I started beekeeping over five years ago. Before that I spent hours watching YouTube videos and reading books. I could not get enough information but I knew I wanted bees on our suburban farm. Even after all my research I had so much to learn. Learning beekeeping takes time for sure but the benefits are well worth it. If you are considering keeping bees look for those in your area who are willing to mentor. Many beekeeping clubs can be found throughout the country and I am thankful to those who helped me along the way. Pollination and honey are the two obvious reasons to host a hive but here are 10 reasons bees are just too cool not to have on your farm.
Architecture The hexagonal comb of the honey bee has been admired and wondered about from ancient times. Its strength to weight ratio is unmatched. It is a mathematical truth that there are only three geometrical figures with equal sides that can fit together on a flat surface without leaving gaps: equilateral triangles, squares and hexagons. But it is the hexagon that is not only most compact but when weight is distributed evenly over six sides, it is the most structurally sound. Bees get the most strength and storage space and maximize the use of wax by making comb into perfect hexagons. Charles Darwin himself once wrote, the honeycomb is a masterpiece of engineering. It is “absolutely perfect in economizing labor and wax.” This design has been implemented into everything from architecture and aerospace to LED lighting and transportation.
Beeswax Made by the young worker bee which they secrete from eight wax-producing glands on the inner sides of their abdominal segments. The new wax scales are initially glass-clear and colorless, becoming opaque after mastication by the worker bee. The wax of honeycomb is nearly white, but becomes progressively more yellow or brown by incorporation of pollen oils and propolis. The wax is used by the colony to build honeycomb cells in which their young are raised, and to store honey and pollen. For the wax-making bees to secrete wax, the ambient temperature in the hive must be 90-97 degrees. The uses for beeswax by people are endless and just a another gift from these amazing creatures.
Eyesight A bee’s eye is made up of about 4,500 facets. Though bees see in a lower resolution than we do, their eyes contain receptors that are not sensitive to red light but blue, green, ultraviolet and polarized light. Flowers look very different to honey bees compared to what we mammals see. They see ultraviolet flower coloration that our eyes cannot detect. These patterns are sometimes referred to as “honey guides or nectar guides” that presumably serve to direct the pollinators toward the center of flowers where pollen and nectar are concentrated. These light patterns are also how bees navigate. The sun is key to the bees navigation and even on cloudy days they use the UV light, polarized light and memory to find their way to and from the hive.
Undertakers Bees are assigned up to 9 different tasks in the colony. One of the more interesting responsibilities of the house bees (bees that work inside the hive) is the 1% that have undertaker duties. Although 90% of bees die outside the hive, those that expire at home are immediately dragged off the front porch by undertaker bees. This is important because dead bees can block the entrance and hinder the colonies growth and ability to replace the the dying generation. After the bodies dry, some bees are even picked up again and dropped a good distance away to prevent a large pile of dead bees accumulating that may attract pests.
Pollen Too often pollen gets a bad rap! The truth is pollen is vital to the honey bee and one of the richest most natural foods we can consume with far reaching health benefits. Pollen is the male germ cells produced by all flowering plants for fertilization and plant embryo formation. The Honeybee uses pollen as a protein and energy source. Pollen consists of up to 35% protein, 10% sugars, carbohydrates, enzymes, minerals, and vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, C, H, and R. In a pollen frame many colors indicate the bees have a healthy variety of food supply. Pollen is also collected by many beekeepers by placing screens or traps to catch it as it falls from the bees legs as they enter the hive. It is sold in health food stores to treat seasonal allergies, as immune boosters, for energy and digestive health just to name a few.
Stingers A honeybee’s stinger is made of two barbed lancets. When the bee stings, it can’t pull the stinger back out. It leaves behind not only the stinger but also part of its digestive tract, plus muscles and nerves. This massive abdominal rupture is what kills the bee after they sting. The stinger continues to work after the bee is gone. Muscular valves pump toxins from an attached venom sac, and deliver it to the wound for several minutes after the bee is gone. Drones have no stingers and Queens only use theirs on other queens, so it is the worker bees who sacrifice themselves protecting the survival of the colony.
History How long has mankind been beekeeping? Depictions of humans collecting honey from wild bees date to 15,000 years ago. Efforts to domesticate them are shown in Egyptian art around 4,500 years ago. Simple hives and smoke were used and honey was stored in jars, some of which were found in the tombs of pharaohs such as Tutankhamen. It wasn’t until the 18th century that European understanding of the colonies and biology of bees allowed the construction of the moveable comb hive so that honey could be harvested without destroying the entire colony.
Royal Jelly Young nurse bees produce royal jelly secreted from glands on the tops of their heads. For 2-3 days, royal jelly is the only food given to all young worker larvae in their maturation process. But when the colony is raising new queens, they do so in elongated queen cells and royal jelly is the only food fed queens their whole life. Because of this queens reach full maturity 5 days earlier than the worker bees, they are sexually mature and when full grown, queens weigh double that of the worker bees. Talk about a super food!
Propolis Think bees only make wax and honey? Have you heard of propolis? Sometimes called bee glue, bees collect resins that seep from trees and plants and combine with secreted wax and pollen to make this amazing substance. It is used by the colony to seal holes and cracks, line the brood cells to keep a sterile environment and protect against fungi. Research shows it offers antiseptic, antibiotic, antibacterial, anti fungal, and even antiviral properties which is why it has been used for hundreds of years by man for medicinal purposes. At times the bees use it like mortar to alter the size and shape of the hive entrance to make it easier to defend.
Honey Even though pollination is a bees most important role; honey is where they get their reputation. Since ancient times, honey has been used as both a food and a medicine. It’s very high in beneficial plant compounds and offers several health benefits. Honey is particularly healthy when used instead of refined sugar, which is 100% empty calories. A single established healthy hive can produce over 30 lbs of honey a season and here in Arizona we have gotten close to 50 in one year from our home hive. This makes bees a welcome guest on our little farm.