Honeybees: Summer's little heroes

Honey bees are the unsung heroes of summer

By Amy Grisak
No matter how much you baby your garden with water, compost and love, not much will come from your efforts if you don't have a little helper taking care of the task of pollination.

Apis_mellifera_Western_honey_bee montana living amy grisak

Honeybees are the unsung heroes of the summer. As anybody who spends time outdoors knows, there are many flying insects in the summertime, and not all of them are friendly. Unfortunately, too many lump all the buzzing insects as bad characters. Granted, many family outings are upset by persistent and pesky yellowjackets hovering about the picnic table, but folks need to know how to tell them apart. Wasps, hornets and yellow jackets are bee-like insects, but are easily differentiated from the productive honeybees. Wasps and hornets are usually larger, averaging from 1/2 to 1-inch long, and are darker in color.

They have a definitive narrow waist separating their abdomen from their main body. Bald-faced hornets have distinct white markings on their face. Yellow jackets are brightly colored yellow with black markings and live in colonies that are aggressively guarded. When you see them in the garden, they are not interested in the flowers, but the insects that are in the foliage. Honeybees are smaller than wasps, don't have the distinctive waist, and are more golden with brown stripes rather than the alarming yellow and black. Wild colonies are rarely found in Montana. Most honeybees are domesticated hybrids kept in specialized hives by bee enthusiasts. It's also important to realize the differences between bee stings. Wasps and hornets can sting more than once, while a honeybee dies if it uses its ultimate defense.

Although many people are terribly worried about a fatal reaction to a bee sting, in reality only a small number of the population suffers an acute response. More often than not, a little baking soda paste applied to the sting is enough to soothe the discomfort. However, if you do experience a tightening of the throat or severe swelling, it's best to seek immediate help. To the average on-looker, a honeybee hive looks like a stack of boxes. In reality, the Langstroth-type hive has been around since the mid-1800s, and is effectively organized into areas of brood production and food storage. Everything in the hive is maintained by tens of thousands of female workers.

They care for the queen (who lays an average of 1,000 eggs per day), tend the larvae and young, build honeycomb, keep the hive clean and are responsible for all of the food collection and storage.

The males, or drones, are needed to mate once with a new queen, then they kick back for the rest of the season. Unfortunately, their life of leisure is cut short when the weather turns cold and the workers mercilessly kick the slackers out of the hive to freeze. Winter is no time to carry dead weight.

A scout bee patrols the area up to a two-mile radius looking for a satisfactory food source. When successful, she returns to the hive with a sample and tells the field bees what's available and where to find it through an elaborate "dance." Once a source of nectar or pollen is located, bees travel to the same flowers trip after trip until the food source is exhausted, or the scout bees find a better one. They gather pollen on the tiny hairs on their back legs, and ingest the nectar to bring back to the hive. During this process, they inadvertently pollinate the flowers. When the field bees return to the hive, they turn over their bounty to the house bees who then place it in the honeycomb cells.

Nectar is ingested into first stomach of the bee where the moisture content is reduced and it mixes with enzymes to turn it into honey. To describe it less delicately, honey is basically bee saliva. The honey remains uncapped in the cells for further evaporation and ripening before the house bees cap it to store for future reserves, or for our own use when we take the honey at the end of the season. During the summer, the field bees literally work themselves to death and usually live less than a month and a half. They have very little time to accomplish a great deal. They need 60 to 70 pounds of honey to survive Montana winters.

A gallon of honey weighs 11 to 12 pounds. Consider how many trips it takes to make that amount of honey with the tiny bee stomachs bringing in the nectar, which is further reduced from evaporation. Now you can understand why honeybees are far more interested in their task at hand than at what you might be doing around them. Besides the immeasurable service of pollinating our fruits and vegetables, honeybees produce a food source humans have sought for thousands of years.

While the first part sounds like a dare on the television program Fear Factor, almost everyone appreciates rich, sweet honey. With the hives we use today, we no longer have to raid or destroy a hive found in a hollow tree or other natural shelter. Actually, great care is taken to minimize impact to the hive so they can survive the winter successfully. In the spring, when the flowers are blooming and there's plentiful nectar, beekeepers place shallow boxes called "supers" on the top of their hive bodies. These are specifically for the storage of honey.

When the nectar flow slows in the fall, it's time to remove the supers and some of the honey reserves for our own use. Beekeepers smoke the hive, which causes the bees to concentrate more on the hive and honey stores rather than the beekeeper, removes the supers, then brushes as many bees as they can off of the honeycomb frames and back into the main hive.

Once the frames of capped honey are brought home, the trick is to drain the honey out of the comb. Typically, beekeepers use a heated knife to slice through the thin beeswax caps covering the cells filled with honey. Afterwards, the frames are placed evenly in an extractor ( a stainless steel centrifuge), and the honey is spun out of the comb draining into the bottom. This allows the beekeeper to use the same frames with the honeycomb intact for the next season. Because it's crucial to have ample food storage going into winter, the beekeeper feeds the bees a sugar water mixture to bring up their supplies. This is also the time when the hive is medicated for mites and a number of common bee diseases.

Before the onset of severe weather, some beekeepers even insulate their hives, making sure to provide adequate ventilation and a clear exit. Even during the coldest stretches, bees keep the brood nest area temperature approximately ninety-four degrees by shivering their wing muscles.

Although it seems that honeybees are just out doing their own thing during the summer, it's really a cooperative effort between the gardeners, beekeepers, and the tens of thousands of little workers. It's good to know that everyone is on the same team when you're out in the garden surrounded by busy little bees.

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