While harvesting honey I looked deep into the hive where 60 to 80 thousand bees were working. Some of them were of course flying around me the great intruder from outer space (I was suited up from head to toe in my bee gear to protect me from their stings). I had smoked them with desert sage, an herb used by the Native American people before ceremony to clear away any negative energy. I had also offered a pinch or two of tobacco with a prayer of gratitude for letting me take some of their precious stores. I am always careful not to take too much or none at all because they need a good supply to last them through the winter. Today they were amazingly calm and didn’t seem to mind my looking in at their activity.
I was reminded of their incredible ability to provide an intensely hard working, cooperative, loving community whose sole purpose was to sustain the life of the queen. Each of those 60 to 80 thousand bees knew its job whether it be a nurse bee feeding the drones, the developing larvae or most importantly the queen or be a housekeeper, keeping the hive clean from debris or a guard, protecting the hive against intruders like me, other insects or even a mouse that might want to move in or a water bearer, bringing in a constant supply of water to the hive or nectar and pollen gatherer.
The drones are the male bees and serve only to impregnate the local queens. Soon after birth the queen goes on her maiden flight at which point the neighboring drones come chasing after her. She gives them a good run for their money and flies as high as she can. Only the strongest and healthiest drones are able to reach her. On this one flight she gathers into her sperm sac all of the sperm that will fertilize her eggs for the rest of her five or so years. This may not seem so amazing except when you consider that in preparation for the honey flow season (the time when tree and plants are at their flowering peak) she is laying over a thousand eggs a day, which is more than her body weight. She will keep this up for several weeks to a month and then begin to slow down some.
Meanwhile the drones are an interesting lot. They are incapable of feeding themselves even if they are lying right beside a comb full of honey. They are beholden to the nurse bees who keep them nourished until the end of the season. The drones having fulfilled their mission are now asked to leave the hive. They are literately pushed out of the door to die. The sole function of the hive in the wintertime is to keep the queen warm and fed. The whole hive will go into hibernation during the cold months. They usually need to leave the hive one or two times in the winter in order to relieve themselves (defecate) outside of the hive. So they need a warm winter day that creeps above 45 degrees. If there are lots of warm winter days the hive will be active, flying this way and that looking for more nectar of which there is likely none. This can stress a hive which then has to rely on there own honey stores to feed the active troops.
The workers who are females without reproductive capacity do everything else to maintain the healthy life of the hive. They make up 98.9% of the bees in the hive and do all of the work that I described above. They make their way up the ranks of the order of the honeybee from nurse, to housekeeper, to guard, to water carrier, to nectar gatherer. In the height of the honey flow season their life span is about six weeks. As nectar gatherers they may make hundreds of trips a day back and forth between the nectar and pollen source and the hive. They may fly up to three miles out to a source. You may have see pictures of these gathers doing their bee dances in order to share their discoveries of new nectar sources guiding others to these sites.
Before I started keeping bees I thought that because I lived in the woods that there would not be enough nectar for them to gather. It was not until I went to help another woman take honey that I learned in our area the bees depend primarily on the honey locust, the tulip poplar and the holly trees. There were plenty of tulip popular and holly trees in Hollywood, Maryland so beekeeping was very possible.
When they bring their nectar and pollen supplies back to the hive one of the workers takes it from them and deposits it into a honeycomb cell. Pollen is kept in special cells for the queen and made into royal jelly. Meanwhile the queen continues to lay eggs in each cell and the workers tend to the developing larvae. They will also decide if they need to make the cell a little larger to produce a drone or a little longer to produce a new queen. There is immense innate wisdom that helps the bees focus on their individual jobs and keep the health of the totality of the hive in mind at all times.
For instance if a hive is very successful and is getting too crowded the workers will begin to create elongated queen cells because there is a growing need to split the hive. The day comes when the old queen leaves the hive and many of her workers will follow, while enough others stay behind to care for the new queen in the old hive. In the meanwhile the swarm of bees that have left the hive pour out into a huge funnel of bees that sounds like a freight train. Each of these workers who have left first gorged themselves with honey. So ahead of time there are those who know they are going and those who know they are staying.
This swarm of honeybees will follow the queen to a tree branch usually high up not far from the hive. All of the workers will surround the queen, clinging to each other with their legs so that the end result looks like a football of living bees with the queen safe in the center. Some of the bees on the outside of the swarm begin to scout for a suitable place to set up a new hive. This process usually lasts three to four days. The swarm will then all fly off with the scouts leading the way to the new homestead where they immediately set to work creating comb into which the queen begins to drop one egg at a time. A new community is formed.
Even though the honeybees are very focused on the health and well being of the queen, they also serve an incredible function within the context of the whole. Without the pollination provided to fruit trees, other kinds of trees, garden flowers and vegetables we would not have food for our tables, nor would the squirrels or deer or birds, etc. who depend on nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables for survival of their species.
Every one of the 60 to 80 thousand honeybees know what job she or he is suppose to do, when they are suppose to do it and how they are suppose to do it. The most astounding thing about this very well organized efficient community of bees is that should for some reason the queen die and no new queen is ready to take her place the whole hive falls apart. The bees no longer know what they are to do. It is as if the center of their universe has disappeared and there is no longer a reason for being. They all disappear and die.
What an interesting vision for a style of community, one that is very well organized around its own survival and the love for the queen at the very center of it all. This community is not isolated but deeply woven into the fabric of the whole of life.