When it comes to your garden, you’ve always had a good Plan A; and a halfway decent Plan B. But without Plan Bee, you might as well throw away the seeds and burst any thought bubbles that include hauling a huge basketful of fruits and vegetables out of the garden come summertime.
You really have to wonder what a dinosaur thought, some 130 million years ago, when confronted by a honeybee.
Maybe he was glad he had a thick hide because, really, what kind of threat is a stinger on dino-hide? He might’ve batted the bug away, but he should’ve been more careful. Much like some mammals developed hooves and horns, bees evolved with bodies to help them do what bees do better than most any other creature on the planet: pollinate plants. Dinosaurs eventually went extinct, but it didn’t take long for the proficient pollinators to migrate all over Africa and the Eurasian landmass.
You can almost imagine how humans stumbled upon the other thing bees do: Chances are, they saw some rascally animal raid the hive and figured that sticky stuff had to be pretty tasty. Rock art in Africa and Spain shows that early humans knew how to hunt honey, Ice Age humans knew that smoke calmed bees, and Egyptians learned to keep bees in central locations. Many moons later, bees were brought to North America by beekeepers looking to relocate both home and hive.
Much like a miniature castle of old, each beehive centers on a queen. Despite the fact that most of the 50,000 to 200,000 bees in the hive are female, she is the only one allowed to lay eggs. The queen is pampered and fed and required to do no worker-bee drudgery. She doesn’t even have to take care of any squalling brat-bees. In fact, when there become too many mouths to feed, she swarms and flies off with some of her retinue — but not before allowing at least one of her eggs to become a new queen with a new colony. That new queen will ruthlessly kill all other newborn queens in the hive until she, alone, is left to rule. Unlike her subjects, the queen bee can use her stinger over and over without being killed by its use.
Indeed, it’s good to be queen
When it’s time for a queen bee to mate, she leaves the hive — one of the few times in her life that she does so — with the drones, or male bees, in hot pursuit of her Highness. She mates over and over in midair, and then flies back to the colony able to lay fertile eggs throughout her lifetime. The male bees, having lived a mere week and having done their only duty in life, then die, which proves that it’s a drone to be a drone.
Of her eggs — and a queen bee can lay a million eggs in her lifetime — the vast majority will become female worker bees.
Although a hive lives and dies for its queen, worker bees are an absolute necessity for honey-making and bee birthing. There are, in fact, many jobs within the hive, and worker bees graduate from job to job based on their age. Experienced worker bees forage for nectar, pollen and water, while younger bees work to make the wax combs and to process the nectar to make honey. There are attendants to the queen, as well as nurse bees, housekeepers, and even bees that work as little bee funeral directors. Still others tend to the queen’s eggs because, when she’s ready for retirement, they’ll have to start feeding the heir apparent, and the cycle begins again.
If you want to have a hive of your very own, you have a lot of decision-making to do. There are somewhere around 22,000 species of bee, the smallest being the Perdita minima, which is just about microscopic, and the largest, the Chalicodoma pluto, which can reach nearly 2 inches (females typically 39 mm) in length. Bees can survive both cold (they’ve been found in the Himalayas) and hot (some live in the desert) climates. There are bees that dig, and some that create a kind of cement. The ones you probably see in your garden are bumblebees, honeybees, mason bees, leafcutter bees and possibly digger bees, which should make your decision a little easier. By the way, wasps and hornets are of the same order, Hymenoptera, but are generally separated, although it depends on who you ask.
Basically, what all bees have in common is that they collect nectar to feed their young (and you, when you want some natural sweetness for your coffee), and they have those cute little furry bodies (to differing degrees). Bees can fly up to 15 miles per hour, which is handy because a worker bee could visit as many as 2,000 flowers each day to produce about 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. Curiously, she’ll do it largely by scent, because bees see every color but red, including some that we can’t.
Oh, and bees sting! A honeybee, if her nest is threatened, will chase interlopers for quite awhile and is not one bit afraid to sting. Once she does, though, she’s a goner because she leaves her stinger in your skin, which also rips apart her abdomen. If you’ve ever been stung, you can understand why bees were used as weapons in ancient times.
But really, you probably shouldn’t worry too much. Bee stings are somewhat uncommon, and bees are wonderful to watch and interact with. We need them to pollinate crops, flowers and other plants, and we use bees for their pollen, honey, wax and royal jelly. These creatures, throughout the ages, have contributed to human health, beauty and food in huge and irreplaceable ways.
So next time you give your honey some honey, you should both bee very thankful.
Read more: Check out our special issue on bees, the latest Guide to Backyard Bees and Honey.
Book reviewer and trivia collector Terri Schlichenmeyer lives in Wisconsin with her two dogs and more than 11,000 books.