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The secret life of bees

The Secret Life of Bees, Early Summer 2017 Cape Cod HOME |

The various equipment required for beekeeping may appear unfamiliar and mysterious, but it can unlock the magic that goes on inside a standard hive. Photo by Paige Mulhern

Each hive consists of the three key players in the vernacular of bees: a queen, drones or male bees, and the female worker bees. The queen has one responsibility, to procreate. She lays approximately 1,500–2,000 eggs per day, resulting in a healthy summer hive of  50 to 60 thousand bees. Males have a very limited function in their existence; they are only alive to serve as a potential mate for the queen. They number less than 1,000 per hive, they have no stingers, and they do not work in the hive, they do not gather nectar. During the warmer months they leave the hive once a day and gather at a “drone congregation area,” where they are available to mate with a virgin queen. “It’s like the local singles bar for bees,” says Hubbell. “Unfortunately for them, once they mate, they die.” During her mating flight, the queen will mate with up to 30 drones over two days and accrue their sperm within her own body for future fertilization of her eggs throughout her life. The queen decides when she lays her eggs, whether to fertilize the egg, resulting in a female or worker bee, or not to fertilize, thereby producing a drone; as a result, drones have neither a father, nor sons, only daughters in the world of bees. The female worker bees are truly the power players within the hive. They allocate all of the necessary functions to keep their hive productive and healthy; they gather nectar and pollen to create the food source; they protect the hive to the death; they feed the young; they determine when a new queen is necessary, identify which larva to foster into a queen, and then set her up for a new hive. They will also kick the drones out of the hive as winter approaches, so as to not be burdened with having to feed them.

A bee’s lifespan varies depending upon the time of the year. During the spring and summer when food sources are plentiful, they will literally wear out their wings and live only about six weeks, but during the fall adult worker bees will live approximately six months. Bees are known to possess a variety of complex communication systems, one of which indicates amongst the worker bees where the best food source exists. After a scout returns to the hive after identifying a good nectar stash, she will do a ‘waggle dance’ and shake the anterior portion of her body in the direction from the hive to the flowers she wants the gatherers to visit. The frequency of her waggle determines the distance from the hive, and the bees’ refined sense of smell confirms the source as the gatherers identify the unique pollen that the scout had brought back to the hive.

Perhaps one of the most stupefying functions worker bees perform involves the application of ‘royal jelly.’ When the workers identify female larvae that can potentially become new queens, they feed this select group of females a secretion that they produce, thus creating a female with fully developed ovaries that is able to reproduce. Accordingly, many health and beauty manufacturers have harvested this rare and valuable substance for its regenerative and healing qualities.

Clearly the decision to become a beekeeper involves taking on a set of unique commitments, but many people are still interested in contributing to the beneficial functions bees provide. To that end, The Best Bees Company offers services that not only set up homeowners for beekeeping, but for those who are not ready to fully dedicate themselves, the Boston-based company will also handle all of the maintenance, including honey extraction, all the while collecting data to benefit bee research. Founded in 2010 by Noah Wilson-Rich with the intent to fund his scientific bee research, the company now provides a variety of levels of beekeeping to residences and businesses across the country.

Without bees, or even without enough bees, our world, our quality of life and ultimately the global food supply would be greatly impacted. With healthy, thriving bee ecosystems, we not only have a chance to preserve our planet and reap the health benefits from honey and royal jelly, but perhaps we can also learn something from their secret life.

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