Why Don’t All Bees Make Honey?

Ask anyone to say the first word that comes into their head after you say the word, ‘bee’ and the likely answer will be, honey! Well, that is at least the first thought that came to my mind. So this got me wondering, do all bees make honey and if not, why not?

The trigger for honey production is bees that live in a colony, within a hive. They make honey to feed their young and the Queen Bee throughout the winter. The honey is stored in honeycombs. Lots of bee species live solitary existences and so the key driver to make large quantities of honey is absent. Therefore, interestingly, not all bees make honey.

How much honey can one bee produce?

On average, a worker bee (the workers are the hive members who collect the pollen and nectar) will produce about 1.5 teaspoons of honey in their life. But, multiply that by the average colony size which can be from 20,000 to 60,000 bees and that is a lot of honey.

Hive Society

Unsurprisingly, the workers are all female! They work incessantly to collect pollen to make honey, the male drones just lay around in the hive not doing very much, their job is to mate with the Queen Bee. Well, laying around all day isn’t strictly all there is to it I’ll address this in another article.

What other types of bee are there in the UK?

The focus is always on the Honey Bee as nature’s bounty has been enjoyed by mankind for thousands of years. Honey has amazing properties, it is the nectar of the Gods or, as Pliny called it, “the sweet of the heavens”. Because of the significance of honey, other bee species are often overlooked.

There are around 20,000 species of bees but only a few of which make honey, in the UK there are recorded 270 species. There are great variations in size and also colour so not just the traditional image of a yellow and black bee. Because many of these bees are solitary, they are much harder to spot. Here is a selection of other bees which you could catch a glimpse of:-

  • Leafcutter bees – so called as the female neatly cuts sections from leaves to line her nest
  • Tawny Mining bee – a ground-nesting bee
  • Long-horned bee – the male has enormous antennae, another ground-nesting bee but this one also has a penchant for cliffs
  • Shrill Carder bee – one of the UK’s rarest species

What has all the recent fuss been about over honey bees?

Bees pollinate and propagate some of the key foods that we eat. Their impact on food production of declining bee numbers is disproportionately immense bearing in mind how tiny they are.

There are two things troubling bees and the people that keep them. One of them is the loss of wildflower habitat which began after the war as farming became mechanised and conducted on an industrial scale. The other is pesticides such as neonicotinoids. These have even been banned in some parts of the world. It is not quite as simple as pesticides killing the bees. Instead, they seem to affect behaviour, the reproductive cycle and resistance to disease so the impact is more subtle and convoluted. The British Centre for Ecology and Hydrology has been involved in a project to research the effect of neonicotinoids on bee populations and has been looking closely at the impact of these chemicals.

The EU has sought to support the reintroduction of hedgerows and wildflower habitat on British farms with various schemes called Stewardship. Farmers are paid to keep areas fallow and to actually plant wildflowers. You might not notice the impact, as often, wildflower margins is literally just that, margins. However, one farmer in Norfolk took it upon himself a few years back to plant all his wildflower allocation in one twelve acre field bordering a busy road. The subsequent display was spectacular, so spectacular it made the papers and many people stopped to photograph it and try to identify the flower species. He even cut a path around the field so people could walk amongst the flowers. And naturally, the place was just alive with bees and butterflies. Seeing all the flowers together in one meadow with all the attending insects really drove home the point about loss of habitat.

What happens to Entry and Higher Level Stewardship schemes after Brexit is anyone’s guess. The agricultural industry is hoping they will be replaced with incentives and schemes which are similar if not even better.

What is colony collapse?

Colony Collapse, or CCD, as a term was a name first coined in 2006 as beekeepers suffered massive and unexplained losses of hive communities. Bees literally just vanished overnight. There were no dead bees just an empty hive with the solitary Queen still in residence. Although the loss of flora and fauna and industrial pesticides are relevant to bee numbers, CCD was thought to be caused by disease.

This is not a new phenomenon in the bee community. For at least a century, beekeepers have experienced the sudden disappearance of bees in various cyclical patterns around thirty or forty years apart. The earliest reported of these were in times when farming was non-mechanised and pesticides not even dreamt of so clearly there are other things which trouble bees and the people who look after them.

Previously unknown parasites arrived in the last two decades of the 20th century. Tracheal and Varroa mites caused the loss of countless bee colonies. Viral infections are also on the suspect list. Some early research has shown that bees who live in good pollen rich areas are far more able to thrive and resist disease than those where forage is scarce. But whilst this recent depletion may not be caused by agricultural methods, the fact is that the available land to sustain bees is dwindling all the time.

Why do people take honey from hives if the bees need it?

There is usually plenty of honey to share. Beekeepers are careful how much honey they remove from the hive in autumn to ensure the colony has enough stock to feed throughout the winter months. However, commercial farmers are driven by profit and are not so kind to the bees. All we can do is to our part to plants gardens that encourage bees and not over-consume honey!

How can I support the honey bee population?

There are lots of things you can do both great and small to help honey bees and probably all bees and other insects as well.

  • Keep a section of your garden for wildflower species. Bees like plants which are considered more old-fashioned and are seen less frequently in the modern garden, for instance, lavender and Verbena. This is a great way to support traditional British flowers and you will be helping other insects not just honey bees.
  • Support your local beekeepers, buy their honey.
  • Keep bees! There are loads of support and advice both online such as this website or via social media and almost every local community will have beekeeping groups or people who are knowledgeable and happy to advise.

Quick facts about honey

  • Honey is the only substance produced by an insect that is eaten by people
  • The average honey bee will visit between fifty and one hundred flowers on each collection trip
  • With all the bad press about sugar in recent months, it is still very hard to give up totally from the Western diet. If you are a sugar junkie instead of substituting with sweeteners, use honey. Honey is not nearly the villain that refined sugar is. Naturally occurring sugars in honey called glucose and fructose are quickly digested by the body releasing energy in a consistent way avoiding the sugar spikes of foods with processed sugar

My final thought

Everyone thinks of honey when they think of bees but there is a lot more to bees than just honey. Honey is simply the by-product of their role as nature’s pollinators and propagators but, let’s face it, honey is so tasty, life would be the poorer without it. So when you spread some delicious wildflower honey on your morning toast, before you take a bite, ponder a little on the significance of that honey, not least the many hundreds of bee hours it took to make it.

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