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Summit Outside: The incredible honey bee

Dr. Joanne Stolen
Special to the Daily
Special to the Daily
ALL |

“And that’s why birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it. Let’s do it, let’s fall in love.”

– Cole Porter

Birds and bees: what about bees? Famous uses of this phrase come from the work of John Burroughs, a naturalist who lived and worked in the Catskill Mountains. He wrote a small pamphlet called “Birds and Bees: Essays” in which he explained the workings of nature in a way that children could understand.

The honey bee is an amazingly beneficial insect due to its production of honey and other products, as well as pollination of plants. Without pollination we wouldn’t have yummy things like chocolate, almonds, wine and of course honey. (Honey is the complex substance made when the nectar and sweet deposits from plants and trees are gathered, modified and stored in the honeycomb by honey bees as a food source for the colony.)

A study has estimated that every third bite we consume in our diet is dependent on a honeybee to pollinate that food. In Colorado, the honey bee is important to the agricultural economy as many crops are dependent on them for pollination including apples, pears, peaches and melons.

When a bee visits a flower to forage for nectar, some of the flower’s pollen (male sperm) rubs off on to the bee’s body and when the bee then moves on to another flower some of the pollen on the bee’s body is transferred to the “female” parts of the plant, thus pollinating, or fertilizing, the flower. When a bee starts foraging from a particular type of flower, it will visit only that type of flower which means that the correct pollen is always delivered to the same variety of flower. A plant will not develop seeds or fruit if the flower is not pollinated.

There are approximately 20,000 known species of bees. Most species have historically been cultured or at least exploited for honey and beeswax by humans and two species have been domesticated since the time of the building of the Egyptian pyramids, and exported extensively beyond their native range. There are no honey bees native to the Americas. In 1622, European colonists brought the dark bee to the Americas, followed later by Italian bees and others. Many of the crops that depend on honey bees for pollination have also been imported since colonial times. Honey bees did not naturally cross the Rocky Mountains; they were carried by ship to California in the early 1850s.

A honey bee colony is often described as being a “super organism” where all the individual insects have essential roles. The majorities of bees in the honey bee colony are workers and are infertile females. When a queen dies or is lost, workers select a few young worker larvae and feed them a special food called “royal jelly.” These special larvae then develop into queens. Therefore, the only difference between workers and queens is diet. There is usually only one queen per colony. The queen also affects the colony by producing chemicals called “pheromones” that regulate the behavior of other bees. Male bees or drones fly from the hive and mate in the air with queens from other colonies.

Reproduction of honey bees requires that the colony periodically split; a process known as “swarming”.

During swarms about half the colony leaves the hive along with the queen to establish a new colony. The remaining bees then rear a new queen. Immediately after leaving the colony the swarm usually settles nearby clustered on a branch and then a few bees to scout for suitable nest sites. Once a location is found, the swarm departs to the new home.

During the winter, honeybees cluster together in their hive and the queen lays eggs in late winter. The young are fed on stored pollen and nectar.

Honey bees are not aggressive insects, although they will readily defend the colony. The foraging bees seen visiting flowers do not attack. The stinger of the honey bee is barbed and embeds into the skin. When the bee withdraws the stinger the poison sac is left behind and the bee dies.

Populations of bees are declining worldwide due to habitat loss and pesticide use, as well as to climate change. Other theories include viruses, a fungus and poor bee nutrition. Mites have also damaged bee colonies, and the insecticides used to kill mites are harming the queen bees. A honey bee lab in Purdue University is breeding bees with increased resistance to mites.

A community of honey bees has often been employed throughout history by political theorists as a model of human society. Honey bees, signifying immortality and resurrection, were royal emblems.

The bee is the heraldic emblem of the Barberini, a family of Italian nobility that rose to prominence in the 17th century.

Breckenridge resident Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University. Some of the block prints of the animals she writes about can be seen locally. During the summer she coaches rowing at Frisco Rowing Center.


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