These are some of the most common questions that I as a bee conservationist am asked by the public. I hope that by answering these questions, I will be able to give you some insight to honey bees.
Download a free educational workbook that kids will love about Honey Bees from Haagen-Dazs ice Cream
1) Do honey bees ‘attack’? No, honey bees do not attack, they defend. Honey bees will defend their colony aggressively, some types of honey bees, notably the ‘Africanized honey bee’ (or notably referred to by the mass, ‘fear sells’ media as “killer bees”) will defend VERY aggressively, which has lead to the notoriety of the species. Honey bees defend the hive because there are brood and food stores to protect. If one maintains a respectful distance of about 10 to 20 feet from a hive entrance, the bees will likely not even pay attention.
2) What is a swarm and why is it in my tree/yard? A swarm is the natural method of colony reproduction for honey bees. Every year, especially during Spring, the queen builds up the population so fast and so quickly that the colony begins to run out of space in the nest for all of them. Once it has been determined (usually by the lack of space to lay new eggs in) workers will create several new queen cells in which the eggs in those cells will become queen bees. The ‘old’ queen will stop laying eggs and begin to thin down so she will be able to fly. A few days before the new queens are to emerge, the old queen and anywhere from 25 to 50 percent of the older bees in the colony will leave en masse to find a new, roomy home. They will land on a branch of a tree usually or even on a top bar of a swingset or a porch rail etc… A swarm can have anywhere from 1000 to 15,000 bees on average.
They can stay at that temporary location anywhere from a couple of hours up to about 5 days. For the first two days , they are considered a ‘wet’ swarm which is noted to be the most docile honey bees will ever be as they gorged on honey to fill their stomachs for the adventure. They are ‘fat and happy’ so to speak. After those first couple of days, they are considered a ‘dry’ swarm which means the food they ate has now been mostly digested and they are getting hungry and restless. ‘Dry’ swarms are not as docile and if left on the swarm landing place long enough, will start to build comb and build their new home right there. It does happen, but not very often.
3) How many bees are in a hive? The average is usually considered to be around thirty to forty thousand at one time. There are times, depending on the time of year, weather and forage conditions, that there can be up to sixty thousand bees or more at one given time. A healthy queen bee that is very productive can lay up between 800 and 1500 eggs per day when the hive is really ‘booming’. This requires a lot of bees to forage, build comb, take care of new brood and of course, make honey.
There are three types or ‘castes’ of bees in a colony:
The queen, a female, responsible for laying eggs and producing pheromones that provide assurances and signals for the workers.
Worker bees, all females, responsible for building comb, cleaning cells, caring for brood, storing/making honey/nectar/pollen, they determine what cells the queen lays eggs in, which also tells the queen what type of egg to lay, a drone or a worker. workers also determine which eggs will be the next queen bees and feed and care for them differently as necessary to make it happen.
Drones, males, a drone is made from an unfertilized queen, carrying only the genetics from the queen that was his mother. Drones function only to mate with virgin queens that fly to special areas called ‘Drone Congregation Areas’ where the drones will catch her scent and meet her, flying as high as 25 feet above ground to mate with her and die immediately afterward. If drones do not mate with a queen, they are kicked out and/or killed as they consume too many resources from the hive in cold weather.
4) What is honey and how do bees make it? Honey is liquid nectar, taken from flowering plants which is ingested into a bees “honey gut” (bees have two stomachs), after a forager collects enough nectar to fill their honey gut, they go back to the hive and give that nectar to a ‘house bee’, adding special enzymes to the nectar as they do. The house bees then take that nectar and deposit it into a cell, also adding enzymes to the nectar. These enzymes help to ‘split’ the main sugar glucose down into sucrose and fructose. The moisture content of the modified nectar is controlled and when it is just right, the newly produced honey is ready to be capped by a wax lid and is ready for consumption.
5) Am I really allergic to bee stings? While many people experience a local reaction to bee venom after a sting, statistically, very very few people are truly allergic to bee venom. Being ‘truly allergic’ to bee venom means that one goes into anaphylectic shock and cannot breathe, thus requiring the use of an Epi-pen to administer a shot to the thigh and a trip to the E.R. While some local reactions can be observed as ‘severe’ they are still a local reaction and can be treated with benadryl or similar medicine.
6) Can a bee attack actually kill someone? While some small animals and even large ones such as cattle and horses have been found stung to death, it requires close to 2000 stings to bring about such an effect in a healthy, non-allergic person. A typical honey bee colony will only deploy approx 50 to 300 ‘guard’ bees to defend the hive, preferring to chase an attacker (yes, they see us as the attacker and that they are only defending the hive and colony from us) before stinging them. When a honey bee stings, it dies because it literally tears the stinger and organs from their body. Note; The exception of the Africanized bees AKA ‘killer bees’ is to deploy every available bee in the colony , up to several thousands, to repel attackers, hence the bee clouds you will see reported on by mass media outlets.
7) What if I suspect a hive has africanized honey bees? If you are a beekeeper, you can re-queen and within about a month or so, the new queens traits will take over.
If the hive is in a highly public accessible area and there is a high likelihood of public contact, you might eliminate the hive with very soapy water (suit up well before trying this)
You can send a sample of dead suspect bees for lab testing (if you can get a dead bee from in or around the suspect hive) at :
Bee Research Laboratory
Bldg. 476, BARC-East
Beltsville, MD 20705
8 ) What should I do if I am stung by a honey bee? First thing is stay calm. Do not run. Walk calmly about 20 to 30 feet away from the area you were stung in, not in a straight line. This will allow the remaining guard bees, if you are unwittingly in the vicinity of a hive entrance, believe you have been sufficiently chased off. Next, do not pull the stinger out, often there is a tiny organ left connected to it called a venom sac. If you squeeze it to pull, you are unknowingly adding more bee venom into the sting area. Instead, scrape the stinger out with a fingernail or knife edge, etc.. This will minimize the amount of bee venom entered into your system. Take some benadryl or similar item to minimize and treat the effects of the sting. Put an ice cube on it for a short time if there is swelling and itching.
9 ) Why are honey bees important to us? Honey bees are unique in how they pollinate flowers. Instead of randomly selecting flower sources like most other bees and insect pollinators, bees target flower types, working only that one type of flower until all of that type of flower in that area have been worked. This provides the a most efficient form of pollination to those plants and is the primary reason farmers and agriculture specialists prefer to use honey bees for pollination as opposed to other insect pollinators. Because of the demand for honey bee pollination, honey bees pollinate and are depended on for the pollination of over 100 crop types in the U.S. and for thousands of the various foods that are made from those fruits, nuts and vegetables that are used as ingredients.
Also, people have discovered that honey is more than just a natural sweetener. It has many medical benefits due to it’s nature as an anti-bacterial. Bacteria cannot live in honey. As a result, honey is used as a treatment in many hospital burn centers as well as severe wounds.
Honey has also been observed to benefit allergy sufferers as the pollens that are within honey in minute trace amounts can be minimized if the person takes a tablespoon a day. After a couple of weeks eating local, raw honey, many allergy sufferers find their symptoms greatly reduced.
People have found many uses for bees wax as it is a major component for clean, long burning candles, as part of a base for many skin and hand creams, chap sticks, soaps, and more.
Honey bees contribute greatly to human society in ways that most people have never realized.
There are at least 25 species of bumble bees in the United States. They will build their nests in holes made and left behind by other creatures like mice, snakes, etc.. They will also build nests in clumps of yard fabric left lying on the ground, in corners of sheds, underneath mulch and more.
Bumble bees are random pollinators which wander from flower to flower, regardless of what type they are. This is different from the targeted pollination of honey bees.
Bumble bees are very good pollinators of many flowering plants as the hairs on their bodies carry and spread pollen in such abundance.This is very good particularly for flowers which require pollen transfer from a female flower to a male flower on the same or another plant.
Bumble bees are one of the least aggressive types of bees out there, however, when their nest is disturbed, they will aggressively defend it by stinging. The difference with bumble bees is that they do not have the barbs on their stingers that honey bees have. This means they can sting multiple times. Have you ever noticed how much bigger a bumble bee’s stinger is compared to other bees? The sting, especially multiple stings, of a bumble bee can hurt significantly more than other bee stings.
Bumble bees do not build wax comb nests like honey bees do. They build little wax “pots” on the floor of the nest they take over and fill them with eggs or bumble bee honey (which does NOT taste like honey bee honey).
Bumble bees generally have one queen which is, for most of the season, the only reproductive female in the nest. In the fall though, the queen lays eggs that will become several reproductive females and males ready to start their own nests in other places the following spring.
Mason bees are also known as “Blue Orchard Bees” (BOB’s to some folks). Actually, there are three primary types of mason bees in the U.S, two of which are ‘native’ and one which was imported and is now considered ‘naturalized’ from Japan. In actuality, mason bees are generally three different colors. They can be a shiny blue, shiny green or a fuzzy reddish/brown.
Mason bees are known to be ‘solitary’ bees as they do not live in large nests such as honey bees and bumble bees. One reproductive female will pick out a literal hole somewhere and start laying eggs of both reproductive females and males then separates and packs those int the hole with mud. When the hole is filled, she moves on to the next hole.
Mason bees are also random pollinators, meaning they wander from flower to flower, regardless of type. However, they are well known for collecting pollen all over them and spreading it to other flowers in the area.
Mason bees have somewhat of a reputation as being a “better “pollinator than honeybees because they are less picky about the quality of weather they will travel in. However, mason bees pretty much “pack it up” for the winter around the beginning of June. Because of this, they are great Spring pollinators, but if you have a garden or plants that need pollination after June, you will want honey bees and bumble bees around to take over.
Bees In Danger
Honey bees (particularly those in commercial bee yards), bumble bees, mason bees and many other bees are in great danger since 2005. Close to 34 percent of all these bee populations were lost this past year. In some locations, the losses have reached above 75% total losses. Of the reported 33.6% total losses reported from the winter of 2009-2010, approx 26% of those 33.6% are attributed to CCD or Colony Collapse Disorder. CCD has not been solved yet as to what is causing it. There is a lot of research taking place and a number of causes or a combination of causes are being looked at. However, with over 25% losses, this is not long sustainable. If solutions and healthy breeding methods are not found, the results of losing honey bees in the Americas, as well as other places around the world, will have severe effects. The loss of bees will affect peoples food sources, availability of crops in numbers and quality will be reduced. Many products that use honey and wax as well as those vegetables, fruits and nuts as ingredients can also be greatly diminished and raise costs due to a much lowered supply. Honey bee conservation seeks to help the honey bee resist diseases and attacks by pests, predators and of course, people who are reacting out of fear and ignorance.
Conservation programs such as the one done here at Fontenelle Forest by BBE-Tech seek to ‘rescue’ honey bee swarms, colonies that have inhabited house walls,bumble bee nests and bees that are no longer wanted by inexperienced beekeepers who tried their new hobby and then abandoned them after one too many stings for their liking. By relocating those bees to this bee yard, the bees are able to live in an area resplendent with flowering trees and a bonanza of wildflowers. Seeking forage and having a safe, protected space to call home is a large part to keeping honey bees in this area viable and able to reproduce as survivors.
It’s easy to support bee conservation in the area:
*Don’t kill bees, instead call a conservationist or beekeeper to remove them live.
*Be very careful and minimal in using pesticides and chemical treatments on your lawns and gardens. If you must use a chemical pesticide, apply it at night when the bees are in the hive so it will dry before the bees visit the flowers the next day.
*Allow wildflowers to grow, such as dandelions and white clover as they are tremendous and long growing sources of nectar and pollen.
*Only buy honey from local honey producers. Avoid the honeys in large marketing stores which may include honey from other countries and may be mixed with corn syrup to make more of it.
*Look for ‘organic’ or naturally produced honey and wax products. This minimizes how many chemical treatments and contaminants that are put into bee hives.
*Let the bees bee. If you find honey bees living in a tree or other location where they really aren’t hurting or bothering anyone or anything, instead of insisting they be removed, which causes stress to the bees, let them stay where they are. Having bees in your immediate area will bring about more and nicer flowers, vegetables, fruits and trees.
*Become a beekeeper or conservationist yourself. The more people we have being responsible and building up healthy and productive colonies, the better for us and the bees.