Celebrating the Hardworking Honeybee

A honeybee enjoys the High Line. Photo by Steven SeveringhausA honeybee enjoys a visit to the High Line. Photo by Steven Severinghaus

In anticipation of High Line Honey Day on July 30, we’re exploring the world of honeybees. We invited Dan Carr, Assistant Livestock Manager at Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture, to introduce our readers to this industrious little insect. Stone Barns Center is a non-profit farm and education center located in Westchester County, New York. In addition to caring for honeybees, Dan and the Livestock Staff members oversee sheep, pigs, chickens, and other animals.

Honeybees are fascinating creatures that are truly a joy to get to know. I first started researching them out of an interest in honey production, but as I learned more about their complex social structure and their versatility, I fell in love with them.

From a scientific perspective, we don’t talk about honeybees as individuals. Instead we talk about the colony as a single living being, or as biologist E.O. Wilson described it, a "superorganism.” Just as humans are composed of many different kinds of cells – blood cells, nerve cells, reproductive cells, gut bacteria, etc. – which all have highly specialized roles to play but work in conjunction, each individual bee plays its role within the hive. All the small duties of each individual bee are combined to create a functioning whole colony.

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The colony could certainly be called a matriarchy, but I wouldn't necessarily place the queen at the top. She is the primary reproductive organ of the hive, along with the drones (male bees). Drones from other hives inseminate a new queen on her nuptial flight, which allows for genetic diversity in her offspring. From then on, the queen's role is to lay eggs all day, every day, for the rest of her life. In the peak of the season she'll lay up to 2,000 eggs a day – more than her own body weight!

The worker bees – in their many evolving roles – are the true workforce and wisdom of the hive. All worker bees start the first two to three weeks of their lives working inside the hive, taking roles such as cleaning cells, removing dead bees and brood, nursing the developing larvae, caring for the queen, ventilating the hive and dehydrating honey by fanning it with their wings, building comb from beeswax excreted from their own bodies, and packing nectar and pollen in the wax cells relayed from the forager bees. After about two weeks the workers develop a stinger and start to guard the hive. Around the same time, their wing muscles are developed and they are able to start flying.

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The primary job of almost all adult worker bees, after they are about three weeks old, is foraging for water, pollen, nectar, and tree resin, for which they may travel up to three miles to find. Each type of forage has a different role in the hive. Pollen is a protein source that is fed to developing larvae, or baby bees. Nectar is a carbohydrate or energy source, which they convert into honey as a reserve for dearth periods and winter. A forager will sip nectar from flowers with her proboscis (a straw-like tongue) and hold it in her honey stomach. There, she adds the enzyme invertase, which breaks down the sucrose into glucose and fructose. She regurgitates it at the hive entrance for a house bee who will pack it in a cell to be dehydrated and capped off with wax for winter stores. Once the bees dehydrate the honey to 18% water content, it is imperishable. Honey is one of the world's only foods that will never go bad!

Apis mellifera, the European honeybee, is not native to the Americas – it was most likely introduced by Jamestown colonists in 1622. Since then, this amazing and versatile insect has co-evolved with our agriculture system. Honeybee pollination is responsible for more than $15 billion of increased crop value, and the massive commercial production of many specialty crops like almonds and other tree nuts, berries, fruits, and vegetables would not be possible without the pollination of honeybees.

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So that begs the question: why is our food system so dependent on a non-native pollinator? There are a lot of qualities that make honeybees terrific pollinators. The bodies of worker bees are covered in branched hairs that pick up pollen whether one is actively collecting pollen or nectar from a flower. And, honeybees practice floral fidelity, meaning that on a single flight they will only visit one type of flower. So if the forager visits a raspberry blossom upon leaving the hive she will continue to only visit raspberry flowers on that flight, visiting anywhere between 50 to 100 individual blossoms. A lot of native pollinators also share these attributes, but there are a couple of unique traits that make honeybees so important to our agriculture system: they live in colonies of very large numbers year-round, – 8,000 to20,000 in the winter and about 40,000 to 60,000 at their peak in the summer – and they are highly transportable and manageable, unlike our native pollinators. The American agricultural system has become highly specialized in the sense that many farms focus primarily on a single crop at a time. For a pollinator, these farms look like a desert most of the year, and when that single crop comes into bloom there is a very short window in which the crop requires a large number of pollinators. Without the ability to truck in honeybees for pollination – as is a common practice – most of these crops wouldn't get pollinated.

It’s ironic that this system that is dependent on honeybees is also contributing to their decline. Of the estimated 2.6 million managed honeybee colonies in the United States right now, about two-thirds of them are transported long distances for commercial pollination contracts on one monoculture farm – or farm with a single type of crop plant – after another. The most amazing example is the almond pollination that happens every February in the Central Valley of California, where more than 1.5 million hives are trucked in to pollinate more than 800,000 acres of almond trees.

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Given the need for a large number of pollinators on one farm at the same time, bees are transported in from just about every state in the country. They are often exposed to a variety of different hive diseases and pests, as well as a mixture of different pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides, all of which are fat-soluble and end up building up in the beeswax over time. Due to the monoculture nature of so many larger farms, bees are often eating a single food source at a time. When the bees are on an almond farm, that is the sole pollen or nectar source. When they move on to the next pollination contract, whether it be apples, oranges, blueberries, etc., then that becomes their primary nectar and pollen source. Over time, this erratic and concentrated diet causes malnutrition.

All of this heavy work has greatly weakened our nation's honeybee population. To make matters worse, since 1986 they have had to deal with a parasitic mite called Varroa destructor, which has earned its ominous name. If you can image a honeybee to be the size of an average human being, the Varroa mite would be like a tick the size of a basketball, attached to the bee, feeding on its hemolymph (the “blood” of bees), and exposing it to a slew of different viruses. American bees have also been faced with the introduction of a deadly gut fungus called Nosema ceranae and what seems like a new set of viruses every year.

All of these issues, combined with a severe lack of forage and a dwindling gene pool, have made for a much weaker bee and are probably all contributing factors to what the general public knows as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The fact that most people don't want to hear is that the research has shown there is no single cause to CCD or the general honeybee decline.

There are a myriad of factors that have perpetuated a perfect storm for bees, but all hope is not lost. The beekeeping community and researchers are hard at work trying to address many of these problems, but we need support from the general public to affect systemic change. As a consumer, one of the best things you can do for honeybees is to seek out food that is grown on diversified farms (or farms that grow many different kinds of crops) that are not reliant on chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These farms create healthy habitats for honeybees and for pollinators in general. Something else we can all do for honeybees and all of our important pollinators is plant a wide variety of wildflowers that bloom at all different times throughout the year, and try to maintain our yards and gardens without the use of pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals.

I think there are a lot of things we can learn from honeybees, but one of the most important is their selflessness. In a single worker bee’s lifetime she will collect only about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey, but over the course of a single season a single colony can produce well in abundance of 100 pounds of honey. Honeybees show us that unimaginable things become possible when we work together.

A honeybee visits one of the High Line's magnolia plants. Photo by Phil VachonA honeybee gets a close look at one of the High Line's magnolia blooms. Photo by Phil Vachon
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