Bees are amazing insects and the honey they make is a unique human food. Actually honey is the only food made by an insect that humans eat. It is also interesting that honey found in the Egyptian pyramids was over 3,000 years old yet was still edible.

 Did you know that the honey bee has been around for millions of years and is the only insect that produces food eaten by man?  I just learned that honey is the only food that includes all the substances necessary to sustain life, including enzymes, vitamins, minerals, and water.   It is also the  only food that contains “pinocembrin.”  This is an antioxidant which is associated with improved brain functioning.  These are great reasons to add some honey on your whole-wheat toast at breakfast.  Of course, the one-of-a-kind taste is the only reason I need to put it on mine.

I read an article recently that said the average American consumes nearly a pound and a half of honey a year.  Thinking about that, I can see that if I add up what passes though our household a year, that seems just about right.  I love a little honey in my tea, and so does my son-in-law when he comes up from Pittsburgh.   The great thing about honey is that it seems never to go bad.  The article above also mentioned that samples nearly 3,000 years old were found in the Egyptian pyramids and were as edible as the day were entombed.  Scientists explain this is true because, through some combination of high PH, low water content, plus the natural presence of hydrogen peroxide, this gives the honey this unique quality.

Yes, honey is great, but what do any of us know about that little insect that produces it?  To me, the real question is how the heck do they do it?

I have found that these little creatures of nature are very complicated.  They have six legs, and two compound eyes made up of thousands of tiny lenses, two simple eyes on the top of their head, two pairs of wings, a nectar pouch, and a stomach.  They also have 170 odorant receptors which allow them to recognize other honey bees, provide social communication within their hive, and odor recognition for finding food.  This sense is so powerful and precise that it can differentiate between hundreds of different flowers.

A bee’s wings can stroke incredibly fast at 200 beats per second.  This is what makes the buzz that we hear.  They can fly for up to six miles and reach a speed of 15 miles per hour.  A hive of bees will fly 90,000 miles, the equivalent of three orbits around the earth, to collect 2.2 pounds of nectar to produce honey.  Worker bees live for 4-9 months during the winter season, but only six weeks during their busy summer months.

The worker bees are all female and will produce just 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in their lifetime.  The worker bee usually visits 50 to 100 flowers during her collection trip. In her lifetime, a worker bee may visit 4,000 flowers.  A recent study by Rutgers University found that female worker bees and male bees from the same species feed on entirely different flowers.  It is thought that this new fact may aid bee conservation efforts.

A typical honey bee hive can make up to 400 pounds of honey per year. The bees communicate with each other by dancing in the air during flight. This dance somehow informs other bees in what direction and how far away pollinated flowers are.  Within each hive, there is a distinct and unique order that is used by the hive for member identification. Amazing facts, aren’t they!

Each hive has a queen, and she can lay about 2,500 eggs per day.  She can live up to five years, and her only role is to produce eggs.  She alone controls whether she lays male or female eggs. In an unusual process, if she uses stored sperm to fertilize the eggs, the larva that hatches will all be female.  If she leaves the eggs unfertilized, the larva that hatches will all be male.  That means that female bees inherit genes from both their mothers and their fathers while male bees inherit only genes from the queen mother.  A typical colony can consist of from 20,000 to 60,000 honey bees and a single queen.

Larger than worker bees, the male bees are called drones, and they have no stinger and do no work at all.  All the male bees do is mating.  Before winter sets in and food becomes scarce, the female bees usually force the surviving males out of the hive.  During the winter, the bees feed on the honey that they have collected during the warmer months.  They also form in a very tight cluster in their hive to keep the queen and themselves warm.

Bees of all varieties live on nectar and pollen. Without bees, pollination could be difficult and time-consuming, and some say impossible.  It is estimated that one-third of the human food supply depends on insect pollination. Bees, butterflies, and a few other insects are responsible for this pollination. 

Bees have a long straw-like tongue called a porticus that allows them to drink the nectar from deep within the flowering plants.  When carrying the nectar back to their hive, a natural process in their bodies breaks down the complex sucrose in nectar into two different sugars called fructose and glucose.  They then deposit this into a honeycomb cell within the hive, and they will beat their wings feverishly over the cells to remove some of the moisture and thicken the nectar.  This process can take up to five days. When this is done to their satisfaction, they will cap that cell with beeswax sealing it for later consumption.

Many people believe that honey bees build an external structure that contains their hive. No, they usually will not do this, because they love to live in hollow spaces such as a hollow tree, an empty fallen log, or in a manmade beehive.  Within the hive, bees make their own wax, which they use to create perfect hexagons inside their little homes.  They do not only store nectar and honey in these handy storage bins, but they store eggs, pollen, and some scientists believe sperm for use by the queen. 

In my recent reading on the subject, I found that both the bees and I should consider it a favor if we all would let our gardens grow just a little wild and hold off on frequent mowing (the bees love clover blossoms) and if at all possible, skip herbicide sprays.  This will help the bees and keep a good supply of honey available.   Enjoy your honey and visit Presque Isle where the wildflowers all pitch in to supply that sweet nectar for our honey.

See you on the park!!

Gene Ware is a published author of 9 books and is on the board of the Presque Isle Light Station, and past Chairman of the board of the Tom Ridge Center Foundation, and the Presque Isle Partnership.  He is also a goerie.com contributing writer.  Send questions and comments to ware906@gmail.com.