Blog: Awesome Honeybees

Honeybee loading pollen from lemon blossom in the Santa Monica Mountains, Calif.

Honeybees are incomparable little creatures. Allow me to tell you why: 

Honeybees and humans share many things in common: We socialize, dance, eat honey, touch, feel, mimic one another, sleep, enjoy nicotine, caffeine, vote and we both get sick. 

After a queen honeybee lays a couple million eggs, she begins to produce fewer pheromones (or chemical scents), which cause the worker bees to feed half a dozen larvae royal jelly or pure protein as they begin rearing a new queen.

It’s up to the scout bees to locate a new site to move the existing queen and thousands of workers to create with their beeswax a new hive. The bees reach a consensus on a new location by voting. Research has shown that 15 is the crucial number of scout bees for a quorum. Then they wait for the signal to evacuate.

Are you like me and millions of other people who find our morning caffeine buzz irresistible? Well, we’re not alone — our friends the honeybees also seek a morning buzz from flowers containing nectar laced with caffeine. That caffeine boosts the bees’ memories causing the buzzed forager bees, returning to the hive, to dance vigorously and communicate to other bees the precise location of the caffeinated flowers. It seems that some plants have evolved an ingenious mechanism of using caffeine as a drug to get the upper hand on the bees to pollinate their flowers first. 

Not only do bees pollinate 75 percent of all the world’s food crops, but also all the cotton we wear. Honeybees produce an astounding 2.6 billion pounds of honey each year for humans. One teaspoon of honey weighing 21 grams contains 16 grams of sugar or 60 calories. It takes 12 honeybees a combined flying distance of about 6,000 miles, or their entire foraging lives, to produce those 21 grams of honey. Normally, a forager honeybee dies because after flying 500 miles in three weeks and visiting almost a million flowers, she wears her wings out or to put it another way — she works herself to death. 

These admirable little creatures can count to four and they can be trained to arrive at three, four and five separate periods during 24 hours. 

For the previous 15 years, my colleagues have been training honeybees to identify over 60 different odors ranging from enriched uranium to tuberculosis, methamphetamine (or crystal meth) and TNT, the main explosive in land mines. Honeybees are now being deployed instead of sniffer dogs to locate more than 250,000 land mines at sites left behind in the 1990s war in former Yugoslavia. By the way, sniffer dogs cost $9,000 each, are accurate approximately 71 percent of the time, require three months of intensive training and they get maimed. Honeybees, on the other hand, are accurate 98 percent of the time, require less than 10 minutes of training and they preclude sniffer dogs from being harmed or killed. By finding those unexploded land mines, our friends the humble honeybees will help prevent the maiming of hundreds of children playing in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

Just like people and dogs, bees get sad when they are handled or manipulated too much or if they don’t get enough sleep when predators repeatedly attack them. Bees learn while asleep and they may dream too. Bees show similar signs of pessimism seen in depressed or anxious people.

Honeybees and people even share genetic similarities. Some thrill seeking honeybees, just like people, are drawn to adventure. And there are more than 1,000 genetic differences that affect a bee’s likelihood of being a thrill seeker.

There are approximately one million neurons in a bee’s brain and some of those neurons are responsible for giving honeybees distinct personalities. The more we learn about the bees, the more remarkable these creatures become.

Bee deaths in America are at an all time annual high of 44 percent. In addition, 749 native bee species in North America and Hawaii are heading toward extinction from pesticides, habitat loss and the climate crisis. It’s long overdue that we protect the bees, at all costs, from deadly neonicotinoid pesticides. We need healthy bees in order to feed a human population adding almost 90 million people a year, as the United Nations predicts we will top 8.5 billion humans by 2030. 

Earth Doctor Reese Halter is the author of “The Incomparable Honeybee.”