Editor’s note: Following is the first in a three-part series written by Heather Clay and supported by the Sustainable Environmental Network Society (SENS).
Honey bees are a vital part of our natural environment. They are responsible for pollinating most of our fruit crops, vegetables, tree-nuts and seeds. There are very few plants (mostly grasses such as wheat, oats, rice, barley, corn) that do not require some form of insect pollination for reproduction.
Although honey bees are adapted to foraging on a wide variety of flowering plants, they are not the only creatures that initiate plant reproduction. Beetles, ants, butterflies, hummingbirds and some bats assist in the transfer of pollen from male anthers to the female ovary of another flower. Pollination is key to producing our food crops. Pollinators are responsible for at least one third of all the food we eat.
By far the most prolific pollinator is the honey bee. There are almost 700,000 colonies of managed honey bees in Canada and many of these are used for commercial pollination of agricultural crops. Beekeepers provide honey bee colonies on a fee-for-service basis to assist farmers increase their crop production.
It has been estimated that honey bees double, and in some cases quadruple, the production of flowering crops. Agriculture Agri-Food Canada has calculated the value honey bees bring to the increase in food crop production is more than $2 billion. With the increase of industrial farming, surging pesticide use and the clearing of land from fence to fence, the populations of native pollinators have been negatively impacted. Managed colonies of honey bees are in big demand. Without honey bees there would be less food, fewer choices and the diminished variety would be more expensive.
Honey bees are not only great pollinators, they also produce our favourite sweetener, honey. Female forager bees collect nectar and pollen to feed the bees and their brood in the hive. The sugary nectar produced by plants is carried back to the bee hive in a special part of the bee’s esophagus that is called a “sac.” On returning to the hive the bee unloads her “sac” of nectar to a waiting worker bee. An enzyme is added to the nectar by the worker bee and she passes the sweet liquid to another worker bee and so on until the water content is reduced from 70 per cent to 20 per cent. It is then placed into a cell of the honey comb. Slowly the plant sugars are converted to honey. Bees help the process by fanning their wings to help evaporation of the excess water. When the honey is ripe, worker bees close the cell with a cap of white wax. Honey is a complex product with less than 18 per cent water and more than 72 per cent of carbohydrates in the form of major monosaccharide and minor oligosaccharide sugars, trace vitamins and minerals.
If stored correctly, honey will last indefinitely. No wonder urban beekeeping is on the rise as more people want to experience the fun and benefits of honey bees in their lives.
A honey bee colony contains 40,000-80,000 bees.
A teaspoon of honey requires 100,000 foraging trips by honey bees.
One forager bee working 10 hours a day will make 195 trips a day.
A honey bee flies up to 24 km /hr and its wings beat 200 times per second or 12,000 beats /minute.
There are more than 970 species of native bees in Canada — 90 per cent of them are solitary and do not live in colonies.
Trace amounts of vitamins C, B and sometimes A, D and K are present in unheated honey. Honey has antimicrobial properties that make it suitable for treating many conditions caused by bacteria, even Methicillin Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA).
Heather Clay was CEO of the Canadian Honey Council and recently founded the Urban Bee Network, www.urbanbeenetwork.ca, a project to provide information for small-scale beekeepers. For more information on SENS, to become a member or to volunteer, please contact Julia at 250-542-0892, or see wwwsensociety.org.