We put electric fencing around our beehive, which will hopefully keep
the bears out. Anytime I do anything near the hive, I linger. I can’t seem to help it. Even though my “to do” list is as long as any honeybee’s, I just stand there and gawk. I’d really like to set up a livestream camera to watch the hive- but I’m afraid that if I do, I’ll never get anything else done as I find the hive absolutely mesmerizing.
Perhaps it’s the 30 years I spent managing construction sites that has me so enamored. There is no one in charge of the hive, but everything gets done. There are no bees leaning on shovels, drinking coffee, or chatting on their cell phones. The vast majority of the bees in the hive will only live a few weeks - they quite literally work themselves to death.
At the hive entrance, there is always an endless torrent of bees coming and going. Most of them are foragers, collecting everything the hive needs to thrive (pollen, nectar, propolis, water). When they return, they are met by “guard bees”. If the guards don’t recognize the smell of an incoming bee – it is either chased away or killed. Once safely past security, the foragers are greeted by specialized worker bees inside the hive that help them unpack their bounty.
Pollen is the only source of protein the hive gets and is vital as a food source. Each forager bee will visit only one type of flower on any given foraging journey, and when they return their pollen sacks range in distinct colors from bright yellow, pink or a deep amber color depending on which type of flower they visited. “Nurse bees”, inside the hive, mix the pollen with honey and their enzyme rich saliva to make fermented “bee bread”. The bread is then fed to all the bees in the hive, and any surplus is stored in empty cells for future use. The nurse bees consume more than their share of the bread and in turn produce royal jelly which is fed to developing larvae and the queen. The larvae are fed the jelly for the first 3 days of their life - the queen is fed jelly throughout her life. The foraging bees are fed last and if there isn’t enough left over to feed them their full ration, the foragers get the message that they need to work harder to gather more pollen for the hive. (FYI- this
kind of “feedback loop” would NOT work well with me.)
Nectar is transferred from the foraging bee to worker bees and the enzymes it is exposed to in the process turns it into diluted honey. Young bees are in charge of storing the watery honey in a comb and fanning it with their wings to evaporate the excess moisture. Once it is the right consistency, they cap the cell with wax.
Tree resin is brought back to the hive, mixed with honey and saliva to create propolis. The building crew inside the hive uses the propolis to cover the bottom of an empty cell before the queen lays an egg in it. They also use it to fill in small cracks in the hive, and somewhat ominously, it is also used to encapsulate any intruder that was killed by the guard bees but is too heavy to remove. Propolis is what gives beeswax that wonderful aroma. Without it, the wax has no scent.
Water is as essential to bees as it is to humans. Water collector bees work tirelessly bringing water into the hive. The water is used to make bee bread, royal jelly, and to reconstitute stored honey. On hot days it is also sprayed over the surface of empty cells while several thousand young worker bees flap their wings creating a wing powered cooling system not unlike our own air-conditioning systems.
By human standards, I’m a pretty industrious being, but I’m sure my bees consider me a total slouch. Every time they see me, there I am leaning on a shovel with a coffee cup in hand, just watching them. For Christmas, they’ll probably get me a t-shirt that says “I love hard work- I could watch it all day.”