Story by Amy Reukauf, Photos by Paige Mulhern
When I got my second co-op at the Best Bees Company, a lot of people asked me this question: “Why bees?”
It’s common knowledge that honeybees are some of the vital pollinators we depend on for global food security and that this small-but-mighty agricultural labor force is struggling these days. However, not everyone seems to understand the extent to which we rely on bees. People are often surprised to hear that honeybees actually pollinate 70% of our different food-crops. A coworker even told me that “one in three bites of human food exists because of bees.”
Not only do bees pollinate many of the foods on which we depend, but they also produce five different human-consumable products with a variety of benefits:
Honey: A delicious natural sweetener, honey is said to ease coughs, hold antibacterial and antioxidant properties, provide anti-inflammatory benefits, help with local pollen allergies and promote the healing of wounds.
Wax: Beeswax is often used by humans to create beautiful, sweet-scented candles. However, not many realize that beeswax holds anti-inflammatory and moisture-locking properties. This is why it is used in a variety of topical skincare products such as chapsticks and lotions.
Propolis: Propolis is a sticky reddish substance that essentially acts as beehive superglue. Bees make and use it not only to seal off cracks in the hive, but also for its strong anti-bacterial properties. Propolis provides similar antibacterial benefits to humans as well, and trace amounts can be found in raw unfiltered honey.
Royal Jelly: Royal jelly is a protein-rich food secreted by worker bees to feed the larvae. While all honey bees are fed a small amount of royal jelly while they are tiny larvae, the queen is fed substantially more and for a longer period of time to the point that it actually changes her genetic makeup compared to worker bees. Royal jelly has been used by humans as an ancient home remedy and dietary supplement, though there is little scientific evidence to actually support these uses.
Venom: While most people fear being stung by bees, their venom actually provides the most human health benefits of any of the products they produce. Bee venom is used to treat a multitude of human diseases including: multiple sclerosis, tendonitis and arthritis. A bee sting also contains several antibiotic and anti-inflammatory properties, and may trigger certain healing processes within the body. Finally, getting stung by bees increases immunity and reduces pain of future bee stings. Some experienced beekeepers compare the pain of a bee sting to something as small as a mosquito bite.
Working closely with bees for the past several months has taught me to appreciate these little creatures on a much more personal level. They have intricate social structures and means of communication. Their behaviors and ways of interacting with the world never cease to fascinate me. Here are some of my favorite honeybee facts:
Worker bees – which are sexually immature female bees – have a designated job in the hive based on their age.
When they are are first born, they perform tasks inside the hive such as tending to the queen and cleaning around the hive. As workers age, they become guard bees that defend the perimeter of the hive. Eventually they transition to foragers, who go out and collect nectar and pollen. Older bees have stronger immune systems, which is why they are sent out to forage. Typically, if a beekeeper needs to move their hive, they’ll try do it when it’s still dark out in the morning so as not to lose any coveted foragers.
Drones are male bees, and their only job is to mate with a queen, after which they immediately die.
If there are any remaining drones in the hive in the fall, worker bees will drag them out of the hive and block the entrance so the drones cannot re-enter. This is because during the winter – when drones can no longer go on mating flights – they become an inefficient use of resources.
Bees communicate through vibrations and pheromones.
There is a smartphone app being developed to diagnose hive diseases by “listening” to the buzzing from inside the entrance of the hive. Beekeepers use smoke to “calm” the bees because it blocks them from smelling the threat pheromones sometimes given off when a beekeeper opens the hive. Humans can even smell this pheromone as it resembles the scent of a banana. In fact, if you smell like banana or put a banana near a bee they will start acting more aggressively.
Perhaps their most famous means of communication is the “waggle dance.”
In this dance, a returning forager will walk in a figure-eight and wiggle their abdomen along a specifically angled line, offset from directly up – which represents the direction of flight toward the sun. The length that they walk while waggling represents the distance they flew. These directions are adjusted for wind direction and even the sun’s current location in the sky compared to the time they flew, even though inside the hive it is complete darkness. Finally, the vigor with which the bees shake represents the quality of the source. So if there is a particularly delicious or abundant source, they will wiggle more excitedly.
When people ask me, “Why bees?”, there is so much I want to share with them. I believe if more people understood the complexity of these little creatures and everything they have to offer us, they would have a much greater appreciation for these amazing insects.