The friendly, beneficial honeybee

Kirsten S. Traynor
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

Many people fear bees, but the honeybee is our friend. There is a famous quote regarding the hard-toiling bee attributed to Albert Einstein. "If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years left to live.'

The reasoning for his statement is bees are significant pollinators, pollinating over 60 different types of crops. Without pollinators, fruit trees and brambles would not produce a bountiful harvest, and all cucurbits such as cucumbers, squash, watermelons and pumpkins would not exist. You could argue we would still manage without those fruit and vegetables, but the beneficial bee also pollinates things such as clover, a common feed for cattle. So, indirectly the bee is responsible for successful beef production.

Unless you suffer from allergic reactions to bees, there is no reason to fear them. Honeybees are not out to attack you. They are usually of a very peaceful nature and will not sting unless provoked. A honeybee stinger is a barbed ovipositor connected to the bee's poison sac. Due to this barb, the stinger, along with the poison sac and parts of the abdomen, rip out of a honeybee when she stings, causing the bee to die. Thus, the honeybee sacrifices her life to protect the colony.

When a person is stung by a bee, the poison sac will continue to pump poison, even after the bee dies. If you are ever stung by a bee, do not pull out the stinger straight. Instead, flick the stinger with your fingernail. This will cause the barbed stinger to release with the least amount of pain.

While being stung by bees may not sound appealing, there are many people who regularly have themselves stung to help treat diseases such as multiple sclerosis and arthritis. This is known as apitherapy using bee products to prevent, heal or recover someone from one or more diseases and/or conditions.

If you do not want to go to the extreme of having yourself stung, you can still enjoy some of the wonders of bee products. It has been shown pollen allergies can be alleviated by eating honey from the area, since this honey contains trace amounts of local pollen sources. These small traces help desensitize the immune system. I heard another method of treating pollen allergies is to eat bee pollen on a regular basis. A source for bee pollen can be difficult to locate as it is time consuming for the beekeeper to gather. However, some local beekeepers do sell it.

Honeybees live in a social structure called a colony. There are three different types of bees: queens, drones and workers.

In each bee colony there is only one queen. She is the focus of the entire hive. As long as she keeps laying fertilized eggs, other bees remain loyal to her, protecting her and feeding her. This queen is the mother of all bees in the hive. She is longer than the worker bees and drones. The queen also produces chemicals called pheromones. These pheromones are passed from bee to bee as they touch each other. The exchange of these secretions helps the colony communicate and is essential as a strong hive normally encompasses from 50,000 to 80,000 bees. Drones are male bees. They develop from unfertilized eggs the queen lays in larger cells. They are smaller in length than the queen, but larger and wider than the workers. Drones can not sting and do not have the ability to gather pollen. Their only function is to mate with virgin queens in the spring and summer. Once fall rolls around, drones become obsolete. Worker bees kick them out of the hive to protect their precious honey stores saved for the coming winter. Even during the spring and summer, drones only make up about 1 percent of a healthy hive.

Female worker bees develop from fertilized eggs. However, worker bees are underdeveloped females lacking a mature reproductive system. They do not lay eggs, except when a colony goes queenless. Then, sometimes a hive will develop a laying worker. Since the worker has never mated, all eggs she lays will produce drones.

The worker bees perform all the tasks to keep the hive going. They do various types of work at different ages, including cleaning the hive; nursing baby bees; building combs; gathering water, pollen and nectar; or being an undertaker bee, whose responsibility it is to remove dead bees from the hive. They are also hive protectors, preventing other insects and animals from entering the hive.

It is because of the toil of the worker bees that we enjoy the transformation of nectar into honey. If you have only ever tasted store-bought honey, you are missing out on one of the sweetest delights possible. Store-bought honey is often adulterated with other sweeteners. Commercial honey is usually made from many different honey sources mixed together.

Honey purchased from local beekeepers is more delicate and diverse in taste. Their honey ranges in flavor and color from a light lemony green locust honey to a dark, deep molasses brown buckwheat honey. You can find many local beekeepers selling their honey at roadside stands and farmers' markets.

You can find more information about beekeeping and bee product suppliers from the Mary-land State Beekeepers' Association at http://iaa.umd.edu/mdbee.

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