Story: Beekeeping

Page 4. Bee activities and communication

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Gathering honey and pollen

The natural instinct of bees is to gather pollen and nectar to produce and store honey as food, especially for winter, when few flowers are around. If a person removes some of the honey the bees are driven to produce more. A busy hive may store more than 150 kilograms of honey in a year. More than 20 kilograms of this is needed to sustain the hive through winter. In a year, much more honey and pollen are consumed by bees than is stored.

Honeybees have a long proboscis to reach the nectar from flowers. They collect nectar for energy and to make honey. Pollen provides protein and other nutrients, especially for bee larvae or young grubs.

Most bees are hairy and carry an electrostatic charge that helps attract and hold pollen. Worker bees periodically stop foraging and groom themselves to pack the pollen into ‘baskets’ on their legs.

Visiting flowers

Members of a colony will gather nectar and pollen from a variety of plants, although on any single day an individual bee will visit only one type. The advantage of this is that the bee becomes expert in gathering from that flower. Flowers produce nectar at different times of the day, and bees learn the best time to visit.

Hard labour

For a bee to produce a teaspoon of honey, she will have to visit 500 flowers and fill her ‘stomach’ 60 times. For a hive to produce a kilogram of honey, collectively the bees will fly the equivalent of three times around the globe.

Storage

Pollen is mixed with nectar to form a firm mass, which is stored in the cells of the wax honeycomb in a hive. Nectar is stored in other cells as a first stage in the preparation of honey. Honeybees never sleep, and at night spend long hours fanning the nectar to dry it.

Native versus introduced bees

Native bees usually get nectar from flowering native plants, while introduced bees visit other flowers. Native plants have disappeared from some areas because of land development, so native bees have had to find other sources of nectar and pollen. However, there does not appear to be any direct competition between the species for these resources.

Telling others where to find food

Bees have complex ways of communicating where to find nectar and pollen. Those returned from a gathering trip will dance and emit odours to signal where to find the best sources, even if these are several kilometres away. The dances were first noted by Aristotle in 330 BC, and analysed by Austrian zoologist and 1973 Nobel prizewinner Karl von Frisch. He noticed that a waggle dance indicates food is at a distance in the direction of the waggle. A round dance shows food is close by, as does releasing a floral odour.

Bees can detect dozens of floral scents as well as see colours. Bees take their sense of direction from the sun. On lightly cloudy days they may use polarised light to work out the sun’s position, and on very cloudy days they rely on landmarks, such as trees, and the position of these in relation to the home hive.

How to cite this page:

Allan Gillingham, 'Beekeeping - Bee activities and communication', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/beekeeping/page-4 (accessed 18 July 2019)

Story by Allan Gillingham, published 24 Nov 2008