Honeybees, Apis mellifera, live in my parents’ backyard – about 200,000 of them. In the apiary behind my parents’ barn there are four honeybee hives protected by a roof of oak leaf branches and an electric fence for the bears. Peter is the apiarist who installed the bees and comes by to collect honey and maintain the hives a few times each month. These are just four of the 220 hives he has placed in various yards, orchards and farms in the area.
Honeybees are the true workhorses of our food system; by all reports, one-third of the food we eat is directly dependent on honeybees. Their pollinating services allow us the abundance and variety of food we enjoy. One in every three bites of food, pause and thank these tireless worker bees. They leave their hives early every morning buzzing from flower to flower, carrying pollen on each leg in “pollen baskets” and nectar in their “honey sacs.” Did you know that when they return to the hive they regurgitate the nectar with an enzyme called invertase that converts the nectar to honey? Think about that the next time you spoon some into your tea!
The honeybees also use a wax that is produced between their body segments, chewed and then crafted into the intricate hexagonal structure typical of the honeycomb where nectar is converted into honey. The bees use the honey and the pollen as food, but Peter also supplements his hives with protein patties, a common practice among apiarists. His bees are his livelihood, and giving them the supplement will ensure their health, and thus honey production.
But what I truly appreciate the bees for is their role in carrying the male germ cells produced by all flowering plants. The transfer of these male germs cells (pollen) from one flower to another (pollination) is critical in fruit and flower development. No fruit or flowers? No onions or pumpkins or raspberries or broccoli. Entomophily, pollination by insects, is not required by all of the food we eat, some species pollinate by the wind, water, or other organisms such as birds.
Backyard beekeeping has seen a recent rise, as even New York City repealed the ban on urban beekeeping. Most people have been hearing about “colony collapse disorder” in the honeybee population; how they have been dramatically declining all across the U.S. as well as Europe. Thankfully, the surge in backyard beekeeping has helped, as individual hives can be secluded from the mysterious outbreaks, whose causes are unknown but have been attributed to everything from overbearing mites to overused pesticides, from cell phone radiation to genetically modified crops. Since the causes are as yet unknown, it can be safely assumed that having more hives in more diverse locations is better. So if you’re thinking of starting a little hive of your own, go for it!
I’ll leave you with this fact: no bee is born a queen. She is made into one by being fed “royal jelly.” I’m beeing totally serious. This potent jelly allows her to grow one and a half times as large as the others, to live forty times as long, and produce 2,000 eggs daily. Studies feeding royal jelly to other species have shown chickens doubling their daily egg production, menopause reversal in women, domestic pigs living 30% longer, statistically significant increase in athletic stamina, and improvement of skin problems. Keep the Grey Poupon, pass the Royal Jelly!