The Wonderful World of Bees

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Podcast Transcript

There are millions of different insect species on Planet Earth. All of them fill some niche in the ecosystem in which they live.

However, some species are more important than others. In particular, insect species that are members of the family Apidae, or what you probably know as bees. 

Bees are some of the most important pollinators in the world. They are responsible for a large amount of plant reproduction worldwide. 

Learn more about bees, what they are and their importance on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

I’m sure all of us would recognize a bee if we saw one, but what exactly is a bee? 

Bees are insects in the family Apidae. Apidae is the basis of many of the words surrounding bees and beekeeping. Apiculture is the word for beekeeping, an apiculturist is a beekeeper, and an apiary is a collection of bee hives. 

There are about 20,000 different species of bees in the world. Wherever you can find pollinating flowers, you will find bees. Bees can be found on every continent except Antarctica, in almost every ecosystem on the planet. 

Not all bees have stingers, and not all live in colonies such as hives.  

Bees are not the same as wasps. Both insects are in the order Hymenoptera, but there are significant differences between them. 

Bees tend to be fuzzy-looking, and wasps are smooth. Bees feed on pollen and nectar, whereas wasps tend to feed on other insects. 

Bees tend to be less aggressive and can only sting something once before dying. Wasps are more aggressive and can sting multiple times.

Hornets are just a type of wasp.

What makes bees so interesting and so important is the outsized role they play in plant pollination. About 75% of all flowering plants in the world and 35% of global food crops rely on animals for pollination. 

Of the animals and insects that pollinate plants, bees are by far the best pollinators. 

Bees have evolved to effectively carry pollen. They have hair-like fibers on their bodies where pollen can attach and be carried to another plant. They also have pollen baskets, known as corbicula, on their hind legs.

Bees are so important as pollinators that some species of plants have evolved to only be pollinated by certain species of bees.

As there are 20,000 species of bees with a wide variety of behaviors, most of the rest of this episode is going to focus on the various types of honey bees. 

Honeybees are of special importance because they are the bees most commonly used in the production of honey and have been the most widely domesticated. 

The human relationship with bees dates well back before recorded history. Early humans discovered honey in beehives and found out that it tasted really good. Honey was probably the most pure and concentrated form of sugar that early humans would have had access to. 

These early humans engaged in what is known as honey hunting. Honey hunting is the gathering of honey from wild beehives. Honey hunting still takes place today by aboriginal in Africa, Asia, Australia, and South America. 

The most famous of the honey hunters is probably the Hadza People in Tanzania. They are modern hunter-gatherers for whom honey is still a staple of their diet.

Here, I should briefly explain exactly what honey is and how it is produced. 

Honeybees are a variant of bees that live in colonies. Each colony consists of three types of bees with a clear division of labor between them: queens, worker bees, and drones. 

Queens are females with active reproductive organs. There is only one queen in a hive whose primary role is to lay eggs.

The queen produces pheromones that regulate the hive’s behavior and maintain social harmony. These pheromones help control the activities of worker bees and suppress the development of new queens.

Worker bees are female bees with underdeveloped reproductive organs. They perform all the non-reproductive tasks in the hive.

Drones are male bees whose main function is to mate with a virgin queen from another hive. They do not perform any other function in the hive and are fed by worker bees. 

Honey is a sweet substance produced by honeybees from the nectar of flowers. 

Worker bees, called foragers, visit flowers to collect nectar. They use their long, tube-like tongues called proboscises to extract the nectar and store it in their “honey stomachs,” a special part of their digestive system.

While in the honey stomach, enzymes in the bee’s saliva begin breaking down the complex sugars in the nectar into simpler sugars, such as glucose and fructose.

Upon returning to the hive, the foraging bees regurgitate the nectar and pass it to house bees through a process called trophallaxis. This mouth-to-mouth transfer allows further enzymatic activity. 

The house bees then deposit the nectar into hexagonal wax cells in the honeycomb. They fan the nectar with their wings to evaporate excess water, reducing the moisture content from around 70-80% to about 18%. 

The evaporation process, combined with the enzymatic breakdown of sugars, transforms the watery nectar into thick, concentrated honey.

Honey is deposited into a substance known as beeswax, which is also produced by worker bees. Beeswax is also highly valued, along with honey.

The earliest evidence of humans interacting with bees dates back to around 10,000 years ago. Cave paintings in the Cuevas de la Araña in Spain depict people gathering honey from wild bee colonies.

It is believed that humans used clay pots or hollow logs to house bees and make hives, which made it easy for them to collect honey. 

The first culture that we have evidence of that practiced an organized form of beekeeping was ancient Egypt.

There is written evidence that beekeeping was practiced in ancient Egypt around 4,500 years ago. Hieroglyphs and tomb paintings show beekeepers using cylindrical hives made of clay or woven materials.

Honey was highly valued in ancient Egypt. It was used as a sweetener, medicine, and in religious rituals. It was also offered to the gods and used in embalming practices.

There are depictions dating back 4,200 years of beekeepers in Egypt blowing smoke into beehives to get access to honeycombs. 

There is also evidence of beekeeping in ancient Greece, Mesopotamia, and China. 

In the Old Testament, a land of milk and honey is a metaphor for a bountiful land. 

Beekeeping appears to have arisen independently around the world. The Maya in Central America domesticated a type of stingless bee. 

The Romans appeared to have practiced migratory beekeeping, moving hives to follow flowering plants.

During the Middle Ages, beekeeping was often practiced in monasteries. Monks used beeswax for candles and honey for medicinal purposes.

The Islamic world also made significant advances in beekeeping. The 10th-century Persian scholar Al-Masudi wrote about the importance of bees and their role in agriculture.

What all ancient beekeeping practices had in common is that collecting honey and beeswax usually resulted in the destruction of the hive. 

Whether it was a woven basket, a ceramic pot, or a hollow log, these artificial hive locations were only designed to be used once. These are known as Skep Hives.

Considering the thousands of years that humans kept bees, it took a surprisingly long time to truly understand how honeybees worked and lived. 

It wasn’t until the 17th century that beekeepers such as Charles Butler of England and biologists like Jan Swammerdam of the Netherlands began to understand the social order of hives and the importance of queens.

In the 18th century, English beekeeper Thomas Wildman developed multiple advances in beekeeping. He developed a multi-skep system where honey could be harvested from one hive, and bees could then move to another hive without killing them. 

The big innovation in honey production occurred in the 19th century. An American preacher and beekeeper named Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth developed the Langstroth hive.

The Langstroth hive has vertically hanging frames where bees can create beeswax combs and deposit honey. 

The spacing between the frames is between six and nine centimeters, which is known as the bee space. If the frames were any closer together, the bees could connect them with beeswax. By keeping the framers just far enough apart, the bees have room to move between them without connecting them. 

The Langstroth hive is the basic design of commercial beehives that are used today.

The 20th century saw a dramatic rise in beekeeping around the world. Increased beekeeping was necessary not just to meet the increased demand for honey but also the need for pollination services as agriculture expanded. 

The number of active beehives in the world has expanded steadily throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. 

As of 2021, there are estimated to be 101.6 million active beehives in the world. The largest honey-producing countries in the world are China, Turkey, Argentina, and the United States. 

While there have been some innovations in beekeeping, by and large, it is still the same process that has been practiced for thousands of years. Bees have to pollinate flowering plants, and they have to make honey. 

Today, many beekeeping operations have mobile hives. They will transport hives from place to place to provide pollination services at different times of the year before moving on to a new farm field to provide pollination services for a different crop. 

Urban beekeeping has also grown in popularity as the need for bees as pollinators has been recognized, even in cities. 

However, all is not well in the world of beekeeping and honey production. There are two major problems which are currently affecting the industry worldwide. 

The first is colony collapse disorder, or CCD. 

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is a phenomenon that affects honeybee colonies, characterized by the sudden and unexplained disappearance of the majority of worker bees in a hive, leaving behind the queen, immature bees, and ample food stores.

CCD was identified in 2007 when a large number of beehives suddenly collapsed. 

Subsequent research has found that similar episodes of colony collapse have occurred in the past, in particular, 1918 and 1919. There were recorded cases occurring as far back as the mid-19th century. 

Despite the problem being well documented, there is no known cause for CCD, nor are we even sure that there is a single cause. Proposed causes include pesticides, mites, viruses, nutrition, habitat loss, and stress from transportation. 

Bee populations have bounced back from the problems of 2007, but a cause for CCD has been elusive. 

The other major problem facing the beekeeping and honey industry is better understood but is probably more economically damaging: fraud. 

The truth is that honey is one of the most faked food products in the world, perhaps only behind olive oil. There is a good chance that the cheap honey at your local supermarket is not in fact honey at all. 

Much of the commercial honey available in stores today is either a small amount of honey cut with cheap sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup or no honey at all. 

If you purchase honey, you have to make sure to check the label and research where the honey was produced. Real honey from an actual honey bee hive might cost a bit more than the cheap stuff you can find on the shelf at your nearest grocery store. 

Bees have an incredibly important role in both the Earth’s ecosystem and in the world of modern agriculture. Despite all the advances in farming and food production, there is a large part of our agricultural system that is still dependent on the humble bee.

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s review comes from listener Villardciraptor over on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

The one I’ve been looking for

I just discovered this, and I love it. It is everything I want in a podcast in that it informs so well and does so on such an extensive breadth of topics in a manner that is light and entertaining. 

The episodes are short but so full of information that they don’t feel it. It is like if you distilled other podcasts down so that all you’re left with are the pure, interesting tidbits and factoids, the actual WHAT and HOW. 

That is what this is. Which is all I am really looking for anyways. Sweet, concentrated, juicy factoids about all the stuff.

Thank you, Villardciraptor! Many other dealers, I mean podcasters, will dilute their product and fill it with meaningless banter between the hosts. Here, I guarantee that you will always get the pure, unadulterated, good stuff. 

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.