With its black and yellow stripes, its compound eyes, and hairy abdomen, the honey bee is certainly one of the insects most well-known to humans, with an essential role in the pollination of plants from natural and farmed ecosystems. The purpose of their bright color pattern is to warn potential predators that they are armed and prepared to defend themselves. Their weapon consists of what was originally an egg-laying tube, combined with a venom gland, that together form the stinger at the end of their abdomen. (Since the stinger is derived from a structure found only in female bees, the drones cannot sting). They measure between 1.2 and 1.6 cm, and their color changes from pale yellow and orange to darker brown once they emerge from the nest.
Honey bees feed solely on nectar (the sugary water) and pollen (the yellowish-brown powder-like substance found inside the flower) from flowering vegetation, which they collect using their mouthparts. The worker bees mix the two to form the “beebread” – a food rich in proteins they use to feed the larvae. They also gather water to dilute the honey before feeding it to their offspring. On occasions, honeybees collect the resin and gum of trees and turn it into a substance called propolis, which they use to cover unwanted openings and cracks in their hives to prevent mice and other invaders from trespassing on their property. A thin layer of propolis is also spread on the inside of the hive to protect it from disease.
Honey bees are social insects, and they live together in large, orderly family groups. Their social character enables them to engage in activities and tasks not performed by solitary insects, such as communication, complex nest construction, division of labor, defense of the hive, and environmental control.
Normally, they form hives that hold on average 20,000 individuals during the warm season, but domesticated hives can hold many more (up to 80,000 bees). There are three “castes” living in a hive: the queen, the worker bees, and the drones (males with a role in reproduction). All three types of bees have a similar appearance, except the queen has a longer and slender abdomen while drones have bigger eyes and broader abdomens. Worker bees are the ones taking upon themselves the bulk of work: the building of the nest, the collection of food, and the brood rearing. Although each bee is occupied with performing their assigned tasks, they combine their efforts when it comes to protecting their hive and ensuring the well-being of their young.
Effective communication throughout the hive is ensured by the “waggle” dances performed by the workers and the distribution of pheromones, which informs the other members of the hive about the direction and distance to flowers and water sources, as well as potential nesting sites. If work inside the hive is performed and depends largely upon worker bees, the evolution and the strength of the colony is the queen’s main concern, who also oversees the size of the worker force and quantity of stored food.
Pollination is the process of transferring the male sex cells (pollen grains) from the anther where they are produced to the stigma of the female organs of the same flower or another flower. While a number of plants grow themselves, such as leafy greens, beans, corn, onions, potatoes, etc., or with human help, such as tomatoes, eggplants, or squashes, numerous plants need help moving pollen from one flower to another in order to produce seeds. This service is primarily provided by bees, and not just honey bees, but also solitary bees and bumble bees, as well as by wasps, birds, flies, thrips, moths, ants, and many other insects.
One reason bees make excellent pollinators is because most of their lives is spent carrying pollen to feed the developing larvae. Their hairy bodies trap the pollen grains through electrostatic forces, while the hairs on their legs allow them to store it into special pockets on their bodies, where they keep it until unloading it at the nest. Bees often specialize on a certain type of flower at a time, which makes it more likely for an individual bee to carry the pollen from one flower to another flower of the same species. This process is called cross-pollination and is required by many types of plants in order to produce seeds. Other reasons that make bees viable pollinators include their body size, which allows them to pollinate flowers of different sizes and shapes, as well as the possibility of moving the bee colonies to the crops needing pollination.
In one trip that usually lasts from 30 minutes to 4 hours, a honeybee can visit between 50 and 1000 flowers. Given that a bee can easily make between 7 and 14 trips per day, a colony with an average of 25,000 bees is able to pollinate around 250 million flowers. A world without bees would be a world without flowering plants, and without flowering plants, many of the food people currently rely on would disappear. Studies estimate that bees are responsible for one third of all the food we currently eat. Honeybees, along with other pollinators, play a vital role in maintaining natural plant communities and ensuring the production of seeds in a large number of flowering plants.
In North America, around 30 percent of all the food people eat is obtained from crops pollinated by bees. Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada estimates that the value of pollination by bees exceeds $1 billion per year, while in the US the value is much larger: around $16 billion a year. Aside from pollinating our preferred fruit, vegetables, and nuts, bees also ensure the production of clover and alfalfa, crops essential for feeding cattle – fact that makes bees important for the meat and dairy industries, as well. Honey production from nearly 135,000 North American beekeepers caring for almost 2.5 million colonies exceeded $170 million in 2007.
While the world benefits greatly from honey bees’ services as pollinators and honey producers, they can also turn into serious pests at times. For instance, setting up a hive in high-traffic areas could pose serious – even life-threatening – risks for individuals with allergic reactions to their venom. During spring when flowers are numerous, bees feed on nectar and pollen, but when flowers are less numerous, in late summer and fall, they turn into robber bees, rummaging through trash containers and garbage bins for syrups, juices, and other sweet substances. They will also invade gardens and yards in search for overripe fruit.
Bee colonies will usually cause no structural damage to buildings, but occasionally, bees may use water to soften drywall in order to expand their nesting site. As a result, homeowners may notice a damp area on their wall – on rare occasions, it could turn into an open hole that serves bees as an entry point inside the house. Furthermore, in case of colonies found and killed that are not immediately removed from the premises, the ceiling may become damaged due to the honey in the hive fermenting and leaking through.
In certain conditions, a large bee colony may divide into one or more swarms that leave the hive in search for another nesting site. The process is called swarming and is the main bees’ method of colony reproduction. Swarms usually cluster for a while on exposed tree limbs, bushes near the original hive, and other such places until scout bees find a proper site where to establish a new home. A departing swarm consisting of 5,000 to 20,000 may appear as a frightening sight to people who aren’t familiar with such behavior. Although swarming bees are usually not aggressive, and they usually find a new home in a matter of days, many homeowners may become concerned of bees swarming in their yards during spring and summer.
As it happens, not all bees trespassing on your property are beneficial honeybees. Depending on their location, homeowners can distinguish between several types of bees:
The need for managing and controlling bee swarms and colonies depends on the nesting site and whether they actually pose serious risks due to the proximity to humans. Swarms residing for a day or two on your property should not be a concern (swarming bees are not aggressive and will not seek people’s company), but bees looking for nesting sites inside homes are a problem and need to be removed.
Removing swarm clusters: If the cluster needs to be removed, the best thing to do is call a beekeeper with experience in removing swarm clusters from tree limbs and bushes. The procedure usually involves brushing or shaking the bees into a box with an entrance that allows the flying bees to return to the group. Managing a cluster is fairly easy unless it is located in a tall tree or wedged into a corner of a building.
Removing hives from inside the house: If removing outdoor swarms is not that complicated, especially when the procedure is managed by an experienced beekeeper, removing colonies from inside homes is significantly more difficult and even dangerous. New hives are small and relatively easy to remove, but bees will rapidly build combs and begin to produce more bees. Halfway through the summer season, a bee colony can hold thousands of adult and developing bees, up to 100 pounds of honey, and several combs. Removing mature colonies is a challenge and should only be handled by specialized pest control professionals, with the necessary knowledge and tools for performing such tasks safely.
Pesticides are the control method of choice for managing bees inside buildings, but the most effective ones are available only for professional use. If the infestation is not properly handled by specialized pest control companies, it could pose additional problems for homeowners. First of all, dead bees remaining for a prolonged period in piles may rot and produce a bad odor, while the liquid from their decomposition may penetrate and damage the structure. Secondly, it is important to address not only adult bees, but also the undeveloped larvae, which can rot and become very odorous if not immediately removed. Honey stores that are left in the hive may ferment and retain moisture or may start seep through walls and perforate drywall, leading to costly replacements. Contacting a professional pest control company to assist with colony extractions and prevention is the best way for homeowners to prevent structural damage to their homes and other risks associated with bee infestations.