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Honeybees: Nature's little helpers

Backyard Safari

Monday, May 03, 2010

Media contact: Jessica Basham

Spring floats through the air.  Flowers bloom, birds sing and honeybees buzz!  Why is spring such a special time for honeybees?  It is the time of year when bees swarm to find new homes and pollinate vegetables and fruits.

Honeybees are very social creatures.  They are just one of 12,000 species of bees in the world.  They live in a hive called a colony. The colony contains 20,000-80,000 bees including one queen, worker bees (females) and drones (males). The only female bee that can reproduce is the queen. She is the largest bee in the colony.

Bees are very important insects, especially to farmers.  The fruits and vegetables farmers grow depend on tiny pollen grains being spread among flowers, a process called pollination.  Bees and other insects are pollinators for thousands of plant species.  When a honeybee flies to different flowers gathering nectar - the sweet liquid that flowers produce to attract pollinators - it also collects sticky pollen.  It carries the pollen, which may be bright orange or yellow, in special pouches on its legs called pollen baskets.  Some of the pollen it collects sticks onto other flowers and pollinates them.

The job of the foraging honeybee is to collect the nectar and pollen for the hive.  Bees make nectar into honey, which gives bees energy and nutrition. Pollen feeds the hive and gives bees protein.

How does a honeybee tell other bees where to find nectar and pollen?  While foraging, if a bee finds a good source of food, she will return to the hive, feed some of her hivemates, and do a honeybee dance.  If she does a round dance - small constant circles changing directions - it means there is a good food source close to the hive.  If she does a figure eight-type dance with a wiggle of her body, it alerts other bees that there is food, but it is farther away.  This dance also can communicate the direction of the food source so other worker bees can find it. Bees also dance when they are looking for a new home.

Flowering plants are the best place to look for bees this time of year.  Join the Get Outdoors Florida! movement and watch bees do their day-to-day job for the hive.  When you see a bee, sit quietly and watch her buzz around from flower to flower.  Look at her legs and see where the pollen has been gathered in her pouches. But don't get too close!  Bees sting when they feel threatened, and some people are highly allergic to their venom.

Without bees and other pollinators, our choice of plant foods would be very boring and might contain only wheat and rice and other grains.  There would be no blueberries or cucumbers or even nuts.  Honeybees are the master of all pollinating insects.

To learn more about honeybees, their social behaviors, anatomy, and why they are so important to agriculture, visit www.ifas.ufl.edu and type the word "bees" in the search box.



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