11 UnBEElievable facts about bees

Bees are incredible insects. They've been around for millions of years and one-third of our food wouldn't be exist without them. Here are some mind-boggling facts about our flying friends. 

1. Honey never expires

bee keeping
Part of a beekeeping relief at Pabasa’s tomb. Image via Gene Kritsky

Honey was found in tombs of Ancient Egypt and was still edible 3000 years after its creation. Bees are the only insect in the world that make food that humans can eat.

Bees have been around for about 150 million years. They evolved around the same time that flowering plants began to appear.

The oldest bee species ever discovered was the Melittosphex burmensis, which was found preserved in amber in a mine in Northern Myanmar. It lived 100 million years ago.

 

2. Bees are very intelligent

bee

Bee brains are shaped like ovals and are around the size of a sesame seed.

Despite their tiny size, they have a remarkable capacity to learn and remember things.

They can count up to four, recognise human faces and make complex calculations about things such as travelling distances, angles and foraging efficiency.

Just one hive of bees will use this incredible navigation skill to fly around 90,000 miles each time they collect 1kg of honey. That’s the equivalent of three orbits around Earth.

Read more: How to attract bees into your garden

 

3. Hives have a strict hierarchy

queen bee

Each hive contains three varieties of bee. There are the all-female worker bees, who do all of the labour in and around the hive, male drones whose only job is to fertilise queen bees and the queen herself.

Queen bees can live for a remarkable 5 years and their role is to fill the hive with eggs. In the busy summer months, the queen lays as many as 2500 eggs per day. Queen bees can choose whether they lay male or female eggs.

Due to a different system of nourishment while they are still developing, the queen will grow to twice the size of a common worker bee. 

Though they are ruled by a strict hierarchy, bee colonies are surprisingly democratic. If a queen bee isn't performing as she should be or laying enough eggs, the colony may decide to stage a coup and replace her with a new queen. This is called a supersedure. 

 

4. Honeybees communicate by dancing

Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch won the Nobel Prize in 1973 for cracking the code of these dance moves, known as the waggle dance.

Outside of primates, honeybees use the most complex symbolic language of any animal on earth. Their dance steps usually follow this pattern:

  1. The honeybee discovers a food source and returns to the hive to report on the quality and location of the nectar
  2. It shakes its body and dances in the direction of the nectar source with reference to the position of the sun. The dance even takes into account the movement of the sun when describing the location of the flower to the other bees
  3. The duration of the dance and the number of vibrations explain the exact distance to the flower. The bee will have stored just enough honey for the journey
  4. The bee then calculates the shortest route to feed from a network of their flower sources in order to minimise their flying time. Studies have shown that their route calculation is speedier than a computer doing the same job

Experiments that tested the effects of caffeine and cocaine on bee efficiency found that while caffeine made them work better, cocaine turned them into liars.

Bees dancing while under the influence tended to wildly exaggerate the quality of the food to the other bees.

 

5. Bees vote on important decisions

bees

When making decisions about the location of a colony’s new nest site, hives work as democracies. Female scout bees fly out to discover potential sites and use their waggle dance to tell the rest of the colony about the location of the nest.

The better the site, the more they dance. If other worker bees are pleased with their spot, they begin to imitate the dance until one dance has taken over the majority of the hive and the decision has been made.

 

6. Like us, bees need to drink water to survive

They seek out water sources like shallow puddles and birdbaths. Leaving out a small saucer of water or keeping your bird bath topped up is one way to help our buzzing friends.

It may take a few weeks for the worker bees to discover your water source, but if you keep it in the same position and topped up, word will spread and they’ll soon come and drink their fill. As an added bonus, the same bees will then begin to pollinate your garden.

Bees aren’t known for their breast stroke, so place a stone or similar perch in your water source to help them rest while they drink. 

Read more: How to attract bees into your garden

 

7. Bees can smell bombs

bee experiments
At Los Alamos National Laboratory, these bees are harnessed and ready to be trained. Image via Los Alamos

Scientists have trained bees to work as bomb detectors due to their strong sense of smell. The bees are rewarded with sugar water when they correctly identify particular explosive compounds.

They’ve become so conditioned that these bees now automatically stick out their tongues for the reward when they get near the desired compound.

Read more: The rats trained to discover landmines

 

8. Breaking records

Bee advert
The advert was the bee's knees. Image via New Scientist

In 2000, when the Guinness Book of World Records was launching its newly designed website, it decided to promote it by creating the world’s smallest advert.

Scientists at the Rutherford Appleton laboratory created a piece of film no wider than a hair. The web address was then stencilled onto it in gold and the whole ad was tied to the leg of a honeybee.

 

9. The world’s largest bee, Bombus dahlbomii, originates in South America

giant bumblebee
Image via ETH

The queen bees of this bumblebee species are so huge, they’re said to resemble flying mice. British scientist Dave Goulson referred to them as “monstrous fluffy beasts” in his book, A Sting in the Tale.

The giant species has started to disappear, however, ever since a different variety of bee was introduced to Chile in the 1990s. These bees brought diseases with them that the Bombus wasn’t resistant to and so the colonies began to die out.

Read more: Is it possible to bring back extinct animals?

 

10. They make good astronauts

NASA bees
The precious cargo. Image via NASA

On a Challenger flight in 1984, 3,300 bees housed in a special box were exposed to zero gravity conditions.

Despite a rocky start, which saw the bees constantly flying into the walls, they eventually adapted perfectly, and still managed to build an almost completely normal comb.

One thing they didn’t manage, however, was to go to the toilet. Since bees usually leave the hive to do so, they instead held it in for seven days.

A spokesperson from NASA confirmed that the hive was “as clean as a pin” after the experiment finished.

 

11. Our bees are dying

One in three meals eaten by humans is made possible by honeybees. They're so important, that if they died out, thousands of plants would die out too which could lead to mass starvation. 

Honeybees have started to disappear. Millions have died in the last few years. On average, beekeepers are seeing a decrease of between 30-90% of their colonies.

What can you do to help? Here are some ideas:

  • Stop using insecticides. Some pesticides kill bees as soon as they land on a flower. Others slowly infect the bee and travel with them back to the hive where they can infect thousands of other bees, sometimes wiping out entire colonies. Here are some alternatives to pesticides to use in your garden
  • Plant bee friendly plants. Bees love wildflowers, so use plants that are native to your area in order to keep the bees interested. Here are some ideas of what to plant
  • Support your local beekeepers, or become one yourself. The British Beekeeper's Association has lots of information about supporting keepers or even tending to your own hive. They also offer helpful information on what to do if you encounter a swarm. Always use a beekeeper, and not an exterminator, to deal with bees where you don't want them
  • Lobby your local MPs or sign petitions to encourage further protection of bees. You can find a petition to ban harmful pesticides here

Read more about bees in the August edition of Reader's Digest

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