Bees: Workers for the Environment
By Jeffrey Marshall
The phrase “busy as a bee” is easy to understand: bees are forever climbing in and out of flowers of all shapes and sizes, and the buzz of a swarm of bees on flowers is a worldwide phenomenon. In the process, bees carry pollen from one flower to another, where some of it rubs off, pollinating a wide variety of plants and trees.
Both honey bees and their larger black cousins, the bumble bee, are active pollinators, but the honey bee is the source of the commercial honey we know and love. Honey is cultivated widely around the world, and the desert Southwest is no exception: beekeepers and hives are dotted around Arizona.
There’s even a town in Arizona reputedly named after the bee – Bumble Bee, just west of Sunset Point off Interstate 17. Legend has it that prospectors named the town after stumbling across a hive of bumble bees in the cliffs along a creek; the bees stung a number of the miners, and they named the stream Bumble Bee Creek.
Many wildflowers in our area rely on bees for pollination, as do many trees; without bees, we would have no oranges, blueberries, or coffee. The honey they produce can be fashioned largely from single sources, like orange blossoms, mesquite or clover, or multiple sources. It’s said that a bee must work a lifetime in order to carry enough pollen to make 1/12 of a teaspoon of honey.
The type of honey that is created often relates to the proximity to the hive. Zack Funke, a beekeeper and owner of The Health Foodie, a purveyor of honey and artisanal foods in the Valley, says bees are “very opportunistic” and will focus on a profusion of flowers if they are close at hand. Bees have fuzzy body hairs that actually emit an electrostatic charge to help them collect pollen.
Funke’s company and other local merchants also sell honey from other areas of the country, such as a meadowfoam honey that comes primarily from Oregon and has a faint vanilla and marshmallow taste. Madebybees.com, another business selling in the Valley, offers clover honey as well as more locally produced varieties such as orange blossom, mesquite, and Arizona wildflower.
Honey bees don’t hibernate; they are semi-active in cold climates during winter, huddling around the queen and subsisting on honey stored in the hive. In the SonoranDesert, on the other hand, they will be foraging and producing honey in winter, as well as spring and fall, when trees like mesquites are in bloom.
A key survival factor, not surprisingly in this climate, is water. “Water is a big thing,” Funke says. “Bees will tend to go to the same source; it could be a fountain, or a swimming pool, which has created some problems for pool owners.” Interestingly, he’s found that water has to be 10 feet away at least from hive for bees to properly “tell” hive mates where to find it.
Like ants, bees are specialized and play distinct roles in the colony. Most bees are females, or workers; the males, or drones, are charged essentially with fertilizing the queen, who lays eggs to perpetuate the colony. Funke says a typical hive might have as many as 40,000 bees, who will ordinarily live from two to four years.
Arizona is not immune to some of the more damaging problems affecting beekeeping. Chief among those is the spread of “Africanized” bees, which are smaller, faster and more aggressive than a typical honey bee. They are involved in far more instances of preemptive stinging, for instance, as well as swarming over humans or anything else they perceive as a threat to the hive.
Funke says the Africanization threat here has moved north from South America, and the African bees can enter the gene pool with relative ease. “The queen is basically informing all the genetics,” he says. “If the queen dies or is wounded – or stops egg-laying - the hive has the ability to create new queens, and those could mate with the drones of Africanized hives.” To stem this danger, he adds, some beekeepers are repleting their hives every year.
Disease and pollution also have been taking a toll on bees across the country – sometimes alarmingly so, with whole colony “die-offs.” Mites are pervasive in many areas, even Hawaii, says Funke, noting that the varroa mite is particularly virulent. It attaches to the bee pupa and creates deformities that affect the individual and its ability to forage.
With fall approaching, honey production will be diminishing, and that may be even more true this year. The dry spring and early summer, Funke says, inhibited pollen production. “The bees were acting something like they would in winter in the north – they were not every active. There was just not enough nectar in the environment.”
Not surprisingly, other major threats to bees include development, forestry and mining. Protecting or enhancing native wildflower habitat and minimizing use of pesticides are helpful to local bee populations. That, in turn, can help ensure abundant flowering of the plants they pollinate, whether that’s a garden patch or a hillside in the desert.