Bees are a vital part of food production, pollinating at least 30% of domestic food crops and perhaps up to 90% of wild plants. Bees contribute over $14 billion to the economy through the crops they pollinate.
There are an estimated 2.4 million commercial bee colonies that are transported around the country to pollinate crops such as almonds, cherries, blueberries, alfalfa, and broccoli. This does not include the many private beehives that have been started in backyards across the US. Not only do bees make it possible to grow many different crops, they also produce several agricultural products themselves – mainly honey and beeswax.
We’re all familiar with honey, of course! That sweet, golden syrup has been sweetening foods and beverages for thousands of years. Speaking of thousands of years, that’s about how long honey remains “good.” Honey’s unique properties, like low water content and acidity level, allow it to remain unspoiled for long, long periods of time. Honey will crystallize, but warming it up will make it re-liquify and it’s as good as new!
Honey is made by the bees in their hive. Bees ingest nectar collected from flowers, then enzymes in their stomachs break down the nectar into simple sugars. The process takes about half an hour, after which the bees will transfer it into a cell in their hive to allow water to evaporate. When it has reached the desired sticky consistency, the bees will cap the honey cell to store it for later usage. Honey is a main source of food for bees as well as for humans. A hive of 50,000 bees will eat 120-200 pounds of honey throughout the year, and can produce enough to provide their beekeepers with an excess to sell or use themselves.
Beeswax is made by wax-producing glands on the worker bees’ abdomens. It is actually discarded by the worker bees (who are out collecting pollen), and collected by the hive bees, who then collect it and use it to build the hive’s comb. Beeswax cells are used to store honey and pollen, and as incubators for new bees as they grow from eggs to larvae to bees.
Beeswax directly from the bee is actually clear. It gets dirtied in the hive by pollen as it is formed into comb. Beeswax is harvested after the honey. The beeswax caps of honey cells are sliced off in order to extract the honey. These caps are collected, melted down, and refined to make the beeswax usable for a multitude of other purposes. Beeswax is found in cosmetics, candles, soaps, candies, crayons, bullets, perfumes, polishes, and many other products we use frequently. Like honey, beeswax never goes bad, and beeswax has been found in Viking ships, Egyptian tombs, and Roman ruins.
A few other interesting bits of information about bees:
Honeybees are the only insect that produce a food that humans eat.
Honeybees’ wings stroke up to 200 times per second, making the buzzing sound we hear.
A bee can fly as fast as 15 miles per hour!
A honeybee visits 50-100 flowers per trip.
The phrase “the bees knees” was first recorded in the late 18th century, and was used to mean “something small and insignificant.” In the 1920’s, though, its meaning morphed into “something outstanding or great.”
So, the next time you enjoy honey drizzled on your toast or in a cup of tea (or any other way!), you’ll know a bit more about how it got to your table!