Friday, October 8, 2010

Pollen Face, I Love You

Bees collect nectar from flowers and they also collect a fine powdery substance called pollen.
[This is one of my honey bees, covered in pollen from golden rod flowers. They bloom in the fall. You'll often see them alongside highways, fields and the woods].
Pollen comes in many colours such as: White, yellow, red, orange, blue, purple, green and even black .
[Can you see the coloured pollen in these honeycomb cells? What colours do you see?]
How does pollen get its colour? From the flower. The next time you see flowers, look at the centers. What colour is the powdery pollen? Every flower has its own unique colour.
Some flowers such as poppies and tulips can have black pollen. I'm sure the black pollen tastes just as nice as the red or yellow.

Even tiny flowers can have pollen.

Have you ever stuck your nose into a flower to sniff its perfume? I've done that and I got the yellow powder on my nose. That made me a little bit like a bee.

Pollen is part of the life force of a plant and its needed for a plant to produce its babies...seeds. Those seeds will make new flowers.

Flowers have a special relationship with bees and they are reliant on the bees to help them to create their seeds.

Bees have a special relationship with flowers and they are reliant on the flower's pollen to use as food for their babies.

They need each other for their survival: The flower and the bee.

Here's how it works:

Each flower creates its own unique pollen. The pollen on one flower needs to be put into another flower.

But how can it get there? Flowers don't have legs to walk over and mix their pollin into another flower.

But the flowers know someone who can carry their pollen from one flower to the next. Can use guess who that someone is? Yes, it's the bees.

The bee will fly into a flower. As she digs down into it her fur will become coated with pollen. Her fur is specially designed to hold pollen.

Actually, when a bee flies, her body creates static electricity and that also helps the pollen to stick to her fur. (I'll tell you more about static electricity another time).

The bee will use her legs to scrape some of that pollen up. Then she'll add some of her spit and honey to it to moisten it. Then she'll stick it to her back leg where there's really stiff hairs that will hold it in place.

After that she's ready to fly home to drop off her packages. Then she'll go out and look for more flowers and more pollen.

Pollen is very important to bees because it's full of protein. Baby bee larvae need to eat pollen so they'll grow healthy and strong. Just like how you and I need protein too so we'll grow.

Some people like to eat pollen as a health food or to help their allergies to flowers to be not so bad. Pollen is nutritious and it's full of vitamins. It tastes like flour with sugar added to it. No wonder the bees like it.

This is a tray of pollen that a beekeeper has collected. You can see that it's mostly a green colour. The beekeeper will put this pollen in a jar to sell to people. (In another story I'll tell you how the beekeeper collects pollen from the bees).

Some flowers don't need bees to mix their pollen for them. Plants like wheat that grows in the field (used to make your bread) are pollinated by the wind blowing.
Most flowering plants also offer Nectar to bees. I'll tell you about that next time.

Do you have a question about bees? If you do, you can leave a question in the comments section or you can contact me through my website:

Monday, October 4, 2010

Bees Have Teeth!

They do have teeth. They really do.

But these teeth aren't for chewing.

We covered mouth parts of the bee previously where we looked at bee mandibles that open and close like a gate and their long soft pointy tongue called a probocsis.
But there are no teeth in a bee's mouth.

So, where are the teeth? On their wings of course!
Are you wondering why a bee would have teeth on their wings? To make it easier to fly of course.
[Note: All these photos are of bumble bees and not honey bees. It's just the photos were really nice wing shots so I wanted to use them].

Here's Why: Bees have four wings. They have a larger wing and a smaller wing on each side.
Most of the time if we see a bee just standing there we see two wings. What we're seeing is the large wings closed up and sitting on top of the smaller wings.

Why do they have four wings? To make flying easier.

When a bee wants to fly she locks the larger and smaller wings together with tiny zipper-like teeth that are located on the edge of the wing.

Once the wings are locked they form two nice large flying wings.

Here's some honey bee flying facts:

* A honeybee can fly 24 km in an hour at a speed of 15 mph.

* Its wings beat 200 times per second or 12,000 beats per minute.

* Most bees fly in a range of about 5 miles from their hive looking for pollen and nectar.

When inside the hive, or when working inside a flower, bees unlock the teeth so they can move their wings over their back.
They do that so their wings won't get damaged while they're working.

A honey bee will also tuck her wings on her back so she can dunk down inside a honeycomb cell.

Bees don't just use their wings for flying. They'll also use them as fans to send out their scents for the other bees to smell. Some of their scents can be "home smell" so a bee outside foraging will be able to sniff her way home.

Another smell could be "Red Alert we're under attack". I bet you can guess what that message means. Yes, sting!

On hot summer days the bees will use their wings as fans to cool the hive by moving hot air out of the hive and bringing cool air in. This is called ventilating the hive.
Bees can do air conditioning to cool the hive on hot days too, but that's another story I'll tell you about another time.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Nurse Bee

I especially love nurse bees. They are most often newly hatched bees. A newly hatched baby bee will have lots of soft golden fur.

They spend most of their time working inside the hive as a house bee.

Nurses take care of their baby sister and brother larvae. Bees have four stages in their life cycle: Egg, Larva (worm); Pupa, and Bee.

Have you ever had to babysit or take care of your brothers and sisters? If so, then you know what it's like to be a nurse bee.

Nurses take care of the eggs and larva. They feed young larva a pudding-like food called royal jelly and they feed older larvae a mixture of pollen and honey, called bee bread.

[Click on the picture above to enlarge. Then look closely at the cells that aren't capped. Can you see the tiny white larvae curled up inside? Those are the babies that the nurses are taking care of].

They also keep the babies warm. The workers will shiver their wing muscles which generates heat and they will cluster in a mass on top of the honeycombs where the babies are, sharing their body heat.

[Click to enlarge this photo - look carefully at the cells in the middle of the photo. Can you see the tiny rice-like eggs? They will hatch in three days.]

Bees really love their babies and they do everything they can to protect and take care of them.

Nurse bees really are devoted caregivers.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Let's Talk About: The Stinger

It's the first thing that most people think of when you say the word "bee". They think Stinger.

I hope that will change and instead people will learn more about bees. Think of their soft buzzing, how much they care for their babies and family and how they work together to make the sweetest thing on earth: Honey.
[This is a honey bee stinging a person. Photo from].

Attached to the stinger is a tiny sac filled with venom (the white part is the sac). The sac also has a muscle attached that pumps the venom and helps to drive the stinger deeper into the skin--even after it's been torn away from the bee this muscle keeps pumping for about 20 minutes.

When the stinger pierces the skin of a human or an animal, like a skunk, bear or raccoon, it sticks because it has little barbs on it that catch and hold on flesh. When the bee flies away, her stinger is torn away, along with the end of her abdomen, and often some of their insides too.

It's not very pleasant for the person being stung, or for the bee, who will die.
[This is a much magnified drawing of the bee's stinger. Can you see the venom sac attached?]
Wasps and hornets don't have barbs on their stingers so they can sting multiple times without dying.

Honey bees can sting other insects many times without dying because the stinger's barbs won't stick in insect flesh because it's so pulpy.

Okay, that's the scientific part. But the human part is, "OUCH! That hurt!"

What to do if you've been stung:
If you've been stung, look at the spot where your skin was pierced. Is there a tiny black stinger in your skin? There might even be the venom sac attached. If it's there, immediately scrape it away. The longer the stinger sticks in your skin the more venom that little muscle will pump. The more venom you get, the more pain and swelling you will have.

The sting may be painful at first and there is often redness and swelling and then it'll become itchy. The swelling and itchiness will last a few days. Try your best not to scratch or it will become more itchy. I have learned this and I do my best not to scratch stings. I find they don't swell so much and the itchiness goes away faster that way. Cold compresses put on right away are helpful to reduce swelling too.

Bee Attitude
Honey bees knows they will die if they sting someone. Because of that they don't want to sting unless they feel threatened or that it's necessary to protect their hive. When bees are away from their hive foraging they don't feel so protective. In fact, they're too busy collecting food to be bothered with people. Even when beekeepers open the hive, most of the time the bees will be gentle.

When my Dad and I work on our hives, we very rarely get stung. Most of the time if we do, it'll be our fault because we accidentally squished a bee with our finger, and she stings to say, "Hey, get off me!"
Honey bees only eat nectar and pollen. If you're having a picnic or are eating a candy apple and a "bee" is bothering you, take a closer look. It won't be a bee. It'll be a wasp, most likely a yellow jacket. Wasps and hornets are omnivorous - that means they eat everything: Sugar, Meat, Nectar, etc., and yellow jackets really love tuna fish sandwiches and orange pop.
We all say "stung by a bee" but 99% of the time when people are stung it's by that yellow jacket when we're enjoying food outside.

Bees don't bite, so the term "bitten by a bee" or "bitten by a wasp" isn't true. Their mouth parts aren't big or strong enough to do much biting. When these stinging insects are going about their business flying around, their stingers are retracted inside their bodies.

Stung on Purpose? Are you Crazy?
Some people use a technique where they make honey bees sting them on certain spots on their body--on purpose. It's considered as a treatment for an illness or for pain. It's called Apitherapy. I have noticed that after I got stung on my arm, that the stiffness that I usually have in my hands every day went away for over a week. Dad noticed the arthritis in his hands was gone after he got stung. Opinions vary about this so if you're interested to know more you can do some research on the Internet.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Bees - Frequently Asked Questions

What does it mean when a bee head butts someone?

Bees are not completely predictable but they can and do often warn a person or creature if they are feeling threatened. Head butting is a sure sign that you are too close and a sting is likely to follow. If you feel a bee, wasp or hornet give you a head butt you should immediately back away.

How do bees communicate?

Bees communicate with each other in various ways. They use different chemical signals to send messages to their hive mates. The Queen releases Queen pheromones (her own special perfume) which help to keep the bees working and organized. Her scent also lets them know she is in residence. Bees have a defensive posture that they can use when guarding the hive and they can also release attack pheromones. Bees also do several kinds of dances to communicate the exact location of a good source of nectar and pollen so that other bees can find it. Scientists are now discovering that bees communicate through vibrations in their honey comb too.

Where does beeswax come from?

Beeswax comes from the bees themselves. As a bee matures while working inside the hive they will begin to secrete wax. There are 8 glands or pockets on the bees' stomach. The wax leaks out into these pockets, at first as a liquid and then when it cools it turns into white wax. The wax sits in the stomach pockets until the bee uses its leg to pull a piece out. The worker will chew the wax and mold it with her mandibles to build the honeycombs.

Can all bees sting?

No, not all bees can sting. The male bee, called a drone, has no stinger at all. The worker bees are female and they can sting, but young bees who are working inside a hive may not have developed their venom glands yet so would be unable to sting. A worker bee can only sting a human or animal once and then will die. Their stinger has tiny barbs that catch in flesh and so when they sting their bottom gets torn off. The Queen can sting but it is rare for a Queen to sting a person. She can sting multiple times. [Pictured here is a honey bee drone. They enjoy visiting and having their pictures taken].

Note that hornets and wasps who have no barbs on their stinger and can sting multiple times.

What is a Killer Bee?

Killer Bee is a term that has been given to African Honey Bees. You may be wondering how African honey bees ended up in North America. Many years ago a scientist in South America was doing experimental breeding with African honey bees. African honey bees are well known for being fantastic honey producers. The only problem is that they are also very enthusiastic about protecting their honey--they're aggressive and don't hesitate to sting. The scientist was trying to breed African honey bees with South American bees to try to take advantage of the honey producing genetics, but create calmer and more placid bees by crossing them with South American bees.

But the scientist took a day off and a person who was taking care of the bee yard saw these little entrances on the front of the scientist's hives. These entrances were designed to prevent the African queen bees from leaving the hive to breed in the wild. But the person didn't know and removed the special entrances. The African queens did leave the hive and breed with wild bees. Very quickly this bee species spread through South America, into Mexico and from there the southern parts of the USA. So far this bee has not been seen in the northern and more colder parts of North America. The term now used to describe these hybrid bees (bees who have bred with domestic and wild North American bees) is "Africanized Bees".

Why does the honey in the store say "100% Canadian Honey" but in the small print it says it may be blended with honey from Brazil and Argentina?

Beekeepers have been working very hard for years to try to get the labelling changed to better reflect the reality. Often Canadian honey which is prized for its flavour around the world, is mixed with cheaper honeys from other countries. Beekeepers have had to lobby government for many years to win a labelling change and it hoped that soon this will be changed. That would mean that 100% Canadian Honey will be just that.

Do you have a question about honey bees? If you do, leave me a comment and I'll post a reply.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Vampire Mite Says: I Want to Suck Your Hymolyph

If you were a vampire and you wanted to drink a bees' blood, that's what you'd say.

There really are tiny vampires that want to suck the bees' blood. Maybe you have heard of them? They're little insects called Varroa Mites.

We say bees' blood, but in truth bees don't have red blood like we do.

Insect blood is called hymolpth and it's a white and yellow colour. If you've been in the car when a bug hits the windshield, that's their hymolpth splattered on the glass.
[Pictured above is a round brown Varroa Mite. It's like a bee flea. It's actual size is about the same as a pin head].

No matter the colour, bees' blood is just as important to the function of their healthy body as our blood is to us.
[This is a bee I photographed at my home. When I made the picture large (click to make it large) I can see a mite on the top of the bees abdomen. Can you see it too? It's riding on the bee.
The bee is busy working hard, trying to collect pollen and nectar to feed her family. Meanwhile, the mite rides along and sucks her blood.

The mites are shaped round and flat. They have little sucker feet that cling to the bees' fur.
Beekeepers are working very hard to raise bees that like to clean their bodies a lot. When a bee cleans frequently, they brush off the mites and they fall to the bottom of the hive.
The beekeeper puts a special board at the bottom of the hive, called a sticky board. I grease my board with Crisco Shortening to make it sticky.
When the mite falls off the bee, she wants to climb back up the hive to get on another bee. The sticky board holds the mite at the bottom of the hive so she can't.
[See the photo of my sticky board from the bottom of the hive. There's dropped bits of pollen, bits of wax, and the occasional wing or bee leg from bees that have died. I've circled 3 mites in red for you to see].
This magnified photo is of a bee larva that's been removed from its cell. Can you see several brown mites? There are 5 of them sucking the larva's blood.
The larva can't fight back because it has finished growing yet. It's not a fair fight is it?
When the bee hatches the mites will come out of the cell with the bee and ride on the bee, clinging to it's fur.
Mites were accidentally brought to the USA just over ten years ago. They have spread very quickly all over North America and also the world. They were able to spread quickly because they ride on bees that fly. (They don't need their own wings when they can hitch a ride on a bee).
The bees are also shipped by planes and trucks to help pollinate fruits and vegetables and the mites travelled with them. That help them spread across our country faster.
Beekeepers and bees are fighting together to find a way to stop the spread of Varroa mites from killing bee hives.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Bees have Mummies Part II

Yuck! What are these?

(Click the photo to make it bigger so you can see).

This a mixture of stuff taken from the bottom of a bee hive in spring.
There's bits of pollen, dropped by the bees, bits of chewed up beeswax, the occasional wing or parts of dead bees and a pile of dried up mummified bee larvae.
The white and gray coloured bits are mummies made from dead bee larvae.

It's a sad but true fact that there is a fungus that can sometimes get in a bee hive. It's called Chalkbrood and it can infect a hive in spring if there's too much moisture inside the hive.
Beekeepers call baby bees that are at the larvae (worm) stage brood.
The Chalkbrood fungus eats away at these larvae brood while they're in their honeycomb cells.
Slowly it eats them up and turns them into hard white mummified corpses that look like pieces of chalk.
That's how Chalkbrood got its name.

A hive with the Chalkbrood fungus doesn't have to die. A beekeeper can ensure it gets more ventilation and that help to dry things up.

Did you know that bees can also have another kind of Mummy that is in a real tomb just like an Egyptian Pharaoh?

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Honey Comb and Soap Bubbles

Did you know that honeycomb and soap bubbles have a lot in common?

Well, they do.

Can you see the photo of a single soap bubble on my hand? Do you see that the bubble is round?

When soap bubbles are on their own, they're round.

You can try this experiment yourself to see if it's correct.

All you need is some soap (and Mom will be very glad to know you've washed your hands).

Now watch what happens to the single bubble once it touches other bubbles.

Can you see what happened? It changed its shape.

The sides of the soap bubble become slanted and it changes to a honeycomb shape as soon as it touches other bubbles.

Did you know that honey bees make their honeycombs like a soap bubble?
But if I asked you to draw honeycomb you would draw it with six sides - in a shape called a hexagon.

Beeswax combs end up with six sides after the bees build them but they all start off round.

Yes, round. Like a single soap bubble.

Each honeycomb cell touches another cell.

Then the bees do something really neat. They warm up the wax combs, until they melt a bit.
They'll warm them up to between 37 and 40 degrees Celsius.
Once the combs are warmed, they'll shift into a six sided hexagon shape because of the tension created by the walls touching each other.

Here's some newly made round combs that you can see.
When you count the sides, you'll find there are six--a lovely hexagon.

Below are some more photos of frames I'm holding up.
Are you wondering why the combs in the photo below are brown coloured and why the combs in the photos at the top are white?
There is an answer.
New combs are clean and fresh and look white.
But after thousands of bees walk over the combs month after month, all their sticky little feet leave traffic stains on the comb which turns them brown.

Now you can look around and see all the different ways that humans have copied the honeycomb pattern in their designs and architecture.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Bees have Mummies Part I

Did you know that bees hives are a lot like Pharoah and his tomb?

We know that bees like to keep their home warm and dry. Pretty well all creatures that live outside must find some kind of home that is comfortable.

In winter the bees don't hibernate. Instead they're awake and active inside their hive all winter. That's why they need to store so much honey. It's their food to last them all winter long until the spring flowers bloom. I mentioned in the last post how the bees keep each other warm in a cluster.

Often other animals that are outside are looking for a warm place to live. They'll often see the nice bee hive. Then they'll go inside and find it nice and dry and they'll decide to stay and live there. Mice really like to live inside bee hives and can sometimes build nests inside them. But the mouse might have forgotten that bees can sting and the bees can sting the mouse until it dies.

Sometimes the mouse will die inside the hive. This is not acceptable at all to the bees who must keep their hive clean. The mouse isn't very clean to begin with and soon it will begin to smell and rot. Ewwww! The bees have a big problem. The mouse is much too big for the bees to carry out of the hive. Because they can't carry it out they will leave it there and instead they will cover the mouse completely.

[This is a sticky glob of propolis that I scraped from a hive].

They'll take their sticky waterproof propolis and they will coat if over and over the mouse until the body is completely covered. This creates a seal over the mouse kind of like a plastic ziplock lunch bag. Now the hive will stay clean from the dirty mouse.

[Because I haven't had a mouse inside my hives I don't have a photo of it to show you. Now that should be a good thing. See the propolis marks on the wood? The bees have used it to glue the frames of the hive into place.]

And the mouse? Its body is now inside a very dry propolis tomb just like a pharoah in Egypt. Over time the mouse's body will dry up just like an Egyptian mummy.

Now you can see that the bee hive isn't much different than a Pharoah's tomb. It's filled with a treasure of golden honey and sometimes even a mummy in a tomb.

Next I'll tell you about another kind of small mummy in a bee hive.


Soon winter will come or it might be spring with many cold and rainy wet days. If you're a bee living inside a hive with your brothers and sisters you snuggle with each other on cold days to keep warm.

[See the reddish brown coloured stuff on the edge of the frame at left - that's propolis]

Beekeepers call snuggling "clustering". The bees gather together in a clump and they shiver their wing muscles. This creates heat to keep each other warm. Their beeswax also absorbs the heat from the bees and this warms the hive too.

Have you ever put your hand on a rock at night after a sunny day or the bricks of your house? Often you'll find the rock or the bricks are still warm. They've absorbed the heat. Beeswax works like that too.

[This is a peanut butter coloured clump of propolis I collected from a hive]

Sometimes the wind or rain will come inside the hive through the cracks between the wooden boxes. Or if they are wild bees living in a hollow tree there might be a crack in the hollow that lets the rain and snow in. We know that bees are pretty smart and they do have a way to solve this problem of rain or cold drafts coming in.

How do they do it? They fill in the cracks in their home. People do that too to keep their heat inside. Often they'll use that pink insulation or a white stuff called caulking. They'll squeeze it from a tube into the area around windows and doors. It helps to keep the house waterproof and warm.

Bees use caulking too. Theirs is made by nature. It's called propolis. You say it like this: pro-pol-lis.

Propolis is a sticky sap that the bees collect from the buds of trees. The bee scrapes it off with her mandibles and then attaches it to her pollen baskets. Once she has a load she'll return to her hive and go to the construction area of the hive.

The construction bees will take the propolis and mix it with their spit and a bit of beeswax. Then they'll take it and stuff it into the cracks and holes in their hive. It works like a glue to hold things together and it's also waterproof so it'll keep the rain outside.

[See the propolis mixed with wax pictured on the left side of this frame of honeycomb]

Bees really love to use propolis to glue down the frames of honeycomb in their hive. I suppose they'd prefer if the beekeeper didn't remove the frames ever but the beekeeper will need to take the frames out on occasion to check on the health of the bees and to gather honey. The bees will re-glue things back down again once the frames are put back in.

If you know bees are smart then you'll really want to learn one other really cool thing they can do with propolis. They can make Mummies.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Parts of the Bee: The Tongue (Proboscis)

This closeup photo shows a worker bee. She's quite happy to be sitting on my metal hive tool.

Do you know why? Because there's honey on it. She has her tongue out and she's licking it off.

The bee doesn't have lips like you and I. Instead she has mandibles. They're like to hinged gates that open and close at the middle. The bee uses her mandibles when she needs to chew something such as beeswax when making honeycombs. She'll also use her mandibles the same as we use our hands. She'll pick something a piece of garbage that she'll then carry out of the hive to throw away.

Her tongue, called a proboscis is long and pointy--so is yours if you stick it out as far as you can--her tongue is soft like yours too.

Bees need long tongues so that they can reach into flowers to where the nectar is.

The bees' tongue works like a straw. The bee unrolls her tongue and dips it into a flower. Then she sucks up the nectar like you would drink from a straw.

Bees will also use their tongues like a cat to lick their fur to keep themselves clean. They'll also lick and clean each other and their mother the queen.

Their tongues are also used like brooms to lick the inside of their hive to keep it clean. At least we don't have to lick our bodies to keep them clean.

Parts of the Bee: The body

Here's a painting I did of a worker honey bee. Let's look at the different parts of her body.

Starting at the head you'll see she actually has five eyes and not just two.

Her compound eyes are for seeing in the day time. Her three small ocelli eyes are to see in the dark - like when the sun is setting and she's flying home loaded with nectar or pollen. Or she could be inside the hive where it's always dark and they help her see.

She has two antennae that are attached in the middle of her face. These are super sensitive and the bees use them for many things like smelling. They twitch and twirl their antennae a lot and it's interesting to watch them touching each other and their honeycombs with their antennae. When I watch them twitching their antennae it looks like they are talking with them.

A bee's mouth is really interesting. Bees have mandibles which are like two gates on hinges that come together in the middle. Her tongue is really long and soft. It's called a proboscis (say it like this: Pro-bow-sis). I'll cover the tongue in detail in another post but I want to clarify that bees can't really bite you. I mean they can bite, but their mouth is so small that they really wouldn't be able to get enough skin for you to feel it. Their stinger though is another matter.

Of course the female worker bee has a stinger, but she'll die if she uses it. Because of that honey bees don't like to sting unless they feel really threatened and think it's necessary.

Bees can be a golden or lighter yellow colour with brown to black stripes. They also have four wings, two on each side and she has two stomachs - one is a regular stomach for food and the other is a honey stomach where she stores either nectar or water that she brings back to the hive.

The honey bee is furry all over. She has hair on her back, her stomach, her legs and even in her eyes. These hairs are useful for two reasons. They keep her warm on colder days so she can fly out earlier in the morning and she can stay out later in the day. But more important, her fur is will collect and hold all the pollen when she goes into a flower.

That's she'll use her legs--she has six of them. Six legs means you're an insect. She'll sweep over her body, gathering up the tiny grains of pollen using her legs. Then she'll add some nectar to it to the powdery pollen make a slightly sticky damp mixture.

On her back legs are her pollen baskets - they're made up of a collection of stiff hairs. The worker bee will take the damp pollen mixture and stick it onto the stiff hairs kind of like how your hairs get caught in a brush when you brush your hair. Have you ever seen a honey bee or bumble bee with the yellow lumps on their back legs? That's their collected pollen stuck like suitcases on their back legs.

Once her baskets are loaded with pollen it's time for her to fly home to unload the food for her brothers and sisters to eat.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Throw Me Some Honey Please!

In Italy a very very very long time ago, before any of us were born. People in Europe and North America didn't have white sugar to make things sweet.

Instead they had something better--honey. The people loved honey and the bees that made it. They understood how very special the little insect was. Most homes kept bee hives so they'd have honey at hand. People that didn't keep bees would buy it.

Back then, honey was eaten in the comb. The beekeeper would cut chunks of honeycomb out of the hive. People would then take their spoons and dig into it and eat it--both the honeycomb and the honey. They'd spread it on their toast and drop a chunk into their porridge.

They would also crush the honey combs and leave them sitting for hours so that the honey would all drip out so they'd have liquid honey to put in jars.

Back then, they didn't know a special trick could be used to remove the honey from the combs without destroying them. Back then the only way to get the liquid honey was to crush the combs.

It took a child to show the adults what to do.

Imagine yourself as a child in 1869 (well over a hundred years ago). Your father is a Major in the Italian army and he gives you a basket with a string on the handle. Inside the basket is some honeycomb with the caps cut off. He's asked you to carry the basket.

Would you hold the basket carefully so it didn't rock or move? What might you be tempted to do if you felt like playing? Do you think you might be temped to swing the basket around by the string?

That's exactly what Major Hruschka's son did. He swung that basket around by the string and something happened--something important--the honey was thrown out of the honeycombs by the centrifugal force of the swinging. The next great thing that happened was that Major Hruschka didn't get mad about the messy honey that leaked inside the basket.

Instead he saw that it was possible to throw honey out of combs without crushing them and that was something no one had realized before.

That moment when you learn something new that's really important is often called an Eureka moment. It was a special moment.

Major Hruschka then set to work to make a machine that would throw the honey from the combs by spinning them just like the basket on the string. That's where the first machine, called a honey extractor, came from.

We still use the extracting machines to this day. Some have hand cranks that turn the frames in a circle and others are electric.

The beekeeper takes a hot knife to cut just the caps off the honeycombs. Then the frames of comb are placed in the extractor and spun around. The honey drips out and runs to the bottom of the extractor. There's a tap there so the honey can be poured out into jars.

Once the combs are empty they are given back to the bees to refill. That meant a lot less work for the bees because they wouldn't have to make the honeycomb all over again.

I bet Major Hruschka let his son have all the honey he wanted to eat. And then guess what? After his invention Major Hruschka decided he'd like to become a beekeeper. And he did.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Honey on my Spoon

If you're curious like me you've probably wondered how honey gets from the bees to your kitchen and then to your waiting spoon.

Beekeepers keep their bees inside hollow boxes. The boxes have wooden frames that look like window panes (see the photo at left where I'm holding a frame). Instead of glass the frame is filled with honey combs built by the bees.

The bees will store their food (pollen and honey) inside the combs. Once the summer flowers bloom there is lots of nectar available for the bees to collect. They'll quickly fill all their frames with the nectar and they'll need more room.

The beekeeper keeps a close eye on the bees and will add another hollow box with frames so they have more room to store their food.
This photo at left shows a typical beehive. The white box is the bees' home where the babies are. The pink and purple boxes are filled with just honey.

Honey bees are well known for being obsessive about collecting nectar. They never know when to stop. A honey bee will not look at all their honeycombs full of honey and say, "We don't need any more." As long as flowers are offering nectar, the field bees will bring it home, collecting much more than they can eat.
This is a great blessing to us. Can you guess why? Yes, it means there will be extra honey for you and me.

Because the bees collect so much, the beekeeper will need to keep giving them more hollow boxes of frames to keep up with how much they're collecting.

Once fall comes and the flowers are finished blooming, the beekeeper can collect his share of the honey. The beekeeper only takes the extra honey from the bees that they won't need, leaving the rest of the honey for the bees to eat all winter long while they're on vacation inside their hive.

Next time, we'll take a look at how the beekeeper gets the honey out of the honey combs.

In a summer with good weather, one hive can make as much as 100 pounds of extra honey. That's the honey you and I get to eat.

So, get your spoon out and get ready to taste that honey! Yum.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Bees are Born Twice

I guess you could say they get born and then they get born again.

How on earth do they do that? It's simple really. First the queen lays an egg in the bottom of a honey comb cell. After three days the egg hatches and a teeny tiny larva is born. So that's the first birth.

The larva is really small for a few days but nurse bees will come along many times each day and add a white pudding-like food to the bottom of their cell. That food is called royal jelly and it makes the larva grow very big very quickly.

Soon the little white larvae will grow quite chubby and the nurse bees will feed it honey and pollen. At first the larvae will curl up in the bottom of their cells but soon they'll get so big that there's no more room to grow.

After about 9 days the worker larvae will know it's time for a big metamorphosis--a big change. The bees will come and put a cap on the larva's cell and then the larva will spin a cocoon. After it spins the cocoon it will pupate.

Then a few more days will go by. On the 21st day after being born the first time the pupae bee will be born the second time when it chews the cap off its cell and hatches as a baby bee.
(Click on the picture at left to see a closeup of the baby larva bees).

The baby bee will have a nice big meal of honey and then it'll be time to get to work, cleaning her cell and then helping out in the hive.

If she's lucky she might live for about a month. During her lifetime she'll care for her brothers and sisters, help take care of the queen and then one day work outside the hive gathering. In her whole life she'll produce about 1/12th a teaspoon of honey.

Can you picture how much honey is a 1/12th of a teaspoon?