on the odd fine day the bees fly outside to poo, as is their hygienic habit.
This is a victory for the precautionary principle, which is supposed to underlie environmental regulation.– Dr Lynn Dicks
The EU has banned the nerve agent that has been contributing to honey bee decline around the world. The scientific evidence against these extremely toxic nicotine-based pesticides has grown steadily. Honey bees have contributed to our survival for the past 20,000 years and it’s time we showed them similar courtesy. These banned pesticides are still widely used on NZ crops (eg.corn) and sold to the public in garden centres (eg. the Confidor brand). Bee photo by Sophie Huber.
There are other way to deal with pests without harming bees:
It is high time we returned to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) – an approach focussed on minimising pesticide use, maximising the number of biological control agents, using cultural controls such as crop rotations, and monitoring pest numbers so that chemical controls only need be applied when there is a problem.– Prof David Goulson
A Bee in a Cathedral by Joel Levy is a fascinating book of science analogies and astonishing numbers. Suitable for all ages, only the physics section is a bit complex. A few of my favourites factoids:
- Every day 1 million meteoroids strike the Earth.
- Travelling in a rocket at 250,000km/h, it would take you 18,000 years to reach the nearest star, Proxima Centauri.
- Most of the living cells in your body are less than a month old.
- About 50 million neutrinos are passing through you now.
- Every molecule in a glass of water is changing partners billions of times a second.
- How hard does your heart work? Empty a bathtub in 15 minutes using only a teacup —do this without stopping for the rest of your life.
If an atom were blown up to the size of a cathedral, the nucleus would be no larger than a bee buzzing about in the centre.
Saint Nicholas was born about 280 AD into a rich family. When his parents died he used his wealth to help the poor and sick, often giving gifts in secret. He became a Christian bishop and was imprisoned by the Roman Emperor, Diocletian. Nicholas is the Patron Saint of Greece and the model for Santa Claus. Saints were known as ‘Divine Bees’ because honey was a symbol of God’s grace – honey was often given as a gift to children on St. Nicholas’ Day.
Picture: a painting of St. Nicholas from 1294 AD
Bees and humans are partners: we can’t survive without their pollinating skill; bees can’t survive without a clean world. Keep the partnership alive by donating to:
1. Bees For Development: combats poverty through beekeeping. Teaches beekeeping skills in poor communities; providing income and boosting the environment. Their patron is Sting, naturally (Photo: Paolo Roversi). Informative website too: Bees For Development.
2. Oxfam: Plan B helps struggling women in Ethiopia take up beekeeping and earn a living.
3. Tear Fund: The Bees Knees fund helps a family start a beekeeping business with a beehive and training.
Honey bees have six (girl) powers to beat any comic super hero, and a few super villains. Every decent super hero has only one weakness; for bees it’s also their only defence: when a bee stings, it dies.
1. Super Flyers
Like Superman, bees are great flyers. A bee flies about 1000 km in her life. If she was human sized, that’d be like going five times around the planet. And she can carry 122 times her own weight.
2. Super Attractors
Like Magneto, honey bees use magnetism and electricity. They have their own navigational GPS thanks to millions of magnetic crystals inside them to sense the Earth’s magnetic field. Bees also have a negative electrical charge (static) which attracts positively charged pollen to their furry bodies.
3. Super Therms
Like Torch and Mr Freeze, bees cope with extreme temperatures. In the heat, air- conditioner bees fan their wings to cool the hive – bees have even been found living on a lava field at 60 ̊C. In the freezing cold, bees huddle in a tight ball, disengage their wing-muscles, and shiver to keep warm.
4. Super Smarts
Like Professor X, bees are super intelligent communicators. They are the only other creatures we know that use a symbolic language. The bee dance indicates direction and distance to flowers, and the quality. Bees also use smell to talk: the queen controls her family with pheromones. Bee brains are tiny but their neuron density is 10x ours. Bees can count, tell time, measure, memorize, solve problems and make decisions.
5. Super Food
Like Wolverine, bees have healing powers. Honey is nutritious, lasts forever, and is a healer too; killing bacteria and fungi. In humans, Manuka honey fights infections, and heals burns. Bees use sticky propolis to keep their hives germ-free; it’s anti-bacterial, and probably anti-cancer.
6. Super Transformers
Like Spiderman, bees can change their genetic structure. A queen bee is not born that way – any girl bee can become a queen. The worker bees prepare a royal baby by feeding it on royal jelly. This ‘genetic jelly’ triggers DNA which transforms the baby into a queen.
It’s the most important relationship on Earth. Everything you taste and smell in Nature depends on pollinators who carry the essence of life.
Pollination is ‘a love story that feeds the Earth.’ – Louie Schwartzberg.
For a flower to reproduce, its pollen (male) must get to an egg (female) in another flower – and bees do most of the moving. The result is a cornucopia of foods from cherries to cashews, and courgettes to coffee. Our relationship with the pollinators is equally important: it’s honey bee season now so give them fresh water, flowers, and spray-free gardens. Watch a clip from Louie Schwatzberg’s dazzling new movie, Wings of Life.
Nature is what we see -
The Hill – the Afternoon -
Squirrel – Eclipse – the Bumble bee -
Nay – Nature is Heaven -
Nature is what we hear -
The Bobolink – the Sea -
Thunder – the Cricket -
Nay – Nature is Harmony -
Nature is what we know -
Yet have no art to say -
So impotent Our Wisdom is
To her Simplicity.
– Emily Dickinson
It’s autumn for the honey bees and soon the drones will be pushed out of the beehive to die. Male bees have a high life in summer: eating and sleeping – the females even clean up their droppings – but then they’re executed. Why have drones? To mate with a new queen. Several drones will mate with her and die gruesomely in the act. Drones themselves have no father; they hatch from unfertilised eggs. It was once thought all bees came from virgin queen births, until in 1788 a blind Swiss naturalist, Francois Huber (I’m not making this up), proved that queens mated – the event is nicely novelized in The Beekeeper’s Pupil by Sara George.