Ten Things I Learned from Bee Time: Lessons from the Hive by Mark Winston

Mark Winston’s Bee Time is a brilliant read. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in bees. Here are ten things I learned from the book:

1. Queen bees do not rule over the colony

A bee colony is not run like a monarchy. Worker bees have a tremendous amount of decision making power within the hive. Winston notes that “governance in honeybee colonies is highly decentralized.” Worker bees have to make decisions every day based on “their assessment of the localized colony conditions” and the “information about the outside world that foragers bring back to the hive.”

2. Male honeybees do not work

Male bees, known as drone bees, are not worker bees. They do not gather nectar or pollen nor do they have a stinger. Their primary role is to mate with the queen and, if successful, they die.

3. African killer bees were introduced to South America by scientists

In the 1950s, Brazilian beekeeping officials wanted to produce a better honeybee. African honeybees “were rumoured to be better honey producers” but they “had a reputation for also being highly aggressive.” Geneticist Werwick Kerr was commissioned to bring “queen bees over from Africa and mate their offspring with the local Brazilian European derived bees.” Brazilian beekeepers thought that crossing the African bee with the European honeybee would  “produce a gentle and productive hybrid for the tropics.” Kerr took precautions to quarantine the bees when he brought them into Brazil but a visiting beekeeper accidentally let 26 queen bees escape the lab. This was enough to cause a major biological invasion. These 26 queens were able to colonize “all of tropical and subtropical South America and a good part of the Southern United States.” They have since been responsible for the death of many unfortunate people who come across their hives.

4. Bumblebees are highly resilient to the cold

Bumblebees “have superbly adapted to cold climates.” They can fly “in freezing temperatures and even snow by disconnecting their wings and heating up their flight muscles to high temperatures by shivering. They have been “found high up in alpine zones and within 600 miles of the North Pole.”

5. Honey bees are highly social

Honeybees don’t communicate “in any verbal way that’s familiar to us; nevertheless, they are deeply engaged with each other, passing along information about the world outside and conditions within the colony.” A lot of honeybee communication is chemical. Honeybees talk to each other through their pheromones. The queen’s pheromones are passed “around the nest” as a way of “establishing her presence and influencing many worker functions.” Larval bees are able to communicate their need for food using chemical signals.

Honeybees also communicate using dance and vibrations. Forager bees use “vibrations and dancelike chats” to “communicate the location and quality of nectar and pollen sources to their nest mates.” They are in “constant chatter reporting on the external world.”

6. There are more than 20,000 species of bees

These various species of bees display “a breathtaking array of lifestyles. Some are solitary; others live in loose communal groups or form highly complex societies.”

7. Worker honey bees live on average 25 to 35 days

The life of a honeybee worker is short. They begin life by “cleaning the [hive] cells for a few days.” They then move on to feeding “larvae from about five to twelve days of age.” After that, they “receive nectar and pollen, move on to build comb, fan the nest, and guard the entrance.” Finally, the bees finish their lives “by foraging for five to ten days before wearing out and dying somewhere between twenty-five to thirty-five days of age.”

8. Honey can be used as an effective treatment for wounds and burns

While many of the claims made about the medicinal qualities of honey remain unproven, there are a few studies that have demonstrated the effectiveness of honey used medicinally. One of the most promising uses of honey is in wound and burn treatment. There have been “thirty-two studies on more than 2,250 patients” that have demonstrated “the efficacy of honey in treating wounds and burns.” Honey “prevents bacterial growth while providing a protective barrier and maintaining a moist environment that accelerates new cell growth.”

9. Honey bee colony collapse is a real threat

Scientists have a number of hypotheses about what is causing colony collapse. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this “decline is not due to any one factor but rather many interacting causes.” Two major factors are pesticides and diseases. We still don’t understand the full effect that losing bees will have on us. Winston wants us to imagine a world where many of the “fruits, vegetables, berries, and nuts that we depend on for a healthy, balanced diet” are missing from our local grocery stores.

10. Human societies could learn from the way that honey bees work together cooperatively

Winston argues, “if there is one notable message from honey bees it lies in the power of their collective response to stress, in the way they allocate work, communicate, make decisions, and balance individual activities with communal imperatives. Our decision to either emulate honey bees by opting for the collective good or to pursue personal interests and individual gain may be the decisive factor in the success of our response to contemporary environmental challenges.”

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