Honey Comb Crunch

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Published on: Dec. 2, 1997

Last revision: Oct. 27, 2010

Standing in the midst of thousands of honeybees, I decided Springfield bee keeper Michael Meyer was right-honeybees had taken a bad rap for stinging wasps and yellow jackets.

Meyer quietly and efficiently worked with over 20 hives as I watched. I was covered head to toe with clothing and a headnet. He had his sleeves rolled up, but was not stung.

Meyer had told me that honeybees were not aggressive. Now, in a circle of hives with hundreds of bees flying in and out of the area, I relaxed a little, realizing these bees were not out for blood. I was trusting at this point but still kept my bare hands jammed in my pockets.

The problem with bees, Meyer said, was if one got tangled in your hair, or you accidentally crushed one. "Here, take this," Meyer said as he laid a bee in my hand. "It's a drone, and it doesn't have a stinger." The bee took several steps across my palm, then launched itself into flight with its stubby wings.

Moments earlier I had seen hundreds of bees massed at the entrance of one of Meyer's hives and realized why people fear honeybees. Most of us can deal with them one at a time, or maybe even two or three at once, but seeing hundreds of them at once-well, it takes your breath away.

Honeybees are not native to the United States. Colonists introduced honeybees from Germany. Bee enthusiasts brought over Italian honeybees in the 1860s, followed by the import of a Caucasian bee. Some of these bees were kept domestically, while others escaped and started feral colonies. Honey from feral hives was highly prized on the American frontier.

Meyer's knowledge of honeybee biology is truly amazing, and he has a vast store of information about the plants-domestic and wild-that bees work for pollen and nectar.

He inspected the boxes at this site on a Conservation Department area, injecting a puff of smoke from a small canister when first opening the boxes. He made decisions based on what he saw-were these bees making honey? Did this hive have a healthy queen? His boxes were set at the back of a field, and you would not even know they were there unless you walked within 100 feet of them.

He moved some of the hanging dividers in the boxes, using some already bearing honey to lure bees in another hive into working the upper portions of the "supers" or boxes. I flinched when he banged one of the shelves on the ground to knock a couple of hundred bees off of it.

He pulled a shelf from one of the hives, showing me the reddish-brown cells filled with honey. He rotated these full cells to the outside of the boxes, hoping the bees would begin building wax cells in the center shelves. He broke a piece of comb projecting from one shelf, and I lifted my headnet just long enough to stuff a piece of comb full of honey into my mouth. It was unbelievably sweet.

Meyer raises his own queens, a job that takes knowledge and skill. He told me that a honeybee has a life of about six weeks, spending half that time inside the hive, and the other half outside the hive, foraging for nectar and pollen. He says that each hive has a distinctive odor, that honeybees have an acute sense of smell, and that it is the odor that allows them to find their hive when they fly in from the field.

Honeybees, domestic and feral, have had their numbers ravaged by a mite that eats through their exoskeleton and kills them. A queen honeybee mates only once, retaining enough sperm to allow her to lay eggs for one three-month season. With the demise of feral bees, queens have a lesser chance of mating, and may produce only drone bees. With no worker bees, the hive is doomed.

Beekeepers in the United States now produce millions of pounds of honey and beeswax, and bees are important for pollinating crops that provide a portion of the food that Americans consume. Honeybees also pollinate foods important to wildlife. These include ragweed, wild beans, wild grapes and blackberries, sunflowers, sumac, clover, mulberries, goldenrod, sassafras, persimmons, ground cherry, hemp and lespedeza.

The mite is a parasitic arachnid. They have largely wiped out feral honeybees, and have killed large numbers of the insects kept by bee keepers. Many of the wildlife foods that would otherwise be pollinated by feral bees are going untouched, a situation that results in less natural foods for wildlife, and farmers can no longer rely on feral bees to pollinate their crops. Beekeepers are trying to staunch the loss of bees with a miticide, buying time while researchers look for non-chemical means to control the parasites.

Honeybees are social insects that live in large colonies. Most bees hibernate during the winter, but honeybees stay together, their shared body heat keeping them alive as they feed on stored honey. As soon as warm weather arrives in the spring, these bees are ready to fly out in search of pollen and nectar. In the course of this search they pollinate many of the wild foods that wildlife need.

Solitary bees like bumblebees, in contrast, have to rear several generations of young in the spring before they become effective pollinators. They may not peak in numbers until July or August.

To create nests, honeybees use a wax that is produced by their glands. Bees remove this wax from their bodies, and shape it into cells. The cells are filled with honey and pollen that will later be used as food.

To produce honey, bees fly from flower to flower, drinking nectar that they store in a portion of their digestive system called a honey sac. While in this sac, the nectar takes the first step in a process that will turn it in to honey. Bees also gather pollen from flowers, carrying it back to the hive on combs and baskets that are part of their hind legs.

Humankind domesticated honeybees several thousand years ago. A colony of bees includes worker bees, drones and a queen. A hive may number as many as 50,000 bees. The bees usually build their honeycomb in a sheltered site like a hollow tree or cave, or, in the case of domesticated bees, a container devised for that purpose by a bee keeper.

A queen in a hive may lay over 1,000 eggs per day. Eggs are cared for by drones. Young bees pass through stages and do different jobs as they age, first cleaning the hive, then feeding larva, secreting wax and gathering pollen and nectar from the field. Both queens and workers are born from fertilized eggs, but queen larvae live in special cells and eat more of a high quality food called royal jelly. New queens are sometimes produced in a hive, and they or the old queen may leave to start a new colony, thereby increasing the number of bees.

Meyer, whose bees are often used to pollinate Missouri apple crops, says that honeybees are amazing insects, and that even scientists can't fully explain all of their abilities. "Bees know where magnetic north is," Meyer says. "They also know the orientation of their home to the angle of the sun at any time of day. Bees returning to the hive do a thing called a waggle dance. In that dance they recruit other bees and tell them the direction from the comb to the nectar source.

"They can fly directly to that source, and that is where we get the expression 'making a bee line.' They will fly straight on until they cover the right distance, then look around and find the right plants. They can also smell a nectar source; their sense of smell is 100 time more sensitive than a dog's, and they can follow an aroma in the air for a long distance." The color of flowers, which stand out from the greens and browns of nature, also help them locate blooming plants.

The amount of time bees need to pollinate an orchard can be short. "It depends on the length of the blooming period," Meyer says. "When apples are in full bloom here in Missouri it may take only three days to set the number of apples the grower needs. The hour I take my bees out of the orchard, the grower may begin spraying his trees to protect them from insect damage." Warm weather accelerates the blooming period of plants, and the warmer it is, the less time it may take the bees to do their work.

The mites that are damaging bees hit Missouri about four years ago. "Some beekeepers lost up to half of their bees," Meyer says. "Almost all the feral bees, which at one time outnumbered those held by beekeepers by about two to one, are gone. We have lost as much as 75 percent of the honeybee population in four years. If you have clover in your yard, watch it for bees. You are not going to see many."

There are two kinds of mites affecting honeybees. They were discovered in Russia in the 1940s. "It's going to take ten years of genetics to produce a lot of bees than can see these varroa mites and kill them," Meyer says. "Most bees just ignore them and the mites multiply tremendously. They feed off the bee larva first, so none of the bees develop and the population decreases. In winter, a whole cluster of maybe 30,000 bees will just dwindle down to a few thousand, and then the cold will kill them."

Bees seem to develop a resistance to the second mite, called a tracheal mite, but show little resistance to varroa mites. There is only one approved chemical treatment to control the mites, a miticide used during the non-honey producing season. "The mites contact this," Meyer says, "and it eats through their exoskeleton; they just shrivel up and die." New mite-resistant strains of domesticated honeybees are expected through time to replenish the numbers of feral honeybees.

Meyer says that raccoons and all of the other furbearing animals eat things like wild berries, wild roses, persimmons and clovers, and that bees are important in the production of these foods. He thinks that, if these food sources decline for a lack of pollination, animals will be competing for less food and that, ultimately, wildlife populations might decline. "The whole food chain is dependent, in part, on little honeybees," he says, "and we have lost most of them."

Billions of dollars worth of crops, as well as wildlife foods, are dependent on honeybees for pollination. "Honeybees do more than 50 percent of the pollinating work in the United States," Meyer says. "Moths, flies, wasps and solitary bees do the rest." Some growers would be out of business, he adds, without honeybees. "Their crops would only be a small portion of what they are with bees doing the pollinating."

David Pitts is a wildlife management biologist who has worked with Meyer to bring his bees to Conservation Department lands. "I was not seeing honeybees around my home," Pitts says. "I learned honeybees were succumbing to parasites and realized the loss of the bees that normally pollinate wild plants could hurt wildlife too. I invited Michael in to have his bees help pollinate the native plants that wildlife depend on for food."

Meyer says his bees are only on a conservation area during the pollinating season, and they are well away from the areas people most frequently use. He considers conservation areas safe for bees because there are no insecticides present. He later moves the bees to a cucumber grower who needs them for pollination. Beekeepers need a special use permit to put their bees on conservation lands.

"At the end of the day," Meyer says, "I feel like I have done something good. Beekeeping is not mechanized like much of the rest of farming, and there are not many full time beekeepers. Many people only have one or two hives."

Unlike other exotics, such as carp and starlings, honeybees have only been a benefit to people and the environment, pollinating both farm crops and wildlife foods. Should they be completely destroyed, an important part of the natural world would be lost.

Sweet Statistics

  • Honey bees must tap approximately two million flowers to make one pound of honey.
  • If a worker bee lived long enough, she would have to fly over 55,000 miles to bring in a pound of honey.
  • An average worker bee makes approximately 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime.
  • Each honeycomb has six sides.
  • Honeybees fly about 15 miles an hour.
  • Honeybees have six eyes.

A Taste of Honey by Amy Anderson

People have long used honey as a sweetener. Beekeeping likely began in the stone age, although techniques were primitive and hives were generally destroyed to extract the honey. People also gathered honey from wild bee hives in rock crevices or trees.

Honey is produced by bees from the nectar of flowers. The kinds of flowers determine the color and flavor of the sweet liquid. Clover or alfalfa honey is usually light-colored and delicately flavored, while buckwheat honey is strong and dark. Many commercial honeys are blends of honey from several sources.

The honey found on grocery store shelves contains no added chemicals or preservatives. The sweetener's natural density prevents molds, bacteria and fungi from growing. If kept at temperatures below 60 degrees, honey will crystallize, but it can be liquefied without loss of sweetness or nutrients by placing the jar in a pan of hot water.

Substituting honey for all or part of the sugar called for in recipes will increase the nutritional value of the finished product. Bakers especially like honey, because it helps keep their goods fresh and moist.

Substitute 3/4 cup of honey for each cup of sugar and reduce the total amount of other liquids in the recipe by 1/4 cup for each cup of honey used. In baked goods add 1/2 tsp of baking soda for each cup of honey used. Also lower baking temperatures by 25 degrees to prevent overbrowning.

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