Bees are so ubiquitous that gardeners tend to take them for granted. Whether they’re the ever-busy honeybee (Apis mellifera) that produces the honey we enjoy, the bigger, fuzzier bumblebees (Bombus spp.) or the various solitary and tropical bees, many of which don’t look much like bees at all, almost all pollinate flowers, fruit trees and vegetables in our gardens and—what else can I say?—we need them.
Here is some food for thought about these ardent pollinators.
1. There are some 25,000 species of bee found all over the world. Compare that to the some 10,000 species of birds and 5,400 species of mammal.
2. Urban beehives are healthier and more productive than rural ones. This may be because urban areas usually have higher plant diversity, given the variety of woody and herbaceous plants that people use in their gardens and landscapes compared to the endless monocultures often found in the countryside.
3. Bees have two stomachs, the first of which is for digestion. The second stomach, called the crop or honey stomach, is for storing the nectar that they collect from flowers so that they can carry it back to the hive. It’s also used to carry water, also vital to the fabrication of honey.
4. Honeybees visit about two million flowers and fly 50,000 miles (80,000 km) to make one pound (454 g) of honey. If you add up the distance, that would be like flying twice around the world!
5. A colony of honeybees consists of 20,000 to 60,000 worker bees and one queen. Worker bees are female, live for about 4 to 6 weeks and do all the work. The males, called drones, are only used for reproduction.
6. It’s estimated that bees pollinate 80% of all flowering plants on Earth. In our gardens, fruits are the plants most dependent on bee pollination.
7. Everyone knows bees collect nectar and pollen from flowers, but not many people understand that bees also harvest honeydew, the sugary liquid produced by sap-sucking insects like aphids. So, don’t be surprised to see bees buzzing about aphid-infested plants.
8. While excavating a site in Tbilisi, Georgia,archaeologists found pots of honey. Although dating back approximately 5,000 years, the honey was still perfectly edible. And still-edible honey 2,000 years old has been found in Egyptian pyramids.
9. When a honeybee finds a good source of nectar, it flies back to the hive and shows the other bees where the nectar source is located by doing a dance which positions the flower in relation to the sun and hive. This is known as the “waggle dance”.
10. Not all bees sting. Even among honeybees, the males (drones) are stingless. Many solitary bees and tropical bees are either stingless or their sting is so ineffectual you wouldn’t even notice if one stung you. And while most people know that honeybees die after they sting, as the sting tears off and rests in our skin, other bees, including bumblebees, have retractable stingers and can sting multiple times. Even so, most bees are not aggressive and will only sting if they feel they or their hive is being attacked.
Learn to appreciate bees: they’re one of the gardener’s best friends!