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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Of Bees and Honey. What is Honey for?

Solitary bee, halictid or sweat bee, gathering food for her babies
In the beginning there were wasps, no bees at all. Wasps trapped bugs and used them to feed their babies, who grew strong and healthy in that rich protein diet. Many adult wasps also visited flowers and fed on nectar, a rich fuel that gave them enough energy to do all that flying needed to hunt their prey.

Once upon a time, some wasps discovered that the pollen they had accidentally picked up and carried back home on their bodies turned out to be just as nutritious as their prey. So they switched to pollen and gave up chasing after bugs. One advantage of pollen is that it doesn’t run away or fight back.

They became hairier and developed baskets to pick up and carry pollen home, thus a new creature was born, different enough from wasps to belong in a different category: a vegetarian wasp, the mother of all bees. Notice that I haven't mentioned honey yet. That came later. In those days all bees were solitary and short lived. The adults usually died at the end of the summer season. Only the next generation lived through the winter, feeding on its pollen reserves and sleeping quietly in a safe and secluded place, perhaps wrapped into some sort of cocoon.

Honey bee collecting pollen and nectar for the colony or hive, to feed her sisters and queen and store reserves for the winter
Finally some bees developed societies that lasted several years and had queens and workers and drones, all living together in a large colony. In order to survive the winter they needed to store supplies, mostly nectar (to keep burning fuel through the winter and stay warm) and also some pollen. But the nectar straight from the flower is very watery and would use too much space, so they developed techniques to get rid of most of the water. They spit the nectar out in a big bubble and swallow it back again and again until it becomes concentrated through evaporation until it can be stored in cells. In the process they also add some preservatives and fungicides to increase the shelf life of this precious commodity. Yes, that is what honey is; maybe you lost your appetite for it. But, wait, it gets worse, sometimes when there is a shortage of nectar, bees collect secretions from aphids, you may call it aphid poop, and use it to make honey.

Only social bees make any significant amount of honey. The stored supplies sustain them through the winter, when there is no other food available. The domestic bee and a few relatives from Asia belong to the social category as do several kinds of stingless bees from Central America and tropical South America. Bumblebees are also social, although they never build colonies as large as those of honey bees. They live for a few months and make some honey but not much. They store their golden treasure in little clay pots in their underground nests. Local people don't hesitate to eat this honey when they find it.

Interestingly, several types of wasps from Central and South America form colonies or hives that last longer than a year. They also make honey, but this is very unusual for a wasp. Their paper nests resemble those of hornets and the honey is hard to remove from the combs. You just pop up a piece of wasp nest in your mouth and chew until all the honey is gone. Then you spit up the wad of paper. I know it; I have done it. The honey is delicious and worth the minor paper-chewing inconvenience.

Oh, yes! Some ants make honey and have a very peculiar way of storing it. Some members of the colony, called "repletes," eat enormous amounts of honey, fed to them by their sisters, until their bellies are perhaps ten times larger than normal. They hang from the ceilings of store chambers inside the anthill and serve as "honey pots" always ready to vomit and pass some of this material to their nest mates. Honey ants are found on dry regions of several continents, including the American Southwest. The natives relish this sweet treat.

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© Beatriz Moisset. 2012

Thursday, October 8, 2009

A Busy Pollinator and a Relaxed One

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An industrious little bee gathering food for her babies and pollinating flowers along the way. It methodically collects pollen without missing any and then promptly flies to the next flower.

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The bee is very industrious and visits many flowers in a very short time. The flower fly, on the other hand, takes its precious time gobbling up pollen, so it visits fewer flowers overall.