Sometimes the spark of a single question can send you on the greatest adventures…
Spring is in the air here in the Sonoran desert. Flowers are just beginning to bloom, nurseries are filling their yards with gardeners delights and we have just about reached the perfect temperature of 70 degrees. For us, the coming signs of spring arrive with the bees who, by the hundreds, come out to gather nectar from our newly blooming rosemary. As we noticed that in our immediate vicinity only our rosemary was attracting such a large amount of bees, Kat came up with her spark of a question…
If bees only gather their pollen from one primary source, would the next generation of bees want to go for just those flowers?
To find our answer, we would have to learn a lot about bees. We brought our question to the experts in Reddit’s online beekeeping community. The beekeepers were gracious with their time and knowledge. Not only did we get an answer, but we found out just how fascinating bees truly are! The more we learned the more we wanted to see the bees in action for ourselves. Our lessons would take us beyond our yard, around our neighborhood, through our city, and finally in the apiary of a real beekeeper!
The bees that we see out and about are foraging workers. Their job is to collect nectar and pollen for themselves and their hives. The nectar is used as a food source for the bee and will also be taken back to the hive to make honey. Pollen is used by the bees to make “bee bread“, the essential source of food for bee larvae and newly emerged adult workers. Pollen and nectar are essential for the health of the hive. Depending on the needs of the hive and the pheromones (chemical messages) released by the queen, the bees may focus their attention on one or the other. Currently in our neighborhood, the bees are reaching the end of their winter honey stores. Therefore, in our area, locating and gathering nectar for food and honey production is a high priority.
When a honey bee locates a nice patch of flowers containing ample amounts of food, they have a fascinating way of telling each other about it. It’s called the “Waggle Dance” and it goes something like this…
A bee finds a patch of flowers She flies down to take a drink of nectar and fill her belly. She she flies up and circles around the flower before flying in a straight line back to the hive. This is such a reliable way of getting a sense of direction for the bee, that people can use the bee’s line to the hive to find the hive itself! It’s called bee lining and you can learn how to do it here.
When she gets back to the hive, she communicates her find to all of the other bees. She dances in a figure eight pattern and waggles in the direction of the flowers, relative to the sun. The length of her waggle communicates the distance of the flowers from the hive. Amazingly, bees use gravity, latitude, the time of day, the season, and angles to factor in their locations! Since they see in ultra-violet and polarized light (as it looks closer to the sun, its vision darkens, similar to that of sunglasses), they can always reference the location of the sun, even on the cloudiest of days.
DO THE WAGGLE DANCE!
Bees use the location of the sun as a constant to locate their flowers. Think of some places in your area that have a lot of flowers. Graph the direction and use the waggle dance to communicate the location of the flowers to your partner bees! Can your partners guess where you’re thinking?
2 markers (different colors)
1. Think of a place in your area with a lot of flowers.
2. Line up your ruler with the sun. Using the sun as a frame of reference, turn toward the direction of your chosen flower location.
3. Use your marker and ruler to chart a line representing the location of the sun.
4. Using your other marker, chart another line extending from the center of your “sun line”. This line will be angled toward your flower location. If the location is close (in your front yard), make the line short. If it is in farther away (a plant nursery or park), make the line longer.
5. Do the Waggle Dance! In true bee fashion, dance around in a figure eight pattern. When you get to the middle, waggle that bee bootie! Match the direction and duration of your waggle to the location and distance to the flowers indicated on your graph.
6. See if your partner can guess where your flowers are. Then, switch places!
NOTE: It helps if you pick locations where everyone has been. It could be your backyard, a nearby park, or a neighborhood garden! If your school has a garden in the playground, or flowers nearby, look there! My daughter and I were able to guess each other’s location with surprising accuracy and we had a lot of fun doing the waggle dance in our yard!
When the foraging honey bee gets back to the hive, she will pass her nectar off to another worker bee. This bee will hold the nectar on her tongue, allowing the water in the nectar to evaporate into the atmosphere. As it does, the nectar thickens until it becomes honey! The honey is then stored in the hive for the winter months, or mixed with pollen to make bee bread to feed the bee larvae.
MAKE LIKE A BEE AND MAKE HONEY!
Bees make honey by allowing the nectar they collect to evaporate and thicken. While bee honey also contains enzymes only found in the bees mouths, we can make a “makeshift honey” in our front yard!
1/2 cup of granulated sugar
1 cup of water
stove (make sure you get an adult’s help!)
shallow bowl or small saucer
1. Turn the stove on to medium low heat. Add the water to the pot.
2. Add half of the sugar to the water, stirring as it dissolves. Continue adding sugar until it does not dissolve any longer. This will be a saturated sugar water solution.
3. Turn off the stove and remove the pot from heat.
4. Spoon a few tablespoons of the sugar solution on to your saucer. Bring it outside and let the air evaporate the water from the solution. Depending on the weather (do this on a nice day!), you should notice a thicker solution on your plate within an hour. The longer you leave it out, the thicker your “honey” will get!
A LOOK INSIDE THE HIVE
We learned a lot about bees and their various roles within the hive. During our lessons, a friend of mine introduced me to Dan Punch, a local beekeeper. Dan was very gracious with his time and invited us out to his apiary to view his bees in their hives! Not only did we learn about their roles, but we actually got to see them live and in action!
Dan, of Dan Punch, Beekeeping, found his passion for bees in an interesting way. When I asked him how got started, he replied, “well, one day I looked out in the backyard and wondered if I could catch a hive. So I did a lot of research and tried it out. It worked and here I am.” He’s been beekeeping for a year now and has hives all over the Valley. He specializes in live, humane, bee removal stating, “you can’t tell whether a hive you’ve got is Africanized (killer bees) or not. If they’re Africanized, one sting can lead the whole hive in a chase after you. If you’ve got a hive in your home or close to children or animals, it can lead to a serious situation.” For a competitive fee, he will humanely remove the hive and take the bees back to one of his apiaries. If the hive is Africanized, he’ll remove the queen and introduce a new Italian Honey Bee queen. Within a generation, the bee colony will turn from a dangerous killer bee hive to a working, honey producing, Italian honey bee hive!
Dan was gracious enough to lend his time and expertise to us by allowing us to join him for a morning of beekeeping! While there, we got to see, in real time, all of the facets of bee society we had learned so much about. We were able to observe foraging workers come back and report their findings with the waggle dance and we saw maintenance workers removing dead bees from an observation hive. We saw queens laying their eggs deep within the brood cells and we saw the various stages of development of the larval bees! We saw drone cells and worker cells and we even got to watch newly emerging adult bees come out of their cells to begin their lives.
Here are some of the bees we saw and the jobs that they do:
Foraging is not the only job the workers have in a hive. Workers build the hive using wax secreted from special glands in their abdomen. The hive consists of several hexagonal cells, built by the workers using the wax. These cells will be split into various sections designated for holding honey stores for the winter, eggs and larvae, and will even hold the occasional sleeping bee!
Workers also use royal jelly (a mixture of special food secreted from wax glands in the bee’s head) and bee bread to feed the larvae until they’re ready to pupate and begin their metamorphosis to adult. They feed and take care of the queen, remove waste and dead bees, and guard the hive from honey seeking intruders. It’s only near the end of their lives that they go out and forage for food!
The queen is the largest bee in the colony. Her job is to lay eggs to make new workers, drones, and occasionally, more queens! When a new queen is born, she will kill off all other newly hatched queens as well as the developing queen larvae. Then she will fly off and mate with around 12-15 drones. She will hold all of the sperm for the rest of her life and use it to fertilize the eggs she will lay.
HOW QUEENS ARE FORMED
A queen will lay up to 3,000 eggs a day. Most of these eggs will develop into workers and the occasional drone. When the hive has reached full capacity, or when the queen is nearing the end of her life, she will lay eggs in specialized queen cells. While all bee larvae are fed royal jelly during the first three days of their larval stage, queens will receive this special food throughout its entire larval stage. When it hatches, it will kill off all rivals and take off for its nuptial flight.
Drones are male bees whose sole purpose is to mate with a queen. They do not forage or help with other duties around the hive. Since they are unable to contribute to the hive, they are kicked out as the cold winter months approach as only contributing workers (and the queen) will rely on stored honey for sustenance. A drone has a relatively short life span and will die soon after mating with a queen. They are born from a queen’s unfertilized egg and are reared in larger hexagonal cells. Therefore, they are a bit larger than worker bees.
It was incredible to be able to watch the bees in action in the hives. We watched as Dan used a smoker to block the pheromones of the guard bees, so that the bees would stay relatively calm while he was working. Not only does he check the hive for honey, but he also looks at the overall health of the hive. As the flowers are beginning to bloom, the queen is laying more eggs to meet the coming demand of workers. Dan checked the brood frames (egg, larvae, and pupae area) to monitor the production of eggs and the health of the cells. He also checks for common and dangerous parasites called Varroa Mites. These mites are known to contribute to colony collapse disorder, and are a constant threat to bees everywhere.
Kat and I were so very fortunate to be able to learn about bees in such an engaging way! For me, donning a bee suit and looking at beehives has been a dream since I was a child watching beekeepers on Reading Rainbow. Kat will remember this day for the rest of her life as the day that she got to put on a bee suit, hang out with a beekeeper for a day, and sit calmly among the bees as they were swarming about. We have long looked at the bees in our yard with admiration and respect. Now that we know so much more about them, our appreciation for them has increased dramatically. Getting the opportunity to get such an intimate look at their lives, their hives, and their society was a wonderful experience that I will be forever grateful for.
As far as Kat and her question, while we found the answer to be no (bees depend on many flowers for sustenance, dependence on only one would bring a speedy downfall for the bees), the answer became almost secondary to the journey of discovery upon which we found ourselves. It seems that for us, and Dan too, one spark of a question can lead us all on the greatest of adventures.
Special Thanks To Dan Punch!
A bit more about Dan Punch:
If you’re a gardener in and around the Valley, and are interested in hosting a bee colony in your yard for pollination, he’ll deliver a colony of bees to your yard (you’ll need a hive) for free! He’ll come and collect the honey every ten days or so, you’ll get your own hive of busy pollinators!
If you have a swarm of bees in your yard, or a hive (or several!) in your yard or house, he will, for a competitive fee, humanely remove the hive, preserving the lives of the bees. Call him for all of your bee needs! 480-298-7983