If you are near any snapdragons, watch carefully for the big, black-and-yellow bumble bees; they pry open the mouth of the snapdragon and burrow their way into the bloom in a comical struggle involving hip-and-bum action that would make Gypsy Rose Lee proud. But in this last article of a series about the birds and the bees, we will stick to the less comical but more intellectual endeavor of honeycomb production. The more you know about other inhabitants of the planet, the more, perhaps, you will enjoy and welcome them into your life.
In our last article, worker bees were preparing to make honeycomb. I am ashamed to tell you that I never knew where beeswax came from, only that it smelled heavenly and was terrific for dripless candles. The wax isn’t made until the space within the new hive -- in our case a hollow live tree -- has been paced off (yes, really) and measured. As this process is being finalized by some workers, other bees take off into the great outdoors to “carb up” on nectar, the sugary liquid produced in varying degrees by flowers. They stuff themselves with nectar until they can hardly fly back to the hive. There, where normally they would transfer their precious load to other bees for honey production, they now huddle together with other wax-makers in a mass, bringing up their body temperature until they start to “sweat” wax, which actually comes from little apertures in their bellies. The bees scrape the teensy little flakes of wax off with their legs and put it in their mouths, doing the mysterious bee-thing that adds stuff to the wax flakes that turns it into useable beeswax. How amazing is that? These girls are nearly identical to their sisters, with the same mother and perhaps the same father, yet they all know how to do everything, and when to do it.
Remember all that measuring and planning by other workers? Well, those bees somehow communicate to the wax makers where to start building. The shape of the cells is perfect for their use -- the hexagonal shape is very sturdy and space-efficient. Just think of -- well, a honeycomb! It holds a tremendous amount of honey compared to its own weight. Wanda Shipman (“Animal Architects,” 1994, Stackpole Books) writes that a bit of comb that by itself weighs a little over an ounce (30 grams) will hold four pounds (1.8 kilograms) of honey! Website www.bushfarms.com puts it like this: “A pound (0.4536 kg.) of beeswax, when made into comb, will hold 22 pounds (10 kg.) of honey … (In the) comb the stress on the topmost cells is the greatest; a comb one foot (30 cm.) deep supports 1320 times its own weight in honey.” That’s efficient!
So now the waxy little builders put up sheet after sheet of wax, exactly the right space apart, and conforming to the odd shapes inside the hollow tree, all the sheets parallel. As the sheets go up, and the now-empty bees go out to pound more nectar down their tiny little throats, other bees replace them, using their own supplies of wax, made from lots of nectar and their own bodies, to “draw out” the hexagonal cells, each picking up where her sisters left off, in flawless harmony with one another, all hundreds of them. There are a few different cell sizes -- one for honey production and bee bread storage, one for brood cells, another for queen production -- but most are exactly the same size, the ones that store honey and bee bread. These cells are all drawn out of the wax sheet on a slight tilt, so when the nectar is delivered to the cells it doesn’t run out. The bees will keep the hive at a high temperature (about 95 Fahrenheit, or 35 Celsius) until much of the water evaporates from the nectar, which has been enhanced by the bees as they have stored it in their bodies and transferred it to others. The result of the evaporation is honey, which is then capped off, cell by cell, until it is needed for food. Exactly enough room is left between the finished combs for cell-repair and to feed and check on the brood.
‘Busy as a bee’
By now our imaginary hollow tree is not so hollow -- beautiful golden sheets of waxy comb are hanging in vertical rows ready to be filled with food or eggs, which will be larvae within three days of being laid. The larvae will be fed royal jelly for a couple of days and after that, they will be fed bee bread (pollen mixed with nectar or honey). All these activities are commencing -- the egg laying, the food production, the continued construction of more comb -- at the same time. No wonder we talk about being “busy as a bee” -- we actually have no idea! I read one estimate that it took 20,000 bee-trips, to glut on nectar, to produce one POUND of beeswax. Oh, and remember the bee varnish (propolis)? EVERY SINGLE CELL, after it is complete and perfect in all its golden hexagonal splendor, is finished on the inside with the amazing varnish, all antiseptic and ready for brood gestation!
All of this that we have been talking about -- the splitting of the colony, the locating of the new hive, the journey of the new colony with their queen, the cleaning and varnishing, the production of the wax and the comb production, the making and storing of honey and bee bread -- has been carried out between spring and the onset of winter, no more than nine months in most places, and considerably less in others, yet bees do it, millennia after millennia. At the end of that time, a generation or two of workers will have perished or soon will, and new bees have taken their place, born and bred at the new hive over the summer. All this work is performed by creatures with no education or training, no on-the-job instruction, nothing, and who start work right out of the brood cell. All their work is perfect, they don’t make errors, and they clean up their own messes. How anyone in the world can consider them (or other creatures, for that matter) “lesser,” I don’t know. I suppose it is the standard one uses; if it is energy, loyalty, cooperation, technical know-how, job differentiation or multitasking, chemical engineering, global positioning skills, crisis management or extreme motherhood, these bees have it all over most other beings on this earth.
Sadly, bees are exploited in many ways. The “pros” are all economic: Some commercial bee-keepers feed the bees refined sugar syrup so they can make more honey faster, saving time on all that pesky flower visiting; bees are tricked into producing more propolis, the bee varnish, to produce a health product (healthy for whom?); royal jelly, only harvestable from the cells of the nascent queen bees, is taken from them to produce another “health” product, killing the larvae. Beeswax, that elegant, hard to make stuff of food and babies alike, is also taken from hives, as is bee bread. Until about 100 years ago, beekeepers would kill the entire hive to take its contents! Well, I am definitely a “con.” These practices are not good for the bees, or the humans who eat their honey. Bees eat honey too, and pollen, yet many commercial beekeepers replace the protein from pollen by giving their bees little protein “steaks”; that can’t be as good as the real deal. Can’t we all tell the difference between real food and the ground-up goo they fry and serve at many fast food places? And if you wanted honey on your pancakes, would you settle for simple syrup? I don’t think so. Why should bees have to settle for junk food? And the implications are terrible -- what if, in a couple of hundred years, bees just forgot how to get nectar from flowers? Who would pollinate our crops? The bees make enough honey for themselves and for modest commercial purposes. Ethical beekeepers keep their colonies healthy, letting them eat their own food; the honey they make is not as abundant and is more expensive, but better for the bees and for humans, too.
So, this spring, before you swat that bee, watch her, instead, as she goes about her busy rounds, and see if you can tell if she is gathering pollen or nectar; if you remember from the first article in this series, they only do one at a time. Like the entertaining birds, they perform a serious business and a precious one, a business that benefits us all, and our planet. Now go enjoy what is left of the spring!
*Elsie Alan lives in Gebze with her husband.