Honeybee Biology

More Than Just a Pretty Flower

Bees. Just try to say it without smiling. Pollinators, too. It’s in the long e and the long a – you just can’t help it. If you’re all practicing your poker face right now as you mouth these words, it might turn into a frown if you couldn’t buy avocados or blueberries, tomatoes or zucchini.

Which leads me to gardening. Because what are pollinators without something to pollinate? And where would the vast majority of fruits and vegetables be without pollinators?

There are at least 3 different species of pollinators here

Gardeners know the delight and hope that comes with pouring over a seed catalog, preferably while snuggled under a fleece throw with a cup of tea in the dead of winter. I turn down pages of my catalog, flowers and vegetables alike, and consider all the gardener’s aids offered – hoses that look like old fashioned phone cords on steroids, mini greenhouses, covers to protect my young blueberry bushes from the birds. Oh, and a new pair of pruning shears would be nice.

Photographs of glorious flowers send my imagination to my gardens in their summer prime, lush marigolds and bachelor buttons, marjoram and basil soaking up the sun. Maybe I’ll try amaranth this year, over by the butterfly weed. And Echinacea are drought tolerant; maybe I can finally get something to grow out by the den window. And the vegetable photos – oh, the vegetable photos! Zucchini, muskmelons, and all shapes and sizes of tomatoes. Perfection on the page. My eye wanders to the heirloom varieties of tomatoes, awakening that nostalgic thread in me that connects past to present, with names like Amish Paste, Arkansas Traveler, and Cherokee Purple. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a piece of Americana, equivalent to an old Model T, sitting in my garden.

Heirloom or modern-day, there’s a difference between planting for looks and planting for pollinators.

We love daffodils, lilies and tulips, the big showy flowers, their stamens bowing heavy in the center. But looks aren’t everything and if you’re a pollinator, these won’t do. The nectar and pollen from these modified blooms are generally less accessible to pollinators than the plants they’ve evolved with. Bumblebees and honeybees are specialized – their ability to collect nectar from certain flowers is dependent on their physiology and how it is matched to flower type. Honey bees have short tongues and generally stay at the surface of flowers. They prefer bee balm, sedum, and cosmos, among others. Watching them work my garlic chives is a treat. Bumblebees, on the other hand, are long-tongued and collect nectar and pollen on plants like peppers and tomatoes in a unique way. In 1985, a Belgian veterinarian named Dr. Roland DeJonghe found that placing bumblebee nests in a glasshouse (the very proper English term for our American greenhouse) increased tomato pollination remarkably. Fruits like tomatoes and peppers require buzz pollination, the rapid vibration of the flower, to release pollen onto the stamen. This is something that insects with ever-so-rapidly beating wings do well. Bumblebees are the Goldilocks of pollinators when it comes to tomatoes; everything – their size, their wingbeat frequency, the length of the hairs on their legs – is just right.

There are many, many other pollinators out there, from wasps to butterflies to sweat flies, and in the end, they mostly share, as far as their physiology will let them. My milkweed patch in bloom is an international convention of species. On sunny days it’s as busy as an airport on a holiday weekend.


There’s another question looming, however. What’s all this about non-native plants? Kept in check, they’re not really all that bad (this is an entire post on its own). Bees and other pollinators are adapting to the melting pot of immigrants in their landscape. They love purple loosestrife and Japanese knotweed as much as they love dandelions and clover, buttonbush, goldenrod and jewelweed. On one hand, if it nourishes them, I’m happy. On the other, I also understand the dangers of non-natives turning invasive and crowding out native species. A monoculture of anything can’t be good. If it goes belly up, the pollinators are sunk. Of course, that’s the worst case scenario and unlikely to happen. But a proliferation of non-natives may outcompete the native species that have been around since before the first Europeans even stepped foot on North American shores.

Want to keep smiling when you say bees? Want to enjoy an abundance of fruits and vegetables?

• Plant flowers that pollinators can get to.
• Keep in mind variety. Though pollinators tend to be loyal to a particular flower type as it is blooming, they need variety so they can forage all the season on flowers with different bloom times. The Xerces Society, https://xerces.org/pollinator-conservation/plant-lists/ has comprehensive lists for different regions and climates.
• Advocate for open spaces where herbaceous plants and trees alike can grow over huge swaths of land. One of the first sources of nectar for honey bees in the spring is the red maple.
• Encourage dandelions, chickweed and clover in your lawn instead of perfection in the form of bluegrass or fescue. It keeps things interesting, nourished and healthy. And it’s all green anyway.

Red maple blossoms


Honey bees visit 2 million flowers to make a pound of honey, and one busy bee only collects just 1/12 of a teaspoon in its short lifetime. That’s a lot of flowers for a little honey. You may think your little garden patch isn’t much but think of it as a contribution to the Butterfly Effect . . . or the Pollinator Effect.


Oh, and one more thing. The title of this blog is Why Do Bees, right? As in why do bees do what they do? Or as in why do we keep bees? Either way, I love questions and thrive on assignments. Ask away. I’ll be happy to feature your question in a post along the way.

Honeybee Biology

Who’s The Boss?

Being your own boss is nice. You get to decide what you want to do, when and how. As an employee, I report to work when I’m scheduled, do the tasks I’m trained for, and stay until it’s all done. But as a writer for whydobees.com, I have the option of waiting for an idea to rise up, trusting that the right side of my brain is doing its thing as I go through my day. I can decide if this idea is worthwhile and take the time to let it percolate. Some days the words roll off my pencil onto the paper; other days the practical words concerning holidays or visitors or appointments and obligations nudge the creative ones aside. An idea is released only if and when I bless it as ready. Painter, writer, or musician . . . all artists know intuitively how to let the magic happen within the parameters of disciplined creativity.

Honey bees are diligent workers and skilled artists. But they are not their own boss. Even if we remove the beekeeper that manages the hives and reinforces their schedule, they’re still not the boss. They answer to universal cues. The tilt of the earth and its place in space relative to the sun drive the temperature and light cycles they answer to. The complex interactions of the ecosystem effect their health. Even earth’s geological features have an influence. It’s a balancing act with many variables. Though honey bees live in an autonomous colony and their activities determine the livelihood of the hive, they are also at the direction and sometimes the mercy of things beyond their control.

At no time in a bee-year is this more apparent than a warm sunny day in June. It’s like the tarp has been flung off a canvas, revealing the culmination of their efforts. Honey bees have been working hard all winter, when the sun still arcs low over the sky, the nights are long, and the deep, deep cold of January settles in.

Since late November, it’s been just the girls, one big slumber party in the darkness of the hive. Picture a mass of worker bees, heads facing inward with the queen in the middle, all vibrating their wing muscles to keep the temperature a toasty 80 degrees F. The queen stays warm in the center while the workers make trips to the pantry for honey (a healthy-sized hive will consume 30 pounds of the stuff in a winter), and very quick forays to the outside to eliminate waste on days when temperatures reach the mid-40s. This winter generation of workers is aging by now, and the queen keeps her pheromone pulse on things. If the pantry is well stocked with honey and pollen, she may be stimulated to lay eggs, even in these cold days of January and February. This maintains the population of winter bees and is also the precursor to spring egg-laying which explodes as temperatures drift upward, and more importantly, as light stays in the sky longer each day, waking flower blooms that will be their first source of new nectar.


And then they get creative. Honey bees create perfect hexagons out of beeswax that they meticulously clean and polish for their brood or for honey and pollen storage. They dance in the hive, weaving intricate patterns that tell other bees where the best flowers are. A new queen flies out to join in a mating dance with drones. Workers set up brood chambers with the eye of an interior designer – the nursery in the center of strategically placed honey- and pollen-filled hexagons. Honey itself is a culinary work of art with just the right blend of nectar, water, enzymes and secret ingredients.

What drives the creative urge? Whether it’s hexagons or dances, a musical score or a painting, or even dinner. We respond to basically the same cues honey bees respond to. It shows in our hunger and sleep patterns, the growth cycles of our nails and hair. There are the larger patterns of growth and senescence, coordinated on microscopic levels that change our features, how we think, and how we function over time. Our lifespan and lifestyle may be different but the DNA and the instructions inside are the same.

So, is the honey bees’ instinct to create perfectly ergonomic, space-saving, symmetrical, beautiful hexagons work or art? Is it any different from the human desire to string notes together to make music or blend a palette of colors to create a painting? Thousands of years ago, music and art were means of communication for survival, right alongside hunting and gathering, childrearing, and protecting one’s clan. It’s in our DNA and it’s in the cycles and patterns this unique universe weaves. Maybe the pull of creativity is like this too and we’re not really our own boss after all.