An intro into the world of the honeybee colony.
I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a beekeeping workshop this past Saturday. It was Day 1 of a two-day workshop, the first day being more theory based and the second day more practical. So far, due to weather and health reasons we’ve postponed Day 2 until next weekend, most likely.
Jerry Freeman, an American beekeeper who lives in Peru now, is creating a honeybee sanctuary in the Sacred Valley up in the hills not far from Huaran (about 90 minutes away from Cuzco).
He shared his vision of his sanctuary with me as well as some of his vast knowledge of honeybees.
His approach, coined “natural beekeeping” is all about understanding the honeybees and allowing the symbiotic relationship between man, plants and this incredibly intelligent and useful little animal to flourish. He feels that all kinds of insecticides, herbicides and GMO crops are a great contributor to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), (learn more about it: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colony_collapse_disorder ) , therefore organic crops and plants are an absolute must. Also, industrial beekeepers treat honeybees as an industrial animal and rob them of all of their honey regardless of the time of year and the availability of new blossoms, pollen and nectar. They then feed the bees sugar water instead of the bees eating through their own stores of honey which are stored for exactly that purpose. Natural beekeeping takes only the honey that is in excess and at times of the year in which the bees can readily find fresh, new pollen and nectar sources to quickly replenish their food stores.
Honeybees are a quirky little bunch, and are really fun to explain in human terms. Basically, they function within a highly feminist men-are-useless-beyond-providing-sperm paradigm. The predominance of bees within a colony are sterile female worker bees (for ex. 70 000 of them), then you have the 1 queen and a few hundred “drones”, aka. male bees (about 100-200).
The female worker bees go through a variety of functions in their relatively short lives (from 6 weeks in peak flower time to several months during the winter), duties that start with cleaning up their cells after emerging as full-grown bees from larvae. Then, they can advance to further housekeeping jobs, to feeding new baby larvae royal jelly (which forms in the jaw of the adolescent honeybee but later disappears) and to being part of the “Queen’s court”. Later on they can act as temperature maintainers for the hive (the colony needs to maintain a temperature of about 35C throughout the year) or as guards for the colony. Only after accumulating all of this life experience do they advance to becoming world-class foragers; travelling from the hive within a radius of 2-5km and visiting about 3 000 flowers a day!
The drones; however, lead much less glamorous and diverse lives. To begin with, drones never get to do fun stuff like foraging, and they are actually incapable of feeding themselves. Their unique purpose in life is to provide a queen bee with sperm. While they are hungry and waiting around for a queen, they often leave the hive and meet up in “drone congregation areas” where they hang around hoping a queen(s) in need of sperm will drop by. It’s pretty much a dude’s hang-out where they scope out likely females. If, once in a blue moon, (important to add that a queen only needs sperm to fertilize her eggs about once every 4-5 years, since she can store many different drone’s sperm for many years successfully) the drones are lucky enough to be visited by a queen they will eagerly push and shove for a chance to mate with her. If they are lucky enough, the queen will choose them, at which point she rips out their sperm + genitals and the drones in question inevitably die from the wounds. Crikey. On a regular no-queen day, however, drones will come back to the hive from their dude hangout and, pitiful creatures that they are, they hang around the larvae and beg for food. They get very little respect at the hive. In temperate climates, worker bees will often banish the drones from the hive, to their death, as a practical measure for having less mouths to feed during the long and cold winter. Needless to say, in any food shortage situation, the drones are the first to go. Oh yea, and just to add insult to injury, drones have wondrously plump and round abdomens. In other words, they have no stinger.
And last, but not least, we have the queen bee. As baby larvae queen bees are selected to grow up to become their royal selves by what they are fed. For the first three days of their existence, all larvae are fed royal jelly at which point the majority are further fed on pollen and honey. The ones that continue to be fed royal jelly throughout the larvae phase grow up to be queen bees. There are several, say half a dozen, baby queen bees growing and developing in their cells. Once the first one hatches she goes about stinging and killing the other potential queens at which points she seeks out the old queen and battles it out with her. The young queen usually wins. Occasionally the hive will split into two factions, one with the old and one with the new queen, and the new “swarm” will find a new place to form a colony.
Queen bees lay eggs. The can lay up to 3000 a day, the equivalent of their own body mass, during a period of high honey availability. The “queen’s court” mentioned earlier are about a dozen worker bees that literally surround the queen (hence the “royal court” comparison) and take care of her every cleanliness, food and mothering need. The queen is the honeybee that outlives them all, in a healthy hive I’ve heard of a single queen bee living anywhere from 4 to 12 years!
This is already turning into a lengthy post. I’m going to leave it at that for today. There is a ridiculous amount of curiosities to learn about the honeybee: the honeycomb, how bees communicate and the infamous “bee dance”, what amazing, useful and medicinal products bees can make for us (direct and derived)… and so much more.
So, more posts to come!