The Buzz on Honeybees:

Today, I spent the morning doing a fair bit of research on our friends, the honeybees. Recently, my interest was piqued as I stood beneath a plum tree in full bloom without a single bee to be seen. I mentioned it to my mom, who could have sworn that there had been previously in the day, but I was unconvinced. Every other year I had to dodge and duck carefully to find my way to the center of the tree, where I would stand, motionless. The hum of the honeybees surrounding me as I did my best to take in every last bit of scent that my olfactory senses could handle. This year, no hum. No bees. I considered that perhaps it was the weather, not quite sunny enough or perhaps there was a threat of rain in the air. I also considered that maybe this was what I had been hearing about, the disappearance of the honeybee.

I was taken by surprise after completing my research to find that today is, in fact, the official Day Of The Honeybee! So, in their honor, I will do a little bit of bragging. Bees have been around for the past 30 million years and there are over 20,000 recorded species of bees to date (with suspected many more who tend to by on the shy side). They can be found on every continent (minus snowy Antarctica) and in every habitat with insect-pollinated, flowering plants. A colony of honeybees can have up to 20,000- 60,000 inhabitants living with one queen (who is busy laying 200,000 eggs a year!). Their tiny wings have the ability to complete a full stroke 11,400 times per minute, which is why they emit their buzzzzzzzing sound.  Honeybees communicate with one another through dancing, demonstrating with their bodies the direction and distance to the best flowers. Honeybees are also great teachers as young bees are not born knowing how to make honey, but must be taught by the more experienced.  

Given that their job is to find the most beautiful flowers, I have always somewhat envied honeybees. Until I learned just how much work they do. Per trip away from the hive, honeybees visit an average of 50-100 flowers. Their fuzzy little bodies have an electrostatic charge, which helps them attract pollen, which is then stored in little sacks on their legs. A bee can fly all the way around the world on just one ounce of honey eaten, but to make one pound of honey they would have to fly 55,000 miles and tap 2 million flowers! The average bee only makes 1/12 a tsp. of honey across the span of it’s entire life. Perhaps I should start using a little less on my toast…

Not only is their job more difficult than I had assumed, but they also face many dangers in their line of work. Assassin bugs wait for them in flowers and birds pluck them from the sky as they fly home to safety. Not to mention the environmental change-related stress that has been discussed in the media, which stands as one of the main causes for the disappearance of honeybees. Common insecticides used on blooming plants and in the treating of seeds kill many, both through direct poisoning and contamination of their food supply.  Feral honeybees are now almost completely absent with the decreased availability of diverse wildflowers, due mostly in part to the intensification of agricultural systems. It’s estimated that a queen bee must lay up to 1,500 eggs a day just to replace casualties.  

The term Colony Collapse Disorder was coined in 2006 when Scientists first started to notice the rapid decline in honeybee populations. They were finding that worker bees from hives were abruptly disappearing, leaving colonies to suffer and die off. This pattern was found to be the same all over the developed world. In 2012, a new study published found that these pesticides they studied were more harmful than they had originally thought.  They discovered previously undetected ways that bees were being exposed to the toxins through dust, pollen, and nectar. The toxicity in the bees’ bodies resulted in a brain malfunction, hampering the bees’ ability to return to their hives. In April of 2013, a peer review from the European Food Safety Authority, declared that these pesticides pose an unacceptably high risk to bees.  The European Union has since banned the use of several of these products for at least the next two years. 

Due to this loss in population, growers demands for beehives far exceeds the available supply. Many practicing apiarists, or bee farmers, are now in the business of contract pollination. This has overtaken the role of honey production and is due to the increased size of fields and the practice of monoculture (only planting one crop- bees like variety!). Still, it seems clear that we are falling short when it comes to honeybee repopulating and protection. With estimates that over 1/3 of all the food that humans eat depends on pollination, shouldn’t we worry? Why did it take almost ten years to ban the pesticides that we knew from the beginning were harmful? On this fourth annual Day Of The Honeybee, I’m going to take a minute to be thankful for those that still remain, and make a pledge not to use products that are harmful to our environment. Support the bees and your community by getting out and planting a wild array of flowers. Then you can enjoy the honey in your tea, knowing you’re keeping things buzzing. 

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