When I stepped out on my front porch yesterday I heard a steady hum coming from our ornamental pear tree that had just blossomed. Everywhere I looked there were bees – large ones, small ones, different shapes and different sizes. It wasn’t a swarm, just lots of bees taking advantage of the nectar and carrying off pollen. Also, I recently visited Pokagon State Park and along one of the trails there was a working beehive, with a sign asking that you not disturb the log they were in. What I know about bees is next to nothing, so I decided to do a little research.
Let’s see: there are honeybees, bumblebees, and wasps, right? Well, yes, but...! There are about 4,000 bee species in the U.S. and 25,000 species world-wide, and the honeybee isn’t even a native to North America. Current thinking is that bees evolved from wasps. Wasps are carnivores and bees are not. Bees live in hives in colonies, right? Again, yes, but – some are solitary and build individual nests. Some live in trees, hollow logs, and some build nests underground. There are even parasitic bees called cuckoo bees that don’t build their own nests, but rather lay their eggs in other bees’ nests and then when they hatch they eat the other bees’ larva. Some bees create wax for their hives while others cut circles out of leaves to divide the cells in their nests.
Some bees like nectar and pollen from almost any source and others are specialists that only use nectar from specific flowers. Honeybees can’t pollinate tomatoes or eggplants. One type of bee specializes in blueberry flowers and just one of these bees can pollinate enough flowers to create $20 worth of marketable blueberries. I guess that’s where “busy as a bee” comes from!
You’ve probably heard that bees are in trouble in our environment due to pesticides, bee mites, and/or viruses. In fact, it is said that we are losing one-third of our honeybee hives each year in the United States! A study at Purdue published in 2012 found that an insecticide used on corn and soybean seed was a major factor in bee deaths around planting time. Almost all corn seed and about half of soybean seed are coated with a neonicotinoid insecticide. This makes the seeds sticky, which is counterproductive to the mechanized planting process, so talc is introduced to make the seeds flow better through the machinery. Unfortunately this talc then contains high concentrations of the insecticide and as it is exhausted from the machine as a powdery substance it can spread over wide areas. Fields that had not been planted for two years were found to still contain traces of this insecticide, and dandelions growing in such fields contain traces of the insecticide in the leaves and pollen. Apparently the amount in such pollen alone is not great enough to cause toxicity, but the amount contained in the talc is much more highly concentrated and the thinking is that this is what causes many bee deaths at this time of year. (By the way, for those of you who are still smokers, neonicotinoid insecticides are chemically related to nicotine. That should give you something to think about!)
Honeybees swarm in Indiana around Mother’s Day, according to the DNR webpage. A swarm is not something to be afraid of as the bees are usually calm and don’t sting. A swarm can be the size of a softball or occasionally even as large as a basketball. If you should happen to see a swarm, you should call a beekeeper to come and get them. A list of Indiana beekeepers is easily available from the Internet.
Bees are a vital link in our food chain and should be respected and admired for all the good that they do us.