Insights from October 6th Presentation at KEA Happy Hour from Barb McFarland
The low humming of bees accompanied Barb McFarland’s lecture on the amazing and complex life cycle of honey bees, and the practical side of her twenty years of bee keeping in Northern Idaho.
Honeybees are a non-native species that English colonists brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1622. Since then they have spread across the country pollinating vegetables, nut trees, flowers and fruits and have become essential to agriculture.
Honeybees are special because they are social insects (as are ants and termites) and cannot survive as individuals alone. In fact, Barb explained, a bee colony should be considered a single organism made up of three interrelated working parts. First, is the queen bee, the only fertile female that produces all the eggs. Second are the infertile females called worker bees who do different jobs during their lives including guarding the hive, making wax, gathering the nectar and pollen, and making the honey. Last, the drones, the males whose sole job is to impregnate the queen bee. Males have huge eyes so they can spot a flying queen up to 40 feet away and no mouth parts. When winter cold arrives, the worker bees kick the drones out of the hive and block the entry so the drones will freeze to death. Bee society sounds cruel to humans, but they are efficient at passing on genes, pollinating our food plants, and making their honey prized by bees for winter sustenance and by humans and bears for sweet calories.
Barb became a beekeeper when a friend bought all the equipment and gave it to her to begin work. Over the years she has continued to learn about these exceptional animals and how best to care for them and produce fine honey to sell. Spreading her years of knowledge is one of her goals too. She gives talks and demonstrations to school children and other groups, such as KEA.
Bees, she says, have two primary fears. The first is fire as would happen in the wild when forests burn and threaten them. The other is a fear of large dark objects—bears really. Beekeepers use these fears to help manage the bees. That’s why they wear the white beekeeping suit. Bees aren’t afraid of large white things! Smoke is used to calm the bees when working with their hive. When they are smoked, the bees gorge on honey and leave the hive.
Humans often fear bees, but beekeepers don’t worry about the bees stinging. Honeybees are gentle and not going to sting unless a real threat occurs because it is suicidal. When a bee stings, it dies.
Bees are renowned for working hard and they surely do. Honeybees can fly over three miles looking for plants to gather nectar. Some of their favorites include herbs and especially raspberries. When they find a fine source, they can return to the hive and do an intricate dance that provides directions for the other bees! Then they may make up to 400 trips back and forth to the nectar and visit over 50-100 flowers in one day. It takes twelve bees their entire lives to make one teaspoon of honey. Think of that the next time you add some to your tea.
These wonderful honeybees are crucial to our agriculture, Barb says, and although a number of things contribute to the terrible loss of bee colonies, pesticide use is a primary culprit in the collapses. Use of pesticides should be limited or ended. Protecting these industrious, productive insects should be a constant concern for everyone.
After telling us so much about bees, Barb then gave a big jar of her honeybees’ honey as a door prize!