The purpose of the honeybee

Bees give us honey. It’s a wonderful food, and many people make a living by harvesting and selling honey.

Bees also pollinate many of our crops. Some estimate that up to 30 percent of what we eat is on our tables because of honeybees.

Important as these activities are to humans, neither is central to the purpose of honeybees — if you look at it from the bee’s perspective.

So what is? The central purpose of honeybees is the same as it is for all life on earth: to procreate.

You won’t find this is any books on how to keep bees. In fact, most beekeeping books will point you in exactly the opposite direction.

To understand this requires an understanding of a fundamental fact about honeybees. Honeybees do not live alone; they live in colonies or hives. Consequently, for honeybees to survive, they need to create new hives, not just new bees. A hive of bees will create a new hive by first producing a new queen.

What provokes a hive to do this is not well understood by apiarists. What we do know is that this is most likely to happen in the spring as the blooming season begins.

When a new queen is created, the old queen leaves the hive and takes some percentage of the bees with her. It could be as little as 25 percent or as much as 75 percent. Those bees fly out of the hive creating a swarm (see photo). Some apiarists term this process as “casting a swarm.”

That swarm alights in a tree limb or some other place and begins a search for a new home. If a beekeeper is lucky — that is, if the beekeeper can find the swarm and if it accessible (not too high in the tree) — the beekeeper can capture the swarm and provide a place for it, thus creating a new hive for the apiary. If the beekeeper can’t get to the swarm, it will find its own home, usually in the cavity of a hollow tree.

Once the swarm has settled into its new home, it will begin the process that will eventually lead it to casting another swarm. Meanwhile, the bees that were left in the original hive have a new queen. They, too, will begin the process of casting another swarm.

So where do beekeepers go wrong?

Most beekeeping books — and the beekeeping culture in general — counsel beekeepers on how to prevent swarms. The reason: when a hive casts a swarm, its ability to produce honey for that season is greatly reduced. Since many beekeepers sell their honey — and some make quite a good income from it — losing part of a hive to a swarm is not viewed as a positive thing.

In truth, however, the techniques that beekeepers have for preventing swarms are probably only marginally effective, if at all. Bees will swarm if the colony decides that what it should do. That’s what bees do. That’s how they stay alive.

For more information about swarms, take a look at Thomas Seeley‘s wonderful book, Honeybee Democracy. You will be mesmerized by the way that a swarm of bees decides on where its new home should be.

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About Jim Stovall

Jim Stovall, a retired journalism prof, is now a novelist, self publisher, watercolorist, gardener, woodworker and beekeeper -- among others things.

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