The Business of Bees

by Barbara Walvoord

“When a bumblebee is feeding at a flower, you can pet it,” said Tom Sullivan a pollinator expert who has consulted with us about our land. Unless directly threatened, bees are reluctant to sting. I did not try to pet this bee, but I did stick my camera practically in its face, and it just went about its business.

This looks like a honey bee to me, but it could be one of the other 4,000 species of bees in the U.S., some of whom are solitary, living in the ground, in tree holes, or in the soft pith of stems.

If this is a honey bee, it’s a forager, whose business is to bring nectar, pollen, and water back to the worker bees in the hive, who are busy making honey and tending the queen and the larvae. A single bee will produce about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its lifetime. A hive needs 100 pounds of honey for one winter.

A third kind of honey bee is the queen–one per hive–whose business is to lay up to 2,000 eggs per day. If the queen dies, another bee is chosen to be fed a “royal jelly” that will turn her into a queen. My little granddaughters would like to be queens on a diet of ice cream and candy, but royal jelly is rich in protein, honey, and special enzymes.

The plant’s business is to reproduce sexually by combining sperm (pollen) of one plant with female organs of another. Since the plant can’t physically move, it cleverly woos our bee with nectar, scent, and color (bees prefer purple). A visiting bee carries the sticky pollen on its body to the reproductive organs of the next plant it visits.

Human business is to get enough to eat. About a third of the world’s food depends on insect pollinators. The big threat is not that this bee will sting you, but that it won’t be here. Bee numbers are declining significantly. We can help by planting flowers, protecting the meadows and forests where bees feed and nest, and eliminating pesticides, especially neonicotinoids, which are often infused, without being identified, into the landscape and garden plants we buy, and which have been identified as a prime suspect in bee colony collapse (www.xerces.org/neonicotinoids-and-bees/).

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