Honeybees Presentation Text

 

Ray Lackey, 1260 Walnut Ave. Bohemia NY 11716-2176
Phone: (631)567-1936 email:lackeyray@tianca.com

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These are honeybees, the insect which makes the honey that you may like to have on your pancakes, waffles, or french toast in the morning. An observation hive may only have about 5000 worker bees, where a typical colony would have between 50 and 75 thousand workers during the nectar season.

Honeybees gather nectar from flowers, add an enzyme to invert the complex sugars to simple sugars, evaporate the excess water, and seal the honey in wax bottles, the honeycomb. It takes approximately 10 pounds of nectar to make one pound of honey. To gather this nectar, the bees had to visit an average of two million flowers and traveled about 55,000 miles, over twice the distance around the world. Each worker will fly about 500 miles during its lifetime of six weeks before it simply wears out and dies. The honeybees depend on the honey as food for energy and store up excess so that the colony can survive long winters when no flowers are blooming.

In gathering the nectar, the honeybees also supply pollination to the flowers by transferring sticky pollen from the stamens of one flower to the pistil of another, thus completing the symbiotic relationship between bees and flowers. The bees supply pollination service in return for the nectar since the flowers cannot achieve pollination by wind due to other characteristics of the plant. In other cases, the flower does not supply nectar but has abundant pollen and the bees actually gather pollen as a protein source while simultaneously supplying pollination. Over ninety agricultural crops in the United States benefit from pollination by honeybees with a total value of over 20 billion dollars per year.

All of the workers are sexually undeveloped females but the colony also has one sexually developed female, the queen. The queen can lay over 2000 eggs a day, exceeding her own body weight. She decides whether to fertilize each egg or not on an individual basis depending on the size of the cell. Standard cells receive a fertilized egg, which will develop into a female. Unfertilized eggs are laid in larger cells and develop into males, or drones. The drones thus have a mother but no father although they do have both a grandmother and grandfather. The queen fertilizes the eggs with sperm stored from matings, which took place during the first week of her life. The sperm stays viable throughout the queen's life, sometimes for over seven years.

The females will develop into workers or a queen based upon what she is fed as a larva. A queen is formed by feeding a female larva a larger amount of a high protein food, called Royal Jelly, for a longer period of time, so that her ovaries develop. The drones live only to mate with the new young queens and die after mating. There are normally one to five thousand drones in a colony during the summer but they are dumped out in the fall to starve since they serve no function in winter.

Bees are insects and have the stages of egg, larva, pupa, and adult. The egg hatches into a larval worm that feeds heavily on royal jelly and beebread, a mixture of honey and pollen until it spins a cocoon, entering the pupa stage. A few days later an adult honeybee emerges from the cocoon, grabs some food, and goes to work.

The workers can sting but they have a barbed stinger that stays in the animal stung and is pulled out of the bee with an attached poison sack which continues to pump venom while the bee soon bleeds to death. Thus, the honeybees thus generally only sting to defend the colony unless they are being smashed and figure they might as well go down fighting. Hives of the honeybee can normally be opened and manipulated without stings if movements are slow and gentle. The natural enemies of the honeybee are skunks, raccoons, bears, and man. The average man can survive up to 2000 stings but one person in 10,000 is highly allergic and would have a severe reaction that would inhibit breathing from a single sting. The drones cannot sting. The queen has a smooth stinger but generally will only use it to fight another queen for the possession of the throne.

Man has kept honeybees for many centuries for their honey when no other sweetener was available. Man initially robbed wild colonies for the honey but later started collecting wild swarms and thus started keeping bees. Practices and development varied, but, before Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, the Egyptians were keeping bees on barges that were floated up and down the Nile River to follow the advancement of bloom, much as our migratory beekeepers do today. During the Middle Ages, taxes and tithes could be paid in beeswax and honey.

Our honeybees are not native to the United States but were brought here by the colonists in the 1620's where the Indians called them "white man's flies". The Spanish explorers had found beekeeping practices established in South and Central America but with a different species, which was not as well suited for culture.

Honeybees naturally nest in a hollow tree that has rotted out due to some damage such as a branch breaking off and allowing water access. The bees would enter through a hole and nest in the cavity. Bees were kept in clay pots in the Middle East and grass baskets, called skeps, in Europe. In each case the hives were probably developed by accident when wild swarms occupied empty containers. Man recognized the bees' preference to a particular size container, about ten liters, and started collecting swarms in specially made containers. Generally, the containers required killing the bees to collect the honey.

In the 1850's, Reverend Langstroth discovered "bee space", the space which bees normally leave between combs, about 3/16 of an inch. If a larger space is left, the bees fill it with honeycomb, while a smaller space is filled with propolis, a glue made by the bees. This principle makes today's movable frame hives possible and now we can really manage the bees. Frame and box sizes have been standardized around the world based upon this "bee space." Other important discoveries include the smoker, foundation, and the centrifugal extractor.

The smoker is used to calm the bees since smoke masks pheromones such as the alarm odor and causes some of the bees to engorge themselves with honey. This activity is similar to that of preparing to swarm and seems to be an action preparing to abandon the hive if threatened by fire. Bees with a full stomach are slower and cannot bend over to sting, much as we would have trouble bending over after Thanksgiving dinner. The benefit of smoke was probably also discovered by accident when a man tried to rob the bees at night in hopes of avoiding stings and carried a torch for light. Prehistoric cave drawings illustrate carrying a torch while robbing bees. Veils, white coveralls, and gloves further minimize stinging.

Foundation is a thin sheet of beeswax embossed with the worker size cell pattern. This aids the bees in drawing straight comb so that the frames of honeycomb are interchangeable and easily moved. Embossing the foundation with worker size cells minimizes the number of drone cells, and thus the number of drones raised.

The centrifugal extractor allows the reuse of honeycomb. Honey in the comb can be eaten and digested, the wax is a fat, but most honey is extracted and sold as a liquid because it can then be used more easily. The current technique is to remove the filled combs from the hive, cut or lift the caps off the capped honeycomb, spin the honey out of the comb and replace the combs on the hive for a refill. It takes seven pounds of honey to make one pound of beeswax and a lot of effort by the bees to mold it into honeycomb so this return for refill method is much more efficient.

The honeycomb is amazing in itself. There are only three shapes known to man that can be repeated to completely fill a surface, such as the face of the honeycomb. They are triangles, squares, and hexagons. The hexagon shape used by the bees has been determined by space platform research to have the most storage volume per unit of construction material in a ridged structure. Thus they have the optimum reusable structure for their needs of nursery and storehouse.

The way in which the honeycomb takes form is also amazing. Honeybees are insects and store no calories as internal fats for later energy, as we do, but the workers do exude a fat under their abdomen from special wax glands. This occurs when the bees have high blood sugar such as when the bees have engorged themselves with honey preparatory for swarming. This allows them to quickly draw comb as soon as they find a new home. The queen can be laying eggs in new comb the day after the honeybees have settled. High blood sugar also occurs in the house bees when the field bees are bringing in nectar and there is no more space to put the nectar and processed honey. They then start storing nectar and honey internally and are then naturally producing the raw material necessary to expand the storage space in the hive.

The products of the hive include pollination, honey, wax, pollen, and propolis. It may seem strange to list pollination of fruits and vegetables with products of the hive but it is the most important product. Without pollination, we would have a very boring diet of the wind-pollinated grains such as corn, wheat, and rice.

The estimated 211,600 beekeepers of the United States keep an estimated 3.2 million colonies which produced around 200 million pounds of honey in 1987. About 200,000 of the beekeepers are hobbyists, producing honey for family, friends, and local sale.

The principle users of honey are bakeries because honey is hygroscopic, attracts and holds moisture, and keeps baked goods fresh longer. The hygroscopic properties of honey have also led it to be used as an antiseptic such as during the Civil War when drugs were scarce. The honey draws moisture from the bacteria to dissolve itself and thus causes the bacterial cell to collapse from a pressure differential. It is still used today in some operating rooms because of it's antibacterial properties and because it is non-allergenic.

The largest use of beeswax in the United States is as the base for many cosmetics such as lipstick because no man-made substance has been found which has the texture of beeswax and is so universally non-allergenic. The second largest user of beeswax is the candle industry. The virgin female workers make beeswax so that it is used as a symbol of the virgin birth of Christ in the church and the purity of the union in marriage. Beeswax melts at a higher temperature than paraffin and generally makes a dripless candle. Burning beeswax candles have a fragrance reminiscent of the out-of-doors due to the source of beeswax from a multitude of flowers.

Pollen is a plant protein with every amino acid necessary for man's development. Athletes in training such as our Olympic teams use it. Propolis is a sealant or glue, made by the bees and used to seal the inside of the hive as a barrier against drafts, moisture, and disease. If a relatively large animal such as a mouse invades the hive, the bees will attack it and it may die in the hive. The bees, unable to drag it out, will seal it in propolis. Mice dead for over five years have been found perfectly preserved, sealed in propolis. The ancient Egyptians used propolis to embalm the pharaohs. Today it is used on burn patients and for mouth surgery due to its antibacterial and non-allergenic properties.

Honeybees are often confused with other insects with points on the end such as yellow jackets, hornets, wasps and other bees such as Bumble, Carpenter, and the many other solitary bees native to our land. Yellow jackets are a small variety of hornet. Hornets and wasps feed their young animal protein such as insects and worms. They have smooth stingers, which are used to paralyze their prey, so they can sting multiple times. Bees feed their young plant protein, pollen, and have a hairy body to better transfer pollen between flowers in their symbiotic relationship.

The African honeybee has caused significant concern in recent years. This bee was brought to Brazil in 1960 to attempt to cross it with the European honeybee to produce a bee better suited to the tropical climate. Unfortunately it escaped from captivity and Africanized hybrids have since spread over most of South America and are moving north through Mexico. This honeybee was created for an area where it did not need to store up an excess of honey as a heat source for winter months. They also didn't need the protection of a hollow tree to provide shelter from cold windblasts. Thus, they normally nest in the open under a branch. Being open to the world like this, they have had to be more defensive.

The European honeybee kept in the United States nests in a closed area and defends the opening to the colony. The African honeybee defends an area around the hive and thus fields more guards at much greater distances than the European. The stinger and poison sack left after stinging has a pheromone which says "This is the enemy." and draws the other guards after it. The European honeybees break off the attack as soon as the invader draws back from the hive but the Africanized honeybee will follow for more than half a mile.

The Africanized honeybee does not appear to be losing this aggressiveness as they spread. They will become spread throughout most of the United States, at least the south, within a few years. The full economic and social effect of this invasion cannot yet be predicted. South Americans now understand that this honeybee has a temperament of a yellow jacket and leave them alone.

Honeybees nest inside a cavity usually located above the ground and make a wax honeycomb. Hornets and the paper wasps make nests of a gray papery material. The wasp nests are generally small with open comb while the hornet nests are shaped like an inverted teardrop enclosing the comb. These nests can be in a cavity above or below ground or in the open on a branch. Bumble bees, Carpenter bees, and the solitary bees are very varied in their nesting sites and habits. Only the honeybee colony winters over. The others die off with cold weather and leave only pupas or fertilized queens wintering in the ground or under a piece of bark to continue the species the next year.

Honeybees winter over by heating the colony. The bees cluster and the bees on the inside eat honey, put their wings in neutral, and vibrate their wing muscles. They shiver. This heats the center of the cluster while the other bees provide insulation by packing together for several layers. The bees continually rotate position and duties to maintain the colony. The center of the colony is maintained at over 90 degrees F when brood is being raised even in the middle of winter.

Honeybees produce more colonies in spring or early summer by a process called swarming where the old queen leaves the old colony with several thousand workers to start a new colony at a new location. The workers left behind raise replacement queens, which will either leave in after-swarms or fight for the throne. The swarm clusters on a branch or the side of a building while scout bees search for and compare likely nesting sites. When all of the scouts are in agreement of the new nest site, the swarm releases and flies to their selected site to start building up for the next winter. Swarming is prevented by various management techniques.

Honeybees appear to have been created for man because of their gentle nature, large pollination force, and acceptance of being moved for pollination. Bees are kept on Long Island from Shelter Island to Brooklyn and Queens. Kept by responsible beekeepers, they provide a valuable service and shouldn't be a problem. The Long Island Beekeepers Club has a good neighbor policy and an educational program for novice beekeepers to assure proper neighborhood relationships, which minimize the likelihood of trouble. We also try to educate the public relative to bees and their distant relatives, wasps and hornets, to alleviate fear and troubles. We can be contacted through the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Riverhead.

This text is protected under the United States Copyright laws and reproduction and distribution of this text is restricted to that authorized by the author: Raymond J. Lackey, 1260 Walnut Avenue, Bohemia, NY 11716.