Facts and Fiction about Honey Bees

To prove that good things come in small packages, we thought it would be fun to share some facts and fiction about honey bees.

honey bees


Honey bees help keep our grocery shelves stocked with nutritious food. It’s estimated that honey bees pollinate one out of every three bites of food that we eat. Honey bees play an important role in pollinating many of our fruits, nuts and vegetables, which contribute to a healthy, nutritious diet.

The number of honey bee colonies is increasing. Honey bee colonies actually increased by 45 percent worldwide over the past 50 years. And in the past five years, the number of colonies in the U.S. and Canada has increased by 13 percent and 18 percent, respectively. Annual surveys conducted by the USDA show that the number of honey bee colonies has risen steadily over the past 10 years.

Honey bee colony health should not be taken for granted. Despite the growth in honey bee numbers, colonies are exposed to many factors such as parasites, diseases, inadequate nutrition or lack of available forage, adverse weather, pesticides and hive management practices that can affect their overall health.

Neonicotinoid insecticides do not impact colony health when used according to the label. Large-scale studies in Europe and North America show that poor bee health correlates well with parasites and diseases, but not with pesticides, including neonicotinoids.

A tiny parasite is one of the biggest threats to honey bee health today. In the late-1980s a parasite called the Varroa mite invaded North American. The Varroa mite is the “single most detrimental pest of honey bees,” according to the USDA. This parasite weakens bees and helps transmit diseases that can wipe out entire colonies. Beekeepers try to control the mite with insecticides, but effective control is difficult to achieve.

Farmers and beekeepers have worked together for decades. Farmers and beekeepers depend on each other where bees are needed to help pollinate crops. The farmer gets greater crop productivity and the beekeeper earns a fee for pollination services (and increases the colony’s honey production).

Beekeeping is big business. Modern beekeeping is principally aimed at crop pollination, rather than honey production. Commercial beekeepers manage hundreds or thousands of hives, often packing them on tractor-trailers and transporting them thousands of miles to help pollinate various crops throughout the season. Because this can be stressful for the colonies, it is important for beekeepers to ensure the bees are well-fed and kept free of pests and diseases.

Facts researched by Bayer CropScience.

Common Misconceptions

Here are some of the most common “Urban Bee Legends” according to the UC Berkeley Urban Bee Lab:

All bees live in hives. Only 10% of the world’s 20,000 bee species are social, and only a small percentage of these construct hives.

All bees make honey. Only honey bees make enough honey to harvest, and native bees make no honey at all.

Honey is made from pollen. Honey is regurgitated nectar collected by worker honey bees. The nectar, which is 60-80% water, is mixed with enzymes inside the worker bee’s abdomen. Back at the hive, it is regurgitated and fanned with the workers’ wings until it becomes thick, syrupy honey. It is stored in comb cells sealed with wax cappings for use during the long winter months.

Bees die after they sting. Only honey bees die after stinging. Native solitary bees do not die after stinging, however, without a colony to defend, they are much less likely to utilize this defense mechanism.

Wasps are bees. Although they come from the same order of insects, wasps are not bees! Bees are vegetarians, intent on collecting pollen and nectar for their broods, while wasps are carnivorous. The yellow jacket, notorious for raiding picnics, is a wasp that has acquired the misleading name of “meat bee,” which adds to the confusion.

Small bees are baby bees that eventually grow into large bees. Bees belong to the order Hymenoptera, which undergo complete metamorphosis—a full reorganization of tissues between each life stage.



Tips for Planting Bee-Friendly Gardens

European_honey_bee_extracts_nectarExperts say that the domestic honey bee population has declined nearly 50 percent in the last 50 years. Wild honey bees, bumble bees and other pollinators have also experienced losses. While the causes have been debated, lack of available nectar and pollen sources due to urbanization has been identified as a significant factor.

Bees and other pollinators play an essential role in the nation’s food supply. Honey bees are responsible for pollinating fruits, nuts and vegetables that feed humans, birds and other wildlife. It is estimated that bees contribute to the production of a third of the food we eat. They also add to the diversity of flowering plants we enjoy around our homes and gardens.

Here are a few tips for creating a pollinator-friendly habitat in your garden:

  • Plant flowers that are native to where you live.
  • Combine plants that will bloom from early spring to fall (even in winter in milder climates) to provide a consistent food source.
  • Include diverse colors, fragrances and shapes. Bees are attracted to blue, purple, white and yellow. Butterflies love red and purple blooms.
  • Plant in full sun.
  • Plant generously. Large groupings of flowers are more attractive than single plants.
  • Plant non-hybrid flowers. (Hybrids may have less fragrance, nectar or pollen.)
  • Provide food and water.
  • Follow label instructions on pesticides and avoid spraying when pollinators are active.

*Tips developed by author and garden expert Lance Walheim, whose books include Citrus and The Natural Rose Gardener among others. Lance is currently the garden expert for Bayer Advanced™ lawn and garden products.

Beware of Killer Bees

While the name “killer bee” sounds more like the name of a horror film, the startling reality is these pests do exist.  So what exactly are they and how did they get their name??

Killer bees are Africanized honey bees that look nearly identical to the well-known European honey bee.  They are referred to as Killer Bees because when they become aggravated, they will attack in great numbers.  Hereflying_04killerbee_enl are a few interesting facts about killer bees:

  • Killer bees defend their hive more aggressively than European bees which mean they are likely to attack perceived threats quicker, in greater numbers and for a longer distance.
  • A killer bee can only sting one time – their sting is no more painful or harmful than the European bee.  The difference is 90% of the killer bee colony will attack a perceived threat.
  • Killer bees have been known to aggressively respond to minor disturbances, including noises or even vibrations from vehicles, equipment and pedestrians.
  • Killer bees build nests in tree cavities, crawl spaces, sheds, porches, utility meters, BBQ grills and even trash cans and other outdoor containers.

If you are ever attacked, there are a few ways to protect yourself:

  • Run away in a straight line, protecting your face as bees will target the head.
  • Avoid other people and animals or they will be attacked as well.
  • Do not try to hide underwater; the swarm will wait for you to come up for air.
  • Remove the stinger by scraping with a credit card or a blunt knife and wash with soap and water; apply ice.
  • Seek medical attention immediately even if you have never had an allergic reaction.

If someone else is being attacked:  Take refuge and call 911.  Inform the operator of the situation and advise them that sirens and flashing lights will threaten the colony further.

Caffeine Improves a Bee’s Memory

Caffeine. Undoubtedly the most popular drug in America that 90% of us rely on first thing in the morning to give us a jolt and start our day.
But here’s some interesting news – caffeine doesn’t just provide us humans with energy. A recent study by scientists also found that some plants use caffeine to manipulate the memory of bees.

The greatest effect was seen in a long-term memory experiment, with three times as many flying_01honeybee_enl-220x150bees remembering the scent and sticking out their tongues for the caffeine reward 24 hours later, and twice as many recalling it 72 hours later. That’s pretty impressive for an insect that only lives a few weeks!

Bees and other insects are crucial players in a plant’s sex life. Plant pollen sticks to their legs while they feed on a flower’s nectar and fertilizes the next bloom they visit. So flowers have developed a formidable arsenal of tools – color, design and scent to attract them. Study leader Geraldine Wright, a neuroethologist at Newcastle University in England said of the study, “It’s the first evidence that I know of where a plant is actually using a drug to manipulate the behavior of an animal to its own benefit.”