New Internationalist

The Bees’ Knees - The Facts

Issue 425

Bees are truly amazing creatures, found in just about every region of the world from the Arctic tundra to the towering peaks of the Himalayas. About three quarters of more than 240,000 of the world’s flowering plants rely on them to reproduce.

• There are more than 20,000 bee species in the world and, unlike the honeybee, most of them are solitary. They range in size from the 1.5 mm tropical stingless bee to the 40 mm long giant rock bee of Asia.

• They include mining bees, mason bees, leaf-cutter bees, carpenter bees, carder bees, masked bees, sweat bees and bumblebees.1

• Most bees don’t live in hives and are not communal. Instead, they nest in grassy hillocks, in burrows in the ground, under rock ledges, in trees and in rotten wood.

One for all

European honeybees (apis mellifera) live in hives. Each hive is a finely tuned machine, every buzzing inhabitant contributing to the survival of the whole. A thriving colony may reach 50,000 honeybees:

The Queen – The queen lives up to 5 years and can lay her weight in eggs every day – up to 2,000 daily. There is one queen per colony, easily recognized by her long narrow abdomen and short wings. She mates once in her life, in the air with as many as 30 suitors (sequentially), who die after donating their sperm.

Workers – Infertile females, worker bees make up more than 95% of the colony. They live about 6 weeks and do a variety of jobs: caring for and feeding the larvae, feeding and grooming the queen, cleaning and protecting the hive, secreting wax to build comb, making honey and storing pollen. Halfway through their life workers become field bees, foraging for nectar and pollen and gathering water to bring back to the hive. Eventually their wings wear out and they die of fatigue.

Drones – Big guys whose sole purpose is to mate with a virgin queen. Live about 6 weeks, have no stinger and are produced in small numbers from unfertilized eggs. They do no work and are fed and cared for by the female workers. When temperatures drop in the autumn and food stores get scarce the drones are literally shoved out of the hive or stung to death by the workers.

The food connection

Honeybees pollinate a third of the food we eat. They are the bee of choice for honey production and pollination.

• Of the world’s 115 most important food crops, 87 require pollination to produce fruits, nuts and seeds. They account for a third of the $3 trillion worth of agricultural produce sold each year.

• These crops provide 35% of the calories we consume yearly and most of the vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.2

• Seven of the nine crops that provide at least half the vitamin C to the human diet depend on insect pollination. They include oranges, cabbages, peppers, tomatoes, melons, tangerines and watermelons.

• Five major fruit crops (apple, almond, avocado, blueberry and cranberry) are completely reliant on insect pollination.

• The economic value of pollination worldwide may be as high as $90 billion.

• The economic value of honeybee pollination to food crops in Canada has been estimated at $1.2 billion a year.

• In Britain the annual pollination of food crops is estimated at $270 million.

• The contribution of bee pollination to US agriculture is close to $20 billion a year.

Photo by: MAIN PHOTO: WILDLIFE / P.Hartmann / Still Pictures
Photo by: MAIN PHOTO: WILDLIFE / P.Hartmann / Still Pictures

Dancing fools

In 1953 the Austrian scientist Karl von Frisch discovered that bees could communicate with each other. How? By dancing! He was awarded the Nobel Prize for his research in 1973.

The round dance
Used to alert other foragers to a new source of food up to 100 metres from the hive. A series of circular runs with frequent changes in direction. The rate of change increases with the quality of the nectar. The flower scent, which clings to the dancer, helps the others identify the flower they’ll be looking for.

The waggle dance
A dance which indicates the direction and quality of nectar and pollen up to 5 kilometres away. The dance is a complicated figure-8 which tells other workers both the distance to the food and its direction in relation to the sun. The intensity of the waggling and high frequency buzzes convey information about the quality of the food. In both dances a special gland in the bees’ abdomen releases a pheromone (hormone) announcing the presence of new food.1, 4

Taste of honey

Bees store honey to feed themselves during the winter when nectar and pollen are unavailable.

• Honey is made from nectar, which is stored in a bee’s honey sac for the flight back to the hive. The nectar is regurgitated and passed from bee to bee until evaporation reduces the water content from 70% to 30%.

• The honey is then pumped into wax cells where more bees fan their wings to further evaporation, bringing the water content below 20%. The cell is then capped with a lid of beeswax. Water content is so low most bacteria can’t survive in it – so honey can be stored at room temperature with no risk of spoiling.

• To make a pound of honey, a bee flies around 55,000 miles, equivalent to twice around the world, visiting 10,000 flowers on more than 500 foraging trips.

•  A single productive hive can produce 1kg of honey every day in a good year.1 500g of honey represents the sweetness of about 10 million blossoms.5

•  About 300,000 tonnes (a third of total world honey production) is traded internationally. China, Argentina and Mexico are the biggest exporters with about 60% of the total. The EU, the US and Japan account for 70% of all imports.

•  After China, Turkey is the world’s biggest honey producer, churning out 70,000 tonnes annually. There are 40,000 professional beekeepers in the country providing a living for more than 180,000 families.7

What’s bugging the bees?

Lots – including Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and a laundry list of other problems.

CCD was first diagnosed in the US in the spring of 2006. The main symptoms are:

• Older bees disappear completely with no dead bees in the colony or anywhere around

• Some immature bees, capped brood (larvae), eggs and stored honey remain

• Queen is alive and young bees are not aggressive

• Absence of usual insect pests such as hive beetle and wax moths

• Neighbouring bees will not venture near to rob remaining honey8

Photo by: Biosphoto / Lecomte Jean / Still Pictures
Varroa mite. Photo by: Biosphoto / Lecomte Jean / Still Pictures

Varroa mites – Tiny parasites from Siberia that have now spread around the world. Attack both larvae and adult bees and reduce bees’ resistance to viral infection.

Tracheal mites – Spread around the globe in the early 1980s, attack the respiratory system of adult bees and can wipe out a colony in a day.

Nosema – A single celled fungal parasite that spread from the Asian honeybee. The bees’ digestive track is destroyed and they starve to death.

IAPD – Israeli acute paralysis virus, another imported virus, which causes paralytic seizures in bees, was recently confirmed in the US.

Pesticides – Indiscriminate use of synthetic agro-chemicals, including by beekeepers themselves, has a deadly effect on the relatively weak immune system of bees.

Photo by: Biosphoto / Mafart-Renodier Alain / Still Pictures
Bountiful Banyan. Photo by: Biosphoto / Mafart-Renodier Alain / Still Pictures

Bountiful banyan

A huge banyan tree near Bangalore may hold the world record for the largest number of beehives. An October 2008 survey found 575 hives. The Indian Institute for Natural Resources Conservation is lobbying UNESCO to have the tree declared a world heritage site.7

  1. C O’Toole, A Raw, Bees of the World, Blandford, 1991
  2. Holly Bishop, Robbing the Bees, Free Press, 2005
  3. ‘Nature’s Partners: Pollinators, plants and you’, www.nappc.org
  4. Candace Savage, Bees, Greystone Books, 2008
  5. Rowan Jacobsen, Fruitless Fall, Bloomsbury, 2008
  6. FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives
  7. ‘Nonwood News No 17’, FAO, July 2008
  8. ‘Colony Collapse Disorder Symptoms’, Feb 1/09, www.beeculture.com

This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7

Comments on The Bees' Knees - The Facts

Leave your comment