The western honeybee, also known as the European honeybee, plays a crucial role in pollinating three-fourths of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts that constitute a significant part of our diet. Without these bees, we would face significant challenges. Moreover, they not only facilitate pollination but also provide us with honey.
A single healthy beehive can produce and consume over 50 kg of honey within a year, a testament to their hard work. Although honey is derived from nectar, it does not emerge from flowers in its familiar golden, sticky form. Instead, bees collect nectar by immersing themselves in suitable food sources, using their long, specially adapted tongues to extract small sips. A bee may need to visit more than a thousand flowers to fill its honey stomach, which can weigh as much as the bee itself when full.
During the return journey to the hive, digestive enzymes within the bee's body begin the process of transforming the nectar into honey. Upon reaching the hive, a forager bee regurgitates the nectar into the mouth of another worker bee. This process continues as the nectar passes from bee to bee, with each contributing additional digestive enzymes. These enzymes break down the complex sugars present in the raw nectar into simple sugars like fructose and glucose.
At this stage, the nectar remains relatively watery. To thicken it, bees create an air current within the hive by beating their wings, causing the nectar to evaporate. Finally, the bees cap the cell containing the honey with beeswax, allowing the enzyme-rich substance to complete its transformation into honey. Due to its low water content and acidic pH, honey does not provide a hospitable environment for bacteria or yeast, resulting in its remarkably long shelf life both in the hive and in our pantries. Archaeological discoveries have even revealed unspoiled honey in ancient Egyptian tombs dating back thousands of years.
The production of honey involves an extraordinary collaborative effort. Tens of thousands of foraging bees work together, collectively flying more than three times around the world and visiting up to 8 million flowers to produce a single pound of honey. Communication among bees, although non-verbal, relies on body language. Foragers use dances to convey information about food sources to other bees. A circular dance indicates that flowers are located close to the hive, while a waggle dance signifies food sources at greater distances. Karl von Frisch decoded the waggle dance of honey bees, revealing it as a fascinating example of animal communication in nature.
During the waggle dance, a bee moves in a straight line, waggling its body and vibrating its wings. It then repeats this pattern in a figure-eight shape. The angle at which the bee waggles its body provides directional information to other bees. If the dance occurs straight up the line of honeycombs, the food source lies in the direction of the sun. If the dance points to the left or right, the other bees understand that they should fly at the corresponding angle relative to the sun. The duration of the waggle indicates the distance to the food source, while the intensity of the bee's body movements reflects the desirability of the food.
Furthermore, bees possess a remarkable ability to deduce the position of the sun and determine the time of day by analyzing the polarization of light in the blue sky, even if they cannot directly observe the sun. Although individual bees may seem simple, their collective behavior and social structure create highly intricate societies. A beehive consists of three main classes: drones, workers, and queens. When a new queen bee emerges, she promptly eliminates her sisters, as only one queen can reside in a hive.
During the mating season, the queen bee flies to a distant hive to mate with multiple males and store their sperm. She then returns to her home hive, utilizing the stored sperm to lay over a thousand eggs each day throughout her life. Unfertilized eggs develop into male drones, possessing only one set of chromosomes. Conversely, fertilized eggs give rise to genetically female bees, which can become either queens or workers. Queens are responsible for egg-laying, while worker bees serve as the backbone of the hive.
The destiny of a bee larva is determined by its diet, activating genetic programming that directs its development. Initially, all bee larvae are fed royal jelly, a nutrient-rich substance. However, after a few days, worker bee larvae transition to consuming a mixture of pollen and honey called "bee bread." In contrast, queens continue to consume royal jelly for their entire lives, even as adults. Scientists used to believe that royal jelly alone dictated the development of queens. However, recent discoveries have revealed a specific chemical in bee bread, absent in the diet of queens, which renders worker bees sterile. Thus, the development of a queen bee seems to depend on both what bees consume and what they do not consume.
In essence, honey production is a remarkable form of insect farming on a grand scale. Through their complex and coordinated societies, bees create a food product suitable for various animals, including bears, while simultaneously pollinating the vast majority of the world's flowering plants. It is undeniably a mutually beneficial arrangement. So, let's continue to nurture our curiosity about the fascinating world of bees and their invaluable contributions.