I used to have a fear of bees that bordered on a phobia. Despite not having an allergy, I reacted to the presence of bees as if my life were in grave danger. We’re talking screaming, running, arm flailing–the whole shebang. And if I encountered a bee in the car while driving? Well, I was pretty much a menace to society at that point.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once opined that “knowledge is the antidote for fear.” When it comes to bees, I’ve found that nothing could be truer. After nearly a year researching bees, I’ve gone from mindless terror to calm, collected cheerfulness when in the company of bees. I’m no longer scared of these fascinating little creatures; I actually love them.
Why such a radical change? Well, there are quite a few reasons, really. The first is that we need bees far more than they need us. We’ve come to depend on them for so much–yet so many people would rather squash one with a fly swatter than help it on its way. Let’s explore a little more about the bees in our lives.
Did you know that honeybees aren’t native to the United States? They were brought here from Europe by settlers in the 1600s, and once introduced, they were able to increase their range by swarming and moving into new territories. They moved across the eastern U.S. fairly quickly, but their trek seemed to slow once they hit Kansas; in 1843, it was reported that there were no honey bees beyond that point. However, once settlers arrived in Utah in 1848, the first bees did, too. By 1852, swarms had reached Nevada. Bees finally made it to the Pacific Coast states in the mid-1850s but only because they had been carried there via ship.
Though cartoons have always depicted it as such, honeybees don’t actually build an external structure that contains their hive. They do, however, build the inside of their hive; usually in hollow spaces, such as trees, fallen logs, or man-made hives. They manufacture beeswax and use it to build cells, where they store eggs, pollen, and honey.
A full-size colony of bees consists of 20,000-60,000 honeybees and one queen. There are three types of bees in each colony:
Worker bees are sexually immature females–and likely the only ones you will ever see. They have many duties in the hive, including:
–Foraging for food
–Building and protecting the hive
–Cooling the hive by beating their wings
–Performing a number of other societal functions
The queen’s job is twofold: lay eggs and produce chemicals that guide the behavior of the other bees.
Male bees (or drones) only exist in the colony to mate with a virgin queen. It is very unlikely that this will ever happen. Several hundred drones are born into the hive during the spring and summer. And come winter, they are sent out of the hive to die so that there’s more food for the queen and workers.
Honeybees have one of the most complex communication systems in the animal world. They “talk” to each other through scent and dance. Pheromones are used by worker bees at the hive’s entrance to guide foraging bees back home as well as to trigger a defensive attack to protect the colony. Foraging worker bees return to the hive and perform a dance for their sisters to alert them to the location of nectar, pollen, or water. Depending on the style of dance and precise patterns acted out, workers will know how far, and it in what direction the food source is.
Believe it or not, there are over 4,000 species of native bees in North America. The most common type of wild bees is solitary–meaning they don’t live in a hive. Instead, depending on the type of bee, the female makes/uses a hole in the ground, a hollow stem, or soft wood. She lays her eggs and provisions each grub with a nutritious mixture of pollen, nectar, and saliva. Then, she seals the nest so the babies remain safe until they develop into adults. Since most species of native bees don’t have colonies to protect, they can be exceedingly gentle–only stinging when stepped on or squeezed.
Remarkable as they are, honeybees can’t properly pollinate many of our native plants. That’s where native bees come in. Tomato, eggplants, pumpkins, watermelons, blueberries, and cranberries are more efficiently pollinated by native bees than by honeybees. Native bees deserve a lot more credit for producing the foods that we enjoy each day.
Read more about some of the fascinating species of native bees in North America here.
Our Bees in Danger
Bees are have been dying off at an unprecedented rate, and it’s only recently that scientists have been able to piece together what’s happening. Three major problems have reared their ugly heads, and all at the same time. The first is colony collapse disorder. No one is quite sure what causes it, but it only seems to affect European honeybees. The second is habitat destruction, and it’s affecting the native bees. Without places to build their nests, and flowers to gather pollen from, these bees are losing ground fast.
The third affects both honeybees and our native friends. Though all types of pesticides have been found to harm bees (including fungicides, herbicides, acaricides, rodenticides, and insecticides), a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids are doing most of the real damage. Widely used in commercial agriculture, these chemicals are killing the bees by damaging their nervous systems, weakening their memories, and impeding their ability to forage and fly.
Bees pollinate 80% of our flowering crops-–constituting a third of everything we eat. This makes them absolutely essential to our ecosystem. So what’s being done to protect the bees from neonicotinoids? The EPA has created a three-year schedule to review these pesticides, complete risk assessments, and pursue risk mitigation. Meanwhile, neonicotinoid use has been banned in the European Union as well as one U.S. State–Maryland.
What can you do to help the bees? Create a safe habitat in your yard for native bees. You can do this by:
–Purchasing or building houses for wood-nesting bees. Wooden blocks with holes drilled in them, hollow reeds bound together, or pull-apart wooden blocks will all work well.
–Creating bare patches of gently compacted earth in your yard, so ground nesting bees can excavate brood chambers.
–Stopping the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides in your backyard garden.
Bees are so very precious. Let’s work together to give them a safe place to live, plenty of food to eat, and a lot more love.
Also by Liz: 5 Creative Pastimes to Ease Anxiety
Get more like this—Subscribe to our daily inspirational newsletter for exclusive content!