Our Enduring Fascination with Honeybees
People sometimes ask us why we love working with bees so much. We have to admit that part of the answer is that we get to work in some of the most beautiful places in New Zealand. But the real reason lies with the bees themselves. To be honest, we’re completely captivated by these charming little creatures.
We’ve lost track of how many beekeepers have said ‘I’ll just give it one season’ and have ended up with a lifelong passion for bees. Murray was exactly the same when he started out. As he puts it, “the bees have a way of getting their hooks into you.” It’s because there are so many cool and clever things about bees — it’s just impossible not to love them!
If you spot a bee in your garden there’s a good chance that her hive is around 800 metres away — that’s her average flight distance. But honeybees have been known to fly up to five kilometres from their hives. Bees are also astonishingly efficient flyers, taking the shortest route possible between patches of flowers. Scientists now know that bees constantly improve their flight paths and the order in which they visit the flowers. If you’ve ever wondered how fast bees can fly, that’s quite remarkable too — it’s around 25km per hour.
One of our favourite bee behaviours has to be the waggle dance. Bees perform this little dance to share information about food sources. They even have a special ‘dance floor,’ near the entrance to their hives. The returning bee waggles her bum and uses a clever figure of eight dance pattern to tell the others where the flowers are.
She doesn’t just tell them how far the food source is (the faster the waggle the closer the flowers), she even tells them which direction to fly in. Then she shares the flower’s scent, just so the bees know which flowers to look for.
Bees have an extraordinary sense of smell, with 170 odour receptors. We never get tired of watching waggle dances and seeing the bees taking off to seek out food.
Bees are also incredibly sophisticated navigators. They don’t just use the sun to find their way, they also have tiny ‘onboard compasses’ that allow them to detect the earth’s magnetic field. Isn’t that amazing!?
Honeybees have lots of cute physical features, apart from being yellow and fuzzy — it’s probably why Buzzy Bees have become an iconic New Zealand toy. But many of the parts of a bee that humans find cute are actually specially designed for collecting nectar to make honey.
Those long tongues are for getting into flowers. If you see a bee that looks like it’s wearing little yellow gumboots, those are the pollen baskets on her legs. She’ll stop to groom herself and pack the pollen into those baskets to take back to the hive.
The bees then use the pollen to make ‘bee-bread,’ a rich source of protein for their young. Bees even have a special pouch for storing the nectar, called a honey stomach.
Our bees don’t just make beautiful New Zealand honey — they also make the wax to build their hives. They ‘glue’ everything together with a resinous substance called propolis, an antiseptic sealing material.
Humans have been intrigued by the engineering of honeycombs since ancient times. Now we have mathematical proof that honeycombs are the most efficient structures in nature. The hexagonal cells meet at a precise angle of 120 degrees and use the least possible amount of wax. How clever is that?
We could go on and on about bees — in fact we often do! We always say that our bees are part of our family. But sometimes we have a sneaking suspicion that it’s actually the other way around, and we’re just part of the hive. The bees probably think we humans come in quite handy when it comes to clearing the weeds from the hive entrances, moving the bees to places with lots of lovely food sources, and keeping them safe from disease. Whether you call it a hive or family, it’s certainly a very special symbiotic relationship.
Sadly, due to the varroa virus, honeybees can no longer live in the wild without the intervention of beekeepers. So caring for bees is not just about the beautiful New Zealand honey they produce. It makes us proud and happy to know that we are helping keep New Zealand’s bee numbers up. Bees play a crucial role as pollinators, and they need all the help they can get.
When it comes to honeybees, there’s always something new to learn. The more we discover, the more privileged we feel at getting to share our lives with these fascinating little creatures.
It’s the little things that count.