European honeybees (Apis mellifera), are not native to the US, but they are important for maintaining numerous native plants which comprise a lot of wildlife habitat. Brought to North America by the early settlers, honeybees are an important pollinator for many commercially produced crops. Native plants including persimmon, redbud, red maple, sumac, buttonbush, gallberry, blackberry and a wide assortment of showy flowered forbs also benefit from pollination by honeybees.
It is estimated that approximately one third of all plants or plant products consumed by humans are directly or indirectly dependent on bee pollination. In almond groves and blueberry farms, honeybees are responsible for 90-100% of the transfer of pollen grains from one plant to another as they collect pollen to take back to their hive. In addition to their pollinating services, honeybees contribute a variety of products to the U.S. economy.
Honey is the first to come to mind, but bees-wax, bee pollen and bee glue are also sold as products or components of products that include candy, candles, cosmetics and human health supplements. According to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, the value of bee pollination, honey and other bee products was estimated at more than 16 billion dollars in 2007. For insect-pollinated plants, honeybees are invaluable because they allow a variety of plants to persist and those plants also provide wildlife habitat in the form of food and shelter.
European honeybees are not aggressive by nature and will only sting when protecting their hive from an intruder. Bee hives are a highly organized society that may contain 60,000 to 80,000 bees during the peak of the season. Each individual bee has a specific role during its lifetime and only the queen bee has the ability to reproduce within the hive. Her primary responsibility is to mate once with several different drones during her single mating flight, then lay eggs throughout her 3 to 5 year lifespan. She will produce up to 2,000 eggs per day and fertilized eggs will become female (worker bees) while unfertilized eggs will become male (drone bees).
When the queen dies or become unproductive, the worker bees will develop a new queen by feeding a strict diet of a special substance known as ‘royal jelly’ to select larvae. It takes approximately 16 days for a new queen to emerge after the egg is laid. Worker bees are female bees that are not able to reproduce. Although they live longer in the winter months, their lifespan is 6 short weeks in the spring and summer.
A hive consists mainly of worker bees that are in charge of everything except for mating with the queen and laying eggs. Worker bees begin working in the hive as house-keeper, nurse-maid, construction worker, guard, and finally after 21 days, they work their way to a forager collecting pollen and nectar.
Drone bees are the only male bees found within a hive and their sole purpose is to mate with a virgin queen. They will die once they have mated and drones that do no mate will be expelled from a hive in the fall and winter. There are only a few hundred drones in a strong hive during the spring and summer.
Landowners managing for native honeybees on their property can maintain a commercial agricultural tax valuation or they can manage these bees from the wildlife side of things for a wildlife tax valuation. Either of these valuations are very good from a landowners perspective because it keeps annual taxes around one dollar per acre of land. Native bee and wildlife management is good for people and animals because it maintains open space, which is important for all.
Beekeepers monitor their hives regularly as a number of parasites and diseases can affect honeybees. Various mites, beetles and moths as well as foulbrood, chalkbrood, and sacbrood can weaken and destroy a hive in a matter of weeks if left untreated. Beekeepers around the world must now contend with an additional malady known as Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. Several years ago more than a quarter of the country’s 2.4 million bee colonies were lost to CCD, and research is ongoing to determine the exact cause.
Mites, viruses, bacteria, poor nutrition, genetics, habitat loss and a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids are all under review as factors contributing to CCD. If mitigating measures cannot be identified and implemented, the rate of decline may soon catch up to the survival rate. If that happens, both man and the animals that benefit from the bees will have a little less to eat.