Many people confuse honeybees, who busy themselves collecting pollen and nectar from plant blossoms, with wasps, hornets, and yellow jackets, who are not bees at all and often bother us at picnics or when we work outside. Did you know that honeybees are not native insects to North America? They arrived here with European settlers 400 years ago and were brought along for their ability to produce honey as a food sweetener. The Native Americans reportedly referred to them as “white man’s flies.”
While producing and storing honey in the hive are major activities of the honeybee and help them survive the winter, pollination is their most valuable service. Pollination refers to the transfer of pollen from the anther to a receptive stigma within a blossom or flower–this allows the development of a fruit or seed by a plant. Bees visit only one type of flower during a trip away from the hive–this allows them to spread pollen across different plants within the same species, thereby providing genetic diversity to the plants. At least one third of our food supply is pollinated by honey bees. Thank honeybees for their help with apples, pears, almonds, blueberries, cranberries, avocados, cantaloupes, cherries, strawberries, asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, onions, almonds, etc. Honeybees also pollinate many plants used for livestock feed and are important in cotton production.
The particular characteristics of a batch of honey are determined by the types of flowers visited to produce it. Most local honey comes from of a wide variety of plant sources; commercial beekeepers can produce honey from a single type of blossom if hives are located next to certain fields. Have you seen clover, orange blossom, tupelo, and buckwheat honey at the store?
Honey has many interesting qualities. It consists mainly of sugar and is only 17-18% water. If you put honey in baked goods, its ability to draw water out of the air keeps baked goods moist. Honey has been used as a medicine on wounds because bacteria cannot grow in it and it dehydrates infected tissues.
Honeybee colonies typically number between 40,000 and 60,000 bees. Each colony has a single queen bee, who mates at one time in her life and then goes on to lay an average of 1500 eggs/day for her 2-3 year lifespan. Male drone bees exist only for the purpose of mating with new queen bees–they do not gather nectar and pollen. Almost all of the work of the hive is done by female worker bees–these are the ones you see on flowers. During the summer season, workers live for only about 6 weeks and during the first half of their lives go through a sequence of tasks within the hive–caring for the developing bees, cleaning the hive, raising or lowering hive temperature, guarding the entrance to the hive–before spending the second half of their lives as foragers outside the hive.