'BEES are for LIFE, NOT just for HONEY'
- The Bee Guy
We're going to stick
with the basics here
DAILY BEE FACTS
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Say bee to most people and the word honey isn’t far away.
Followed by hives.
Then people dressed in protective clothing
that makes them look like astronauts at a local theatre group.
All relevant images but only a small part of a much much bigger story.
Bees have been around for approximately 130 million years and are a vegan descendant of wasps. (Humans have only been evolving for 6 million years).
Worldwide there around 20,000 different species of bee.
There are 4,000 species of bee in the US.
There are 270 species of bee in the UK.
Here in Ireland we have 99 species of bee.
21 of which are BUMBLEBEES – the big fluffy ones.
77 are SOLITARY BEES – the small cool ones.
and only 1 of which is the HONEY BEE. – the ones that mostly live in hives.
1 in 3 of our native wild bees are threatened with extinction right now.
ONE IN THREE!
BUMBLE BEES (THE BIG FURRY ONES)
Chances are if you notice a bee when out and about – its a bumblebee.
Generally active from March until September.
Lifecycle – Queens emerge from hibernation in Spring. They feed and search for a suitable site to establish a nest. Depending on species this will be in a hole in the ground, a hollow in a tree or hidden in long grass. Once the queen has settled upon a suitable nest site she moulds a small cup made of wax she secretes and fills this with a mixture of nectar and pollen which she has foraged from flowers, she lays her first batch of eggs and sits on them to keep them warm until they hatch. Her cup of nectar maintains her during this period.. This first brood will all be female workers who will then take on the tasks of foraging, nest maintenance and nursing. The queen will now remain in the nest producing new broods and overseeing her workers. Towards late summer the queen will produce a brood of males and then new queens. The males will leave the nest to find a mate from another nest. Likewise the new queens. Shortly afterwards all the female workers, the males and the old queen will die. The new queens will feed up and seek out a suitable spot for hibernation until the following spring when the cycle will repeat.
SOLITARY BEES (THE SMALL COOL LONERS)
Solitary bees make up the vast majority of bees in the world and yet are largely unrecognised by the general public.
These bees are generally smaller than bumblebees and honey bees and come in all shapes and colours.
Active usually for only a matter of weeks any time between spring and autumn depending on the species.
Lifecycle – Solitary bees generally complete their lifecycle within a year but most of their lives are spent in the nest. Males and females emerge from the nest in spring/summer. They mate and the male dies off soon after. The females then establish a nest by digging a small tunnel in the ground or settling upon an existing cavity. In this nest they will lay their eggs in individual pods and provide each egg with a store of nectar and pollen. The female then dies leaving her eggs to develop and the young to overwinter in the nest emerging as adults the following year and repeat the process.
HONEY BEES (THE HIVE KEPT ONES)
Honey bees are generally kept in hives and managed by humans. Unlike bumblebees and solitary bees honey bee queens can live for up to four years or longer. Her length of life will generally be determined by when the beekeeper or the colony decide to replace her.
Honey bee colonies usually survive through winter so long as they have enough food , can keep warm and don’t fall foul of disease and predation.
Female honey bees are either queens or workers. Males are drones.
The queen will leave the hive and mate (mid air) with up to a couple of dozen drones. She returns to the hive and starts laying eggs (up to 3000 per day) in egg cells which are made of wax and hexagonal in shape. As with bumblebees, fertilised eggs will become females and unfertilised eggs will become males. Eggs develop into larvae within a number of days. The larvae are fed by young worker bees who still have not left the nest. For the first three days they are fed royal jelly which is produced by young nurse bees – themselves less than two weeks old. After they are fed a mix of honey and pollen. Potential queens are fed only royal jelly.
After about six days the egg cell is covered in wax by worker bees and the larvae cocoon themselves and pupate. When fully formed the new adults emerge from the cell – eating through the wax cover.
From egg to adult takes male drones 24 days, workers up to 22 days and queens only 16 days.
At their peek a healthy hive during summer time can be home to up to 80,000 bees. During winter some of the workers die naturally, the male drones have been ejected from the nest as they don’t contribute and maybe some of the bees have swarmed to form a new colony but still the hive can house up to 20,000 workers and the queen. They form a winter cluster and ‘wait out’ the winter. No eggs are laid during this time and there are no young to nurse.
When spring comes back around and the heat returns the hive comes back to life workers start foraging and the queen starts laying eggs.
In an average hive of 50,000 bees there will be one queen, a couple of hundred male drones and the rest of the bees will be female workers.
Male drones don’t forage and on average live for about 8 weeks. Drones that mate with new queens die immediately.
Female worker lifespan will be different depending on the time of year they are produced. Spring and summer raised workers live for about 6 weeks and lead busy lives at this highly productive time of year for the colony. Autumn raised workers can live for up to 26 weeks. They have less to do and are primarily focused on the hive surviving the winter.
To produce 1kg of honey (3 standard jars of honey) honey bees must visit nearly 6 million flowers.
There are an estimated 91 million hives in the world.
Bees are aggressive and will sting you, right?
As we stated above our interest here at The Bee Sanctuary of Ireland is primarily concerned with native wild bees – Bumblebees and Solitary Bees.
Honey bees can be aggressive for numerous reasons and depending on the time of year. When a honey bee stings it will die as the stinger is barbed and gets caught in human skin and tears away from the bee as she flies off or is swatted. so honey bees can only sting once.
Bumblebees are generally placid creatures who go earnestly about their business of foraging and performing nest duties. They have a smooth stinger which will not get caught in your skin meaning that they can and will sting more than once. The sting is a defence mechanism. If a bumblebee feels threatened and can’t fly away/escape she will raise one of her middle legs to warn you off, if the danger persists she will raise both middle legs. If this doesn’t work she will then roll over on to her back to display her stinger. Males will behave in a similar fashion but it’s all a bluff – male bumblebees can’t sting! Bumblebees will sting as a last resort but please be aware that their sting can be lethal if you are allergic to it!
Solitary bees also sting but are not aggressive as they do not have a hive to defend. Again males don’t sting and some solitary bees are so small that you would probably not really noticed if stung. They will sting if you are too heavy handed with them.
As with all nature we would recommend observing and enjoying but not interfering or engaging too closely wherever possible.
What should I do if I encounter a bee that appears to be in distress?
Sometimes you might come across a Bumblebee that seems to be in distress. So what should you do?
Unless the bee is in imminent danger of being trod on (in which case you can move her to a safer location by offering a leaf or a twig to cling to) our advice would be to take some time to observe the bee.
A bee that appears to be in distress can sometimes be merely resting – especially early in spring when queen bees can actually spend a lot of their time on the ground between flights. If after about 45 minutes or so the bee is still there then maybe she needs some assistance. Bees do sometimes get caught in inclement weather and cannot get back to the nest before dark.
The first option to help the bee should be to get her to a flower so she can feed.
If no suitable flowers are nearby you can offer her a 50/50 mixture of white sugar and water. NEVER offer honey as, although this seems counter intuitive, honey can contain pathogens which could be harmful to the bee.
If she drinks the 50/50 solution you will find a lot of the time that after a few minutes she will fly away fine.
You can also, if you are extremely gentle, allow her to sit on your skin for a while to warm up as bumblebees need to get their body temperature up to a certain level to allow flight. Do not pick her up between your fingers but offer her a leaf or twig to crawl to and allow her to ‘transfer’ herself. If a bumblebee is on her back this is a defensive position and she is preparing to sting. Bumblebees can sting more than once unlike honey bees! We would caution that bumblebees, though placid creatures, are wild and will sting as a last resort if they feel threatened so please use your own judgement in this action. Stings can cause anaphylactic shock.
Something which occurred to us here on the sanctuary is that this simple action of helping a bumblebee is one of the most intimate of interactions we get with truly wild creatures. It is a privilege and an honest beautiful connection to nature.
Our current featured bee:
THE RED TAILED (ARSED) BUMBLEBEE
When we get a chance you will find here a featured bee which we will highlight and provide some basic information on.
Our first featured bee is THE RED ARSED BUMBLEBEE.
For those of you with more delicate dispositions we’ll refer to this iconic bee as the Red Tailed Bumblebee for the rest of this section!
Red Tailed bumblebees are now classed as near threatened in Ireland.
This bee is one of the more easily recognised of our bumblebees in the field. Although it is one of three bumblebee species with red tails in Ireland it is by far the most common.
Females (queens and workers) are dark black with a bright red tail.
Males have yellow tufts on their face and yellow stripes on their thorax. Males are smaller than the queens.
Queens emerge fairly early and the Red Tailed Bumblebee is to be found on the wing from early March to October.
Red Tails can be found in gardens, hedgerows and woodland edges. Anywhere there are flowers. They are more abundant on low intensity farmland.
Red Tailed Bumblebees range from Morocco in the south to the far north of Sweden and from Ireland in the west right across to the Urals in Russia.
Look out for the queens this spring and the males later in the summer.
ON HONEY BEES:
We’re honest about it.
Honey bees aren’t our thing here. We’re here for bumblebees and solitary bees.
We’re not anti bee keeping.
But we are pro truth…
And the truth is that keeping hives of honeybees no matter how you dress it up does not do anything to help our threatened native wild bees.
In fact studies are showing that keeping honey bees can have a detrimental effect on our native wild bees. They compete for forage, can spread disease and over the long term can actually ‘change the flora’ in a given area.
There is therefore no place for honey bee hives in conservation.
Again we’re not anti hives but rather pro native wild bees. Sometimes the truth hurts but it’s still truth.
So please consider this when you or your organisation decide to help the bees.
If you want help bees don’t keep honey bees instead ‘keep’ native wild bees by providing habitat and forage!
Here’s something to ponder:
A moderately healthy hive will be home to around 50,000 bees in the summer.
On the lower end of the scale a honey bee will make 1000 flower visits per day.
This adds up to 50 million flower visits per day.