By Bailey Dohlman, Conservation Education Intern, Lime Creek Nature Center
When asked to think of a pollinator, what comes to mind? Is it butterflies, bats, beetles, flies, moths? While all of these are important pollinators, there is typically one species thought about more than others, the honeybee. While honeybees are not native to the Americas, they are important pollinators for many species of plants, such as a variety of trees, many of the fruits and vegetables we eat, many native plants, and so much more. A plant that requires pollination depends on a pollinating animal, also known as a pollinator, to transfer pollen between the male and female parts of the flower. When the pollen is transferred, it allows the plants to grow seeds and fruit for reproduction. Honeybees account for approximately eighty percent of the pollination of all flowering plants.
So why are honeybees such great pollinators? This is because honeybees spend most of their life visiting flowers sipping on nectar and collecting pollen. The pollen is used in honeybee hives to feed their developing offspring. When going from flower to flower, the honeybees furry body gets covered in pollen and is transferred between the flowers it visits. An individual honeybee takes an average of ten trips from the hive each day to collect pollen. Each trip consists of visiting 50-100 flowers of the same species, making these pollinators very proficient. While they visit flowers alone, honeybees are very much social animals. Honeybees live in a hive, with an average of 30,000 bees within the hive.
The members of a hive are divided into three types: a queen, workers, and drones. There is one queen per hive. The queen runs the hive by producing chemicals that guide the other bees. It is also the queen’s job to lay the eggs to for the next generation. On average, a queen bee can lay 1,500 eggs per day. The worker bees are all female bees, but are not able to reproduce. The role of worker bees is to forage for food, build and protect the hive, and to clean. Worker bees are the only bees people see flying around and are those very important pollinators. When telling other worker bees a location of a flower, these honeybees do a figure-eight shaped dance called the “waggle” dance. The waggle dance is angled based on the sun to show the direction of the flower and the distance of the dance shows the distance to the flower. Drones are the only male bees in the hive. The purpose of the of drones is to mate with the queen. Drone bees are typically only in the hive over the spring and summer months and then get kicked out once it starts to get cooler.
While all the honeybees in a hive all have a particular job, they work well together and have a great method to survival within their hive. A part of their method to survival is making honey. Honeybees produce honey as a food store for the hive over winter. An individual honeybee can make 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey in its six-week lifespan. Luckily for us, honeybees tend to work so efficiently that they make 2-3 times more honey than they need. This abundance of honey allows us to be able to collect it and enjoy the tastiness of it! Honey can come in a variety of flavors as different flowers the bees visited, give off different flavors and textures.
While honeybees are amazing little creatures, they have had some great threats and declines in populations. Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a general term used to describe the collapse of honeybee colonies. There are many causes affecting the decline of honeybees including pathogens, farming practices, parasites, reduction of habitat, and stress. Since honeybees are so important, there are many things that we can also do to help them. Some ways to help populations of honeybees are planting native flowers. Native flowers provide food and habitat for honeybees and native bees as well (see www.monarchmania.com for more info). Another important thing to keep in mind is minimizing the use of pesticides and chemicals in yards and gardens. There are many alternatives that are less toxic. Another great way to support honeybees and to also shop locally is to buy locally produced honey!
Honeybees are amazing little creatures that pollinate many of the foods we eat and the plants we enjoy. Honeybees are busy visiting hundreds of flowers each day. Be on the lookout for them as they are sipping nectar and collecting pollen. If you’d like to enjoy them up close, make sure to plant some flowers for them to enjoy or visit a prairie where you’ll be sure to hear the buzz of their wings.
The observation beehive at Lime Creek Nature Center is up and running again in our pollinator room. Be sure to stop out sometime and check out a real working beehive!