At the Long Island farm in the Boston Harbor, I’ve learned about roosters, gangsters, HIV and how to uproot foot-long weeds. This week I discovered my new favorite insect ‘- honeybees.
The buzzing balls of black and yellow fuzz live at our farm in two rickety hives by the cabbage patch. And our bees are organic. Organic bees? I thought. Do they only eat organic pollen? It seemed a little overzealous.
Little did I know how extraordinary honeybees are.’ ‘ ‘ And as it turns out, whether bees are raised organically makes all the difference. What follows is my own crash course in what makes bees so fascinating, and why it always pays to let nature run its own course.’
More important than honey, the bees’ primary purpose on the farm is to help pollinate our crops, to produce more and larger vegetables. The sticky sweet honey is an extra bonus.
Bees live in hives, where they build honeycomb with tiny hexagonal compartments to store pollen, honey and baby bees. Our manmade beehives ensure that the bees create a more space-efficient honeycomb that’s easier to harvest.
One queen bee rules each hive, and she mates with male bees in order to reproduce lots and lots of workers. The males have a sad existence because they live to fertilize the queen once, then die.
Honeybees are female, and exceptionally smart. They have an ultra-sharp sense of smell, and recognize colors, patterns and symmetry to help them find food. A honeybee remembers where the food is using her solar compass and internal clock, then reports the location to the other bees by dancing. That’s so cool!
All the other bees go find the food, load up the hive and turn the nectar into honey by swallowing it and regurgitating until the water content shrinks from 70 to 20 percent. Voil’agrave; – the ooey, gooey stuff that graces my tea every morning.
Honeybees pollinate most of America’s crops, everything from the largest commercial crops down to your grandmother’s smallest flower patch. But in the last 50 to 60 years, the honeybee population has dropped dramatically in the United States due to poor management of bees by humans.
Commercial beekeepers want to harvest as much honey as possible, so they artificially increase the size of the cells in the honeycomb. But an increase of even three millimeters (that’s tiny) makes mites invade. Then beekeepers inject more chemicals to kill the mites.
In addition, the bees pollinate genetically modified crops which leaves them malnourished and with weak immune systems. Genetic diversity is also a problem, because beekeepers tamper with the genes in order to create the most efficient honey-makers.
Granted, at the Long Island farm, we are not in the industrial honey-making business, but our little organic bees offer a lesson in responsible management of nature. Our honeycomb cells are the size they should be, there are no mites and the bees live complete life cycles. And the honey is harvested only once a year, so I think our bees are happy. I hope their solar compasses are purring like tops, and I hope they dance merrily when they find that organic pollen to eat.