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The life and times of bees

September 20, 2010
By Merrill Shane Jones

Thousands of busy little bodies buzz around me, and I can feel my nerves humming along too. As I watch Christopher Mayack, Ph.D. candidate in zoology at CSU, remove a cross-hatched frame crawling with honeybees from one of three hives in a field behind the Hilton Fort Collins, I realize I'm by no means in harmony with these bees. Before driving me here to meet the bees, Chris prepped me for the possibility of getting stung. "The higher the pitch of their buzz," he said, "the more aggressive they are." Naturally, my first question when we get to the hives is, "How's their pitch?" Chris assures me it's a pretty calm bunch.

Calming a busy bee colony

Amanda Stammer, an undergraduate double major in biology and Spanish, removes a cross-hatched frame crawling with honeybees from one of three hives in a field behind the Hilton Fort Collins.

Our heads are covered with bee veils that seem to have a tight fit, but Chris and his assistant, Amanda Stammer, an undergraduate double major in biology and Spanish, take other precautions as well. To calm the bees, they burn newspaper in a bee smoker, a metal can with a spout at the top that wafts smoke out. They gently tease the smoke over the top of the hive and over the frame Chris has removed.

“When there’s fire, bees are more active stocking up on nectar in the hive,” Chris says. Threats of fire cause bees to be more interested in hoarding their goods and less concerned with people.

30,000 bees common in one hive

Chris estimates there are about 30,000 bees in this particular hive. When I think about such numbers, I wonder what I’d do if I discovered a huge swarm of bees outside my front door.

A few days before meeting with Chris and Amanda, I attended a Northern Colorado Beekeepers Association meeting in Windsor. I learned that swarm catchers in the association are available to remove swarms in Northern Colorado at no cost.

Beth Conrey, NCBA president and volunteer at CSU’s C.P. Gillette Museum of Arthropod Diversity, fields anywhere from five to 20 calls for swarm catchers and hive removers per day from mid-April to the end of September. She recalls a birdhouse full of bees that a man wanted quickly removed. “He didn’t even want the birdhouse back,” she says.

Colony Collapse Disorder

Exterminating a swarm is another option for removal, but at what cost? Colonies have been disappearing worldwide for many years because of a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Among beekeeping scientists and beekeepers, the consensus is that CCD is a serious problem, and so they’re working hard to keep honeybees healthy. Whether or not CCD is a natural recurring event is still being debated, but no matter what the cause, every swarm is valuable both for nature and as a benefit to humanity.

Christopher Mayck, Ph.D. candidate in zoology, and undergraduate Amanda Stammer, know that for every three bites of food we eat, one bite is owed to pollination by honeybees.

Bees buzz around me while Chris talks about how almonds are almost completely reliant on cross-pollination from honeybees. Amanda mentions her grandparent’s California orange grove, where beekeepers are hired every year to pollinate the blossoms with a traveling colony. Chris says the general rule is that, for every three bites of food we eat, one bite is owed to pollination by honeybees.

Amanda says that removing a swarm is just as easy as exterminating one: “Maybe even easier,” she says. In many cases, swarm catchers remove honeybees with a bee vacuum, a modified shop vacuum that gently catches the bees in a container. Swarms also are removed by gently brushing bees into a box and transporting them to a new hive. It sounds like a bold way to remove bees, but I’m reassured that it’s done safely all the time.

I’ll take the bee vacuum any day.

Why bees are important

Keeping good food on the table isn’t the only reason why bees benefit humans. Dhruba Naug, assistant professor of biology, has been researching the social behavior of honeybees threatened by disease or parasites. Naug was awarded a $650,000 National Science Foundation CAREER award for a five-year study of honeybee behavior. Similar to humans in cities, honeybees live in dense populations, and also like humans, the most important members tend to be protected when facing threats. By studying how honeybee behavior changes in the face of disease threats, Naug hopes to gain insight into humans and animals behaving under similar circumstances.

The buzz about honeybees

  • Honeybees are considered livestock by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
  • Bee experts have estimated a loss of 90 percent of wild honeybees in North America over the past 10 years, according to The Environmental Magazine.
  • Honeybees are not indigenous to North America – they were brought over from Europe centuries ago. According to Beth Conrey, president of Northern Colorado Beekeepers Association, honeybees were imported partly due to early settlers’ demand for candle wax as well as for pollination needs.
  • Honeybees can forage up to 10 kilometers (more than 6 miles) from their hive every day.
  • A strong colony can have 40,000 to 50,000 bees.
  • All honeybees are females except for drones. A drone’s only job is to mate with the queen one time. It dies immediately after mating.
  • The Waggle Dance is performed by a worker bee to show other bees the direction foraging patches are located outside the hive. The bee waggles its body while walking in a figure-8 pattern. The angle at which the pattern is done in reference to gravity (straight down) communicates the direction foragers should fly relative to the position of the sun.

Originally published in Colorado State Magazine, Fall 2010.