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Observing Bees

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In Pennsylvania, there are 300 native species of bees. This little insect is critical to our food system because most of the things we eat rely on pollination. At Asbury Woods you can observe bees gathering pollen from flowers in our gardens, and even see an observation hive in a glass display in the Andrew J. Conner Nature Center.  What is a solitary bee? Just 10% of all bee species are considered “social” bees. They form hives with a queen, drones, and workers, and include honeybee and bumblebee species. The remaining 90% of bee species, the solitary bee, nests, and works alone. 

Honeybee culture

The most commonly known bee in the world is the honeybee. A honeybee is a social insect that collects nectar and pollen, produces honey and beeswax, and lives in large communities known as colonies. They are best known for their surplus production and storage of honey in beeswax structures called a comb. This surplus honey has been a sought-after prize for humans and animals alike throughout history. Humans and honeybees have had a long-standing relationship that goes back to ancient times. The practice of maintaining honeybees in man-made hives is technically called “apiculture,” but is more commonly known as beekeeping. 

  • Queen – With only one queen per colony, her job is to lay fertilized eggs to make more drone and worker bees. When another queen be born, the older queen will leave with about half of the worker bees and establish a new colony.
  • Drone – Their role is to mate with the queen. They have no stinger to defend themselves since they stay in the hive. Once they mate with the queen, drone bees die. A queen mates with 10-20 drones in her lifetime, which is critical to genetic diversity in the hive. In the summer, drones help keep the hive cool by flapping their wings.
  • Worker – Worker bees are sterilized females that go right to work after emerging from her cell in the honeycomb. The first job is to feed eggs and larvae, as she matures she’ll take on the role of maintaining the hive. Once ready, she’ll be experienced enough to leave the hive to forage for nectar and pollen. In the summer, worker bees live for an average of 15-38 days.

Summer is the best time to watch bees land on a flower and cover themselves in pollen. You can observe bees in the Carrie T. Watson Garden, Celebration Garden, in the meadow, and even at our hives by the Chestnut Grove. For an up-close view, head into the Nature Center, where you can see an enclosed hive in action.

 

Beekeeping

Beekeeping is an important part of human history around the world. While the practices used by beekeepers have changed throughout history, our love of the sweet honey produced by bees has endured. Honey harvesting began in ancient times when early humans followed honeybees to their nests and worked to “steal” honey from the wild comb, often resulting in injury to the honey hunters. Historical records show the use of man-made hives as early as 2400 B.C.

Despite the long history of beekeeping and honey consumption, beekeeping, as we know it today, was developed around the early 1800s. Both the standardization of equipment and improvement in the treatment of the bees occurred at this time. Two of America’s most well-known presidents – George Washington and Thomas Jefferson – are documented as having beehives on their property in the late 1700s and early 1800s. While they may not have actively tended their own hives, they were both well-known lovers of honey, and letters written by his property overseer mention Thomas Jefferson’s visits to the forty hives on his property, which was quite a large number of hives to keep at that time. Many of the practices and tools used for beekeeping in the 1800s are still used today. 

Pollination

Like most bees, honeybees are important pollinators. While actively collecting and consuming their food, bees and other pollinators move pollen that clings to their bodies from plant to plant assisting in the fertilization process. Pollinators are responsible for the survival of 30% of the human food supply and 90% of wild plants.

Bee a Champion

Over the years, bee populations have faced challenges like colony collapse disorder, reduction in food sources, and habitat loss. You can help bee populations succeed by:

  • If you see a colony-forming in an undesirable place, like outside a door, or even in your house, call a local beekeeper. They will safely relocate the hive.
  • Reducing or eliminating pesticide use.
  • Plant more native species around your property
  • Offer shelter with a bee block or by drilling holes into a dead tree

If you want to learn more about the social life of bees, watch our educational video.

What is a Solitary Bee?

Just 10% of all bee species are considered “social” bees. They form hives with a queen, drones, and workers, and include honeybee and bumblebee species. The remaining 90% of bee species, the solitary bee, nests, and works alone. Solitary bees are too busy doing all their own work to be aggressive guardians of their nests. 

These bee species are considered pollen spreaders. Since they don’t live in social hives, they require less pollen as a food source. Their bodies aren’t designed to hold pollen like the bodies of social bees. Most of the pollen gathered on the body of the solitary bee quickly falls off – and on to each of the subsequent flowers that the bee visits. 

Many people are familiar with honeybees, which are major pollinators of the world’s crops. What some people don’t realize, however, is that there are thousands of native and non-native solitary bee species that also aid in pollination. Solitary bees, unlike honeybees, do not live in a social structure. Some solitary bees nest in natural and man-made cavities. These can easily be provided with nesting habitats.

While female solitary bees nest individually in naturally occurring cavities, they can be encouraged to nest locally by providing a solitary bee house. Building a solitary bee house requires just a few key materials. First, create a frame, or wooden box, that is open in the front and closed in the back with a roof to keep rain from saturating the nesting blocks. Second, create several nesting blocks (enough to fill the frame). Nesting blocks can be made from pieces of wood, such as small logs or 2” X 4”s cut into smaller pieces. The bee house outer structure and nesting blocks can be made from a variety of common wood such as pine, spruce, and oak.

Solitary bees are easily overlooked but they are known to pollinate plants more efficiently than honeybees. They provide an essential pollination service, pollinating our crops and ensuring those plant communities are healthy and productive.