Bees

Piero di Cosimo, The discovery of honey

Honeybees exist in a symbiotic relationship with humans. Humans cannot survive without the honeybee and honeybees cannot survive without humans. We depend on honeybees primarily to pollinate our food crops. The honeybees depend on us to plant these crops for their own food.

History of Beekeeping

Beekeeping is an ancient and fairly universal practice. The first beekeepers maintained wild hives in trees. As timed passed, these wild hives were domesticated and kept in skeps, gums, boxes, and in modern times Langstroth boxes and top bar hives. As the wild European honeybee was domesticated, different races of bees were developed. The most popular race today is the Italian because of its docile nature. Russians and New World Carniolas are also becoming more popular and abundant. The race that was most abundant with “old time” beekeepers was the German, which is still available but not very popular due to its aggressive nature. Honeybees are not native to North America. They were introduced by the early colonists. “Wild” hives are actually feral hives.

Killer Bees

Africanized honey bees, also known as “killer bees,” are not in North Carolina at this time, and measures are being taken by different state agencies to keep them out of the state. They do produce honey, but are extremely aggressive. They can cross breed with European honeybees, and their aggressiveness is carried on a dominant gene.

In the Hive

In a healthy hive at the height of production in the late spring, there will be a population of 60,000+ bees, approximately 40,000 of which will be worker bees. In the winter, the hive population will drop to around 25,000 bees. There are several different types of bees in a hive, all with their own jobs.

Brood: Brood refers to the bee larvae of queens, workers, and drones. The type of bee that laid the egg and the types of food that the larvae is fed, determines if they will grow into a queen, a worker, or a drone.

Queen: There is usually only one queen bee in a hive. The queen has the ability to sting repeatedly and typically lives between 5-7 years. Her only job is to lay eggs, which she starts doing shortly after mating with drones from a neighboring hive. The only time she will mate is during her first flight. She lays approximately 2,000 eggs a day. She may also sting other queen bees to death before or after they emerge.

Drones: Drones are male honeybees, and they are not able to sting. Their only job is to mate with queens from other colonies, the act of which will cause their death. If they do not mate during their lifetime, they will be evicted from the hive at the beginning of winter to starve or freeze to death.

Workers: Worker bees are all female and die after stinging (they are the only bees to do this). They do all the jobs in the colony. After emerging, their jobs are confined to the inside of the hive. Toward the end of their short life, their jobs take them outside of the hive. During warm weather, workers tend to live for around 6 weeks. Because they do not sleep, they work themselves to death. In winter, the workers will live for up to 9 months. Workers choose which brood will be made into queens, and they are able to lay eggs, which will emerge as drones.

Collection

Worker bees collect pollen and nectar from flowers and flowering plants, water from water sources, and substances from trees that is used to make propolis. Bees navigate by the angle of the sun in relationship to their hive and the plants that they are working.  Bees see in the ultraviolet and tend to favor yellow, blue, and purple blossoms.  Bees communicate with each other by way of pheromones (body chemicals) and dances.

Swarms

Swarms occur when a hive has an old queen and a new queen, and the old queen leaves with half the bees to set up a daughter hive. A swarm may also occur when the bees in a hive do not have enough room. Sometimes these swarms have a queen and sometimes they don’t. Swarms are usually very docile, but it’s best to leave them alone. If you see a swarm that needs to be removed, contact your local county extension office or contact the Panoleptos Apiary.

Hive Failure

Despite the media’s sensationalism of colony collapse disorder, most apiaries do not fail due to that mysterious phenomena. Most apiaries fail due to pests that have been brought to the area by interstate and global commerce. The most common apiary pests in North Carolina are:

Small Hive Beetle—The larvae feed on the bees’ pollen, honey, and brood–destroying the hive.

Wax Moth—The larvae will eat the wax and the wooden bee boxes—literally eating the bees out of house and home.

Varroa Mite—The adult mite attaches itself to the outside of the bees and brood and sucks their blood, which slowly kills the bees.

Tracheal Mite—The adult mite lives inside the trachea of the bee, making it hard for the bee to aspirate.  Eventually the bee will weaken and die.

Foul Brood—This disease is spread by bacteria spores, which are ingested by bee larvae.  The spores then mature and kill the brood.  This disease is highly contagious.

Honey

Honey is the only food that humans eat that is produced by an insect, and it is the bees’ source of calories. Honey is made up of regurgitated nectar and other sugars. While the typical hive produces approximately 40+ pounds of honey, a single honeybee will only produce 1/12 teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. To make one pound of honey, approximately 300 bees will have to visit 2 million flowers. Honey is one of the few foods that never spoils. Pure honey will crystallize at some point. This does not mean that the honey is bad. The crystallized honey can be used like sugar or it can be melted in a double boiler. Sometimes honey that is purchased in stores has been adulterated with corn syrup or other additives. Beware from whom you purchase your honey.

In addition to being a food source, honey can also be used medicinally. Raw, local honey is good for helping with seasonal allergies. Honey can also be used as an antiseptic. Doctors at Valdese Hospital in Valdese, NC are currently engaged in experiments using honey to treat gangrene and septic wounds. So far, these experiments have a high success rate.

Propolis

Propolis is a sticky substance that is produced by bees from trees and is used to seal up the cracks in a hive. Humans often use propolis as an ingredient in toothpaste, cosmetics, incense, and many other household products.

Beeswax

Beeswax, which is used by humans for candles, lotions, foods, furniture products, soaps, and cosmetics, is secreted by workers bees from wax-producing glands. The bees make the wax into comb, which is made up of small hexagonal cells. Comb is used to store honey and pollen and is where the bees raise their brood. To make a pound of wax, bees will consume eight pounds of honey. For this reason, many beekeepers provide their bees with foundation wax. Freshly made beeswax is white but soon turns yellow due to pollen and contact with the bees.