To Bee or Not to Bee

Aristotle, an amateur apiarist, called honey "a dew distilled from the stars and rainbow." Humankind has been dependent upon the products of the honeybee for at least 17,000 years. Cave drawings dating from 15,000 BC. depict early hominids plundering hives for the sweet golden regurgitate which was our only source of sugar for thousands of years. Early Egyptians decorated tombs and temples with pictures of man-made beehives, and occasionally were buried with supplies of the "nectar of the gods," perhaps to placate the gods should they meet them. A wise choice of nourishment for eternal travelers, honey not only has an inordinately long shelf life, but also acts as a preservative. Alexander the Great was embalmed in honey, as were the first four earls of Southampton, in whose recently excavated 400-year-old coffins the honey was still fresh and free flowing. As the primary ingredient of mead, honey also satisfied our ancestorÕs craving for inebriation. A fermented mixture containing three parts water to one part honey, meadÕs ambrosial sweetness hid a kick twice that of wine. Early hangovers were not only bad, but often fatal, as in the case of the 5,000 drunken funeral mourners slaughtered by the dubioulsy sainted St. Olga in 946, or the 10,000 Tartars who, in 1489, foolishly halted their campaign to drink the gallons of mead cannily left behind by the retreating Russian army. BEEMUSINGThe honeybee, Apis mellifera (bee honey-bearer), has the dubious honor of being the only human food-producing insect. Though beekeeping, or apiculture, dates back to 2400 BC., the life cycle of bees was rather poorly understood until well into 19th century. Aristotle believed that bee larvae could be harvested from flowering olive trees. Another Greek philosopher, Democritus, expounded a long-held theory that bees were created by bludgeoning to death very fat two-and-a-half year old oxen and leaving them to rot for 32 days. The bees, he believed, were produced by the late oxÕs brain, spinal marrow and flesh. In the early 1900s, a frustrated Austrian zoologist, Karl von Frisch, turned to the study of honey bees after suffering ridicule from the German scientific community for his finding that fish can hear. Revolutionizing not only beekeeping but the field of behavioral experimentation, his discovery of the intricate navigational and communication systems used by bees garnered von Frisch a1973 Nobel Prize.BEELOVEDThe industrious and seriously exploited bee produces and/or stores several products, besides honey, utilized by humans: wax, propolis, bee venom, royal jelly and pollen. Beeswax, long used to make candles with a high melting point, is also a major ingredient in many creams, lotions, lipsticks, rouge, waterproofing materials, floor polishes, adhesives, crayons, chewing gum, inks and ski wax. Propolis, or "bee glue," is a sticky substance secreted by plants and harvested by bees to seal rough places and cement movable parts of the hive. Veterinarians in other countries have long utilized propolisÕ sterile properties in treating cuts and wounds. Bee venom is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, and royal jelly and pollen are valued for their use in holistic health products. Despite our familiarity with, and our dependence on not only the beeÕs products, but itsÕ pollination of over 130 domestic agricultural crops, bee populations in North America are decreasing at an alarming rate. Farmers, who each year rent over a million bee colonies to pollinate crops, are worrying that the bee populations, hit hard by severe winters and epidemics of two deadly mites, have reached a point of no return. BEELEAGUERED Despite their sting, honey bees have their fare share of enemies. Robber flies, mantids, hornets, wasps, dragonflies, spiders, toads, some birds, bears and skunks all prey on either bees or their hives. In the insect world, a beeÕs worst enemy is the bee moth, which lays eggs in empty chambers within the hive. Upon hatching, the larvae eat everything in sight, trailing their webs through and ruining the combs. Though bears are notoriously fond of honey and will devour brood along with honey combs, skunks are the only mammal who deliberately eats live bees. Visiting by night, they consume whoever answers their rapacious rapping on the outside of the hive.Bees, like all species, are susceptible to disease, particularly when in a weakened state. Brood diseases, of which American foul brood is the most common and serious, attack immature bees still in the brood combs. But by far the biggest current danger to bees are the parasitic mites introduced into North America during the 1980s through illegal shipments of queen bees from South America. South American bees have, over time, developed a resistance to the mites, but scientists estimate it may take as long as 10 years for North American bees to do the same. Entomologists fear that feral, or wild bee, populations, were totally obliterated. In the last year, between the mites and unusually harsh weather beekeepers across the country have lost between 50 and 90 percent of their hives. Tracheal mites live and breed inside bees respiratory passages, eventually suffocating their host. The even more dangerous varroa mite, which made itÕs first appearance in Utah two years ago, uses piercing-sucking mouth parts to consume the beesÕ hemolymph (insect circulatory fluid).Chemical treatments for both mites are available, but in most cases, expensive. A small number of mitecides have proven to be fairly effective against the varroa mite, and donÕt taint honey if keepers are careful to treat hives before and after the spring/summer honey flow. Tracheal mites succumb to several chemicals, as well menthol. Fortuitously, an inexpensive, low-tech treatment has recently been discovered: Crisco. Tracheal mites travel to new hosts by standing at the end of beesÕ bristly hair and waving their arms until they latch onto a new victim. Bees who wallow in gooey patties made of Crisco and white sugar strand the slippery little hitchhikers, and may dislodge them entirely. Beekeeping, never a big money-making proposition, is now a money-losing business. Beekeepers face two possible unpleasant propositions: Use chemicals to kill the mites, thereby raising the cost of the honey, or donÕt use chemicals and let all the bees die. The first option would be far less unappealing if the U.S.D.A. hadnÕt ended price support for honey 1994, and if U.S. markets werenÕt being flooded by cheap Chinese honey. Claims that much of the Chinese honey is tainted by illegal pesticide residues and is cut with corn syrup, has done little to raise the flagging spirits hard-hit beekeepers or worried farmers. While beekeepers can do little other than try to hang on to their remaining hives, farmers and scientists are hoping that native bees will resume their original roles as first string pollinators.THE STATE OF THE POLLINATIONBefore the European honey bee was introduced to the continent, hummingbirds, butterflies, moths and 200,000 species of small mammals, birds and insects did all the work. With the bee crisis, farmers and scientists alike are discovering that some of the native pollinators are far more effective at their jobs than even the martyred honey bee. In the spotlight are the alkali bee (the original and more professional pollinator of alfalfa), bumblebees and the blue orchard bee, popular with apple farmers. The hope is that these native species will increase in numbers and fill in the gaps left by the declining honey bee. But all pollinators face one serious and rarely mentioned danger: Humans. Most dangerous is the continued heavy use of pesticides. Anathema to the ecosystem, pesticides are notoriously unprejudiced when it comes to killing, differentiating not at all between beetles, bees and butterflies. Many beneficial species of insects have already been obliterated through chemical use, as have many plant species upon which insects are dependent. Habitat destruction, too has wreaked havoc upon the delicate balance of pollinators and plants. All we can do is scrambled to undo the damage as best we can. "Pollinators play an essential role in the health of both wild and agricultural lands," says entomologist and author Gary Paul Nabhan. "If we do not take concerted actions to protect the services that pollinators provide, we stand to lose some of the very interactions between plants and animals which we depend upon for the diverse ecosystems and for a third of the food we eat." SIDEBAR 1: BEEOLOGY 101Bees, like ants, evolved from carnivorous wasps, and belong to the order hymenoptera. Though the oldest known bee fossil is a mere 80 million years old, recent discoveries of bee-like nests in 220-million-year-old trees suggest that bees were around long before angiosperms, or flowing plants. In that case, either early bees fed on gymnosperms (cone-bearing, woody plants), or flowering plants, too, evolved 110 million years earlier than previously believed. Honeybees have short, thick, hair-covered bodies divided the head, thorax and abdomen. The thorax contains three pairs of hairy legs and two pairs of wings, joined together and appearing as a single set. It is the rapid movement of those wings that causes the humming sound associated with bees.Pollen gathered from flowers clings to the beeÕs hairs, and is then brushed into pollen baskets on the rear legs. Nectar is stored in a special part of the stomach where digestive fluids, containing the enzyme invertase, transforms the sugars into honey. The honey is later regurgitated into the cells of the hive, where workers fan it vigorously, rendering it too viscous and too dry to support bacteria, yeasts and other microorganisms. Pollen is mixed with another enzyme to keep it from germinating, then combined with honey and molded into tiny balls called beebread. Bee vision is a favorite topic of scientists: Stodgy volumes devoted entirely to the subject have weighed down library shelves for ages. Current belief holds that the three single eyes on top of the head, and the huge compound eye on either sides, enables bees to see all colors humans do, except red. They can also see ultraviolet. Through the 8,000 individual facets in the compound eyes, bees view the world as a grainy mosaic of color, rather like a bad needlepoint picture. Visually, they show a strong preference for flowers with elaborate patterns of color. Some flowers have a more deeply shaded pattern near the center of the blossom which apparently helps to guide bees to the nectar. On the lower part of their heads bees have mandibles and a proboscis which they use for sucking and lapping. Their antennae sense fragrances, which attract bees even more strongly than color. Though they have no ears, bees can sense vibrations.Worker bees have a seldom-used egg laying device, the ovipositor, at the end of the abdomen, the source of their powerful sting. Though other bees can sting repeatedly, the tiny, hook-shaped barb at the end of the honey beesÕ stinger cannot be pulled from mammalian skin without killing the bee. After stinging, the bee flies away to die, leaving behind her ovipositor, poison sac and muscles, which continue to pump poison into her enemy long after her departure.Bee venom is a poison that acts on the nervous and respiratory systems. Bee stingers should be flicked out with a slender blade or a fingernail; never grab and squeeze. Though painful, honey bee stings are fatal only to people who are allergic to bee venom. A dose of Benzedrine can stave off shock until the victim receives an anti-venom shot. It takes 500-1500 stings to kill a non-allergic person, a situation not likely to occur unless one stumbles across a hive of killer bees. SIDEBAR 2: BEEHAVIOR 101 Bees in the hive are divided into three strict groups: the queen, the all-female worker force and the drones, whose sole purpose is to attempt the annual mating with the queen. Worker bee duties are rigidly structured, and change accordingly with the beeÕs development. At different stages the worker keeps house, produces royal jelly and wax, receives and stores pollen and nectar, and performs guard duty. Near the end of her life, the worker leaves the hive to forage. During the summer a worker bee can work herself to death in only nine days of foraging, completing a life cycle of a mere six weeks. A single gram of honey requires 75 trips between hive and flowers. In the autumn, workers prepare the hive for winter by driving out the drones to die. The remaining workers cluster around the queen, keeping her warm by vibrating in a continuously moving ball. The steady heat produced is equivalent to that of a 40-watt incandescent light bulb. Throughout the winter, the cluster moves slowly through the hive, allowing workers to harvest stored honey. In the fall and early cold months the queen is fed only honey, and she stops laying eggs. But after winter solstice, workers again feed her royal jelly and she begins laying new eggs, up to 2,000 per day, inside the heated sections of the cluster. SIDEBAR 3: ZEN AND THE ART OF BEEKEEPING"ItÕs kind of like doing acid," the beekeeper says, as we zip ourselves into our body suits and masks. Moving with studied caution, we walk into the first strains of a slowly building symphony: First one note, a step farther, two notes, then more and more, building in depth and volume until we are surrounded by, bathing in, the warm, golden music of the hives. The outside world ceases to exist. The air is replete with buzzing bodies and so am I: Bees are crawling on my arms, my legs, my torso, hanging on the white mesh screening my face. There is no sense of urgency or alarm, only curiosity, as the bees investigate me, and I them. Hundreds are massed on the outside of one hive, and following the lead of the keeper, I gently scoop them up, filling both hands with teeming workers. Covered with and surrounded by millions of flying, crawling, buzzing honey bees, I experience an infinite moment of Zen-like tranquillity. The beekeeper, seeing my face, smiles. "Thank you, ladies," he whispers to the bees.***Beekeeping is an unusual combination of the base and the sublime, requiring equal parts of hard work, money, a sense of awe, and respect. A tolerance for pain is useful, too."Getting stung is part and parcel of beekeeping," says Don Johnson, longtime keeper and employee of Jones Bee Company. "It doesnÕt matter how much protection you use, sooner or later theyÕll get to you. Bees get very agitated when you mess with their hives, though no more than you would if you were being robbed." If youÕre thinking of taking up beekeeping (one of the other oldest professions), first call your local zoning office. Some cities restrict hives to agricultural zones, some to industrial, and others, like Sandy, have no restrictions at all. Be warned though, that regardless of zoning, if your bees become a nuisance, you may be fined and/or told to get rid of your hives.Next step: Spend the winter reading. A search through the library will often turn up numerous bee books. A surprising number are extremely readable, particularly The Honey Bee, by James L. Gould and Carol Grant Gould, and an ancient tome titled First Lessons in Beekeeping, by C. P. Dadant, which though not up to date on disease control, is still very useful.Next, select your site. YouÕll want to face the entrance either south or east, and provide some sort of windbreak on both the north and west. Ideally, place your hive under a tree with fairly thin foliage, so that the bees can exit directly up through branches, thereby lessening the odds of them bothering neighbors. Honey bees have a flight range of 12 miles, though most foraging is done within 1 1/2 to 2 miles from the hive. Make sure there are enough bee-friendly plants nearby to support your colony. Bees particularly like bergamot (bee balm), marigolds, asters, sage, squash, melons, cucumbers, fruit trees, raspberries, sweet clover, and wildflowers. If you are a farmer wanting to ensure pollination, one colony of bees per acre is needed.When the first fruit blossoms are about to bloom, visit a bee store where they have all the necessary gear to get started, including, come spring, packages of live bees. The package contains workers, drones and a young queen, enough to start a healthy hive. Or if you choose, you can buy an already established hive from a local beekeeper--your bee store might have a handy list of hives for sale. YouÕll need to spend around $250 to get started. Plan on a minimum of $125-$150 per year for upkeep. Finally, get to know your bees. Each hive has a distinctly different communal personality, covering the spectrum between very passive and very aggressive. There is an unexplainable serenity that visits while one is surrounded by millions of honey bees, and a deep sense of awe and respect. that, once experienced, is never forgotten SIDEBAR 4: A TASTE OF HONEY The color and flavor of the honey are determined by the flowers from which the nectar is taken. Local honey, mostly made from clover and alfalfa, is light and mild, whereas buckwheat honey found in some southern states is the color of molasses and strongly flavored. Florida and California bees produce heavenly orange blossom honey. Miller Honey Company began keeping bees commercially in 1894, and though they no longer produce commercial amounts, the family still keeps hives for their personal use. These days the company processes and packages honey from other keepers--and plenty of it--two million pounds worth last year.Honey requires little processing. Most beekeepers have their own extractors, a drum where the honey is removed from the combs by centrifugal force. It is then run into cans or drums and delivered to a packaging plant like MillerÕs, where it is strained, heated and bottled. The heat of the honey is kept below 140 degrees, explains Shirley Miller, so that beneficial enzymes are not destroyed. Honey consists of sugars, minerals, B-complex vitamins, and amino acids. It is easily assimilated in the human body because it has been predigested by the bees.


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