Don’t fear bees; thank them for their hard work

A bee searches for pollen on a flower. Bees pollinate crops that produce about 25 percent of the American diet. Enlarge photo

Darko Vojinovic/Associated Press

A bee searches for pollen on a flower. Bees pollinate crops that produce about 25 percent of the American diet.

It’s springtime, and you probably have noticed flowers popping up and fuzzy, buzzing insects visiting those flowers. Bees might strike fear in the hearts of some, but they really are quite beneficial as a whole and have fascinating lives to boot.

The most well-known bees are the “social” bees that live together in a colony. These include honey bees and bumble bees. Honey bees establish a perennial colony, whereas bumble bees establish a new colony annually.

There also are many solitary bees that create a colony that is dug under the ground. This category includes leafcutter bees, carpenter bees and digger bees.

Honey bees (genus Apis) produce and store honey and construct perennial nests out of wax. There essentially are three castes of honey bees. The queens lay eggs, and the female workers care for the eggs but cannot produce their own young. The only purpose in life for the males, called the drones, is to find and mate with a queen. There can be from 10,000 to 50,000 worker honey bees in a colony, 100 to 500 males and 1 queen.

The queen bee lays individual eggs in cells of the comb. The eggs hatch in three to four days into larvae. The worker bees feed the larvae and then seal the cell when the larvae are ready to pupate.

The time of development of the bee, from egg to larvae to pupa to adult, varies depending on whether it is a queen, worker or drone. Queens emerge in 16 days, workers in 21 days, and drones in 24 days.

All larvae are fed “royal jelly” by the workers, although workers and drones are only fed it for three days, while queens are fed royal jelly for the duration of their development. Royal jelly is a secretion from special glands of worker bees.

New queens are raised only when the existing queen either is aging or dies, or the colony becomes very large. Once she has developed into an adult, she will take one or several “nuptial flights” to mate with one, or often, several males before returning to the hive and laying eggs. Mating takes place during flight, and the males die soon after.

The queen, meanwhile, returns to the nest and lays both fertilized and unfertilized eggs. The fertilized eggs develop into workers or virgin queens, and the unfertilized eggs develop into the drones (males). These drones contain a unique combination of 50 percent of the queen’s genes. Queens live an average of three to four years, and workers may live for a few weeks to several months, depending on the climate.

A stinger on a bee or wasp actually is a modified ovipositor – an egg-laying structure. Thus, only females can sting.

Many people are wary of bees and wasps because they have the ability to sting. However, bees use their stingers only for defense, and usually only if they are stepped on or bothered in some way.

The stinger of a honey bee is barbed, so when it stings an animal, the stinger becomes detached from its body, also leaving behind muscles and nerves, thus leading to the bee’s death. This is not the case with bumble bees or wasps, whose stingers are smooth and do not detach and thus can sting multiple times.

The stingers are attached to two glands that combine to make the venom that is injected when it stings an animal. The stinger of a honey bee will continue to inject venom after it is inserted, as well as move back and forth, pushing itself further into your skin, so be sure to remove the stinger immediately.

Once a bee stings an animal, it releases alarm pheromones that excite the bees in the hive if it is close by, and these bees then will sting anything that moves close to it. This also happens if a bee is crushed in some way, so if you are being bothered by a bee, it is best not to kill it, but to move away.

Bees are essential in making sure that some of our favorite foods are available. Bees help pollinate crops that are valued at more than $200 billion per year. This includes about 25 percent of the American diet. Some examples of bee-pollinated crops include almonds, apples, cotton, blueberries, grapes, oranges, peanuts, peaches, soybeans and strawberries.

Unfortunately, colony collapse disorder still is a real threat to honey bees throughout the world. Recently, the European Union instituted a two-year ban on the use of certain pesticides called neonictinoids that seem to have an effect on a bee’s ability to find its way back to its hive. The Environmental Protection Agency still is doing studies on these pesticides in this country.

Bees are essential to much of life on Earth. Next time you see one of them flying nearby, step around it, and give it a quiet thank you for all of its hard work.

Gabi Morey is education outreach director with San Juan Mountains Association, a nonprofit dedicated to public land stewardship and education.