Know your honey
Take a moment to appreciate being human and all of the freedom and benefits that your humanity entails. For all of the idyllic imagery and fanciful notions associated with bees the reality for a bee is actually quite grim. Each kind of bee has it’s own particular form of hardship to endure and bees in general face a plethora of pathogens, parasites and pests.
Fig 1. Worker Bee: The name says it all; worker bees WORK. Worker bees can live for 6 months if they are just eating and shivering (like over the winter) but most worker bees die much younger than that. The worker bees that get the opportunity to forage work themselves to death. They work so hard foraging that they burn themselves out after only about 20 days of bringing home pollen and nectar1.
Fig 2. Drone Bee: The male drones life sounds like it might be pleasurable as they are fed and cared for by the worker bees and their sole job is to procreate with a queen bee on her mating flight. The reality is that when they mate a queen their sexual organs break off inside of her and they die while plummeting to the ground2. If they avoid the whole sex thing and just hang out at home the worker bees cruelly evict them during preparations for winter as the hive will not overwinter drones. Evicted drones will repeatedly try to re-enter the hive only to be denied access to the food and warmth inside.
Fig 3. Queen Bee: The queen sounds like a regal title but her life is neither royal nor leisurely. Many queens never hatch as they’re stung by their newly hatched queen sister before they even see the light of day. For a queen that does hatch her life can start with a fight to the death against another queen born alongside her. If she is the survivor she’ll go out on a series of mating flights where she’ll be penetrated by drone after drone each one leaving their sexual organs inside of her (to be pried out by the next drone). Once her mating flights are done she’ll spend almost all of the rest of her life inside the hive laying eggs. She does get cared for and fed by the worker bees but she isn’t truly in charge. The workers can decide that she’s no longer doing a good job and they’ll create queen cells to grow new queens.
Pathogens: There are a disturbingly large number of fungal, bacterial and viral diseases that can affect bees3. The most fearsome disease is a bacterial infection called American Foulbrood which turns unborn bees in their cosy comb homes into a smelly decaying goo. The young larval bees ingest the bacteria with the food they are given and the bacteria in turn ingest them from the inside out. This disease is one of the main reasons why all bee hives in Ontario must be registered with the province and periodically inspected. If the inspector finds evidence of American Foulbrood within a hive it, and any hives near it, must be destroyed by fire. The kind of horrible destruction threatened in the movie Outbreak happens to bees and there is no happy ending antidote to save the day.
Parasites: Can you imagine having tracheal mites crawling into your windpipe suffocating you while they feed on your blood and lay their eggs? What about having blood sucking varroa mites feed on you before you’re even born or in places you can’t reach? Can you picture having an intestinal parasite (like Nosema) that can lead to dysentery and death? These are just some of the horrid things that bees might experience in their short lives and they can’t call an ambulance to take them to the hospital for treatment. Their beekeeper can hopefully put some practices into place to reduce the odds of parasitic invasion but treatment options are few and often nasty4.
Pests: Beetles, moths, wasps, mice, birds and skunks might be annoying to us but they can be downright horrible to bees. Skunks and birds snack on individual bees in quantities that can leave hives weakened while wasps go after the honey that the bees have collected. Some kinds of beetles and moths can destroy the comb inside the hive as their life cycle involves laying eggs in the wax portion of the comb.
From the bees perspective beekeepers are certainly considered a pest. Although we do try to help our bees we also systematically rob them of their honey stores and the bees are pretty much powerless to stop us. Bees literally killed themselves visiting millions of flowers to collect enough nectar to fill even one super with honey and we beekeepers just steal it off the top with glee at the delicious spoils of “our” efforts.
The largest pest of bees is, however, a monster of epic proportions. Imagine a creature so large that it physically tears the entire community apart, ripping the children out of their homes in it’s taloned paws to stuff them into it’s toothy furry maw. The common bear would seem like Godzilla to the bees.
Fig 4. Black bear enjoying a hive
In the bee vs. bear battle the bees rarely win. Bears have thick fur that protect most of their body from bee stings and once they get a taste for honey and brood there is little that will dissuade them from ripping a hive apart to get it. Now aren’t you glad you’re a person and not a bee?
1. Guide to Bees and Honey by Ted Hooper, 1976, Rodale Press
2. Storey’s Guide to Keeping Honey Bees by Malcolm T. Sanford & Richard E. Bonney, 2010, Storey Publishing
3. Field Guide to Honey Bees and Their Maladies by Pennsylvania State University College of Agricultural Sciences, 2011, Ag Communications and Marketing
4. Parasitic Mites of Honey Bees by Greg Hunt, 2010, Purdue University Extension Program