11 buzzworthy bee facts your provost wants you to know

Friday, May 8, 2015

Have you heard the buzz? It’s getting warmer in Phoenix, and that means it's bee season. Many people are meeting these fascinating creatures as they walk around. Fortunately, Arizona State University Provost Robert E. Page Jr. is a bee expert and has some fun facts to share.

1. China produces the most honey in the world

China is by far the biggest honey producer in the world. It made more than 430 million tons of honey in 2012. In the U.S., there are more than 2.74 million bee colonies producing honey. The value of the U.S. 2014 honey crop is more than $385 million. North Dakota makes the most honey in the U.S.

2. Bee colonies can be rented

According to the National Honey Board, the first bee colony rented out to help pollinate crops was in 1909. Bees are linked to agricultural crop production. More bees means more crops. Bees are especially important to the California almond crop. The California almond trees need honeybees to pollinate them; growing the almonds involves more than 1 million bee colonies. ASU has developed a startup called Pollen-Tech to help pollinate crops without bees. 

3. Honeybees aren’t native to the Americas

Honeybees are from Europe. Europeans figured out how to manage honeybees and kept them in hives. When Europeans came to America in the 1600s, they brought their honeybees with them. Some Native American tribes called honeybees “the white man’s flies,” because the arrival of bees often meant that European settlers were close.

4. Africanized bees came to the US from Brazil

The Africanized honeybees were brought to Brazil. In Brazil, they were bred with European honeybees. It was thought Africanized honeybees would be able to live more easily in South America’s hot tropical climate. Several of these Africanized colonies escaped, swarmed into the Brazilian jungle and hybridized, or mixed, with local European bee colonies. Over the years, these colonies have been spreading northward. They arrived in the U.S. in 1990 and they arrived in Arizona in 1993.

5. Queens don’t lead the hive

Honeybees have a fascinating social organization. Different workers specialize in different tasks–they are good at different things. In some ways their society rivals that of any human organization. Bees' daily chores are completed without anyone telling them what to do. One way to think of how bees live is that they live in a bustling city (the hive). And each bee in the city knows exactly what it should be doing. A queen’s job is producing eggs – up to 2,000 a day in her two- to three-year lifetime. That’s her only job in the hive-city, so she never has to leave.

6. What bees eat determines their lifestyle

Bees take “you are what you eat” to a new level. There are no genetic differences between queens and worker bees. However what growing larvae, baby bees, are fed is decides what role they take on as adults. If a larva is fed “royal jelly,” she will turn into a queen bee. If the larva is fed honey and flower pollen, she will turn into a worker bee. Queen bees can live 2 to 3 years. Worker bees live for 6 weeks to several months, depending on the season.

7. Most bees you see are old

Young bees take on chores in the hive, such as nursing and feeding larvae. Older bees go out exploring to find honey, water or pollen. They then bring what they find back to the hive.

8. Signs of an allergic reaction

When bees sting a person, a normal response is inflammation of the area around the sting. This means that the skin may turn itchy and red. Inflammation can last for several days. However, for a person with an allergic reaction, the response to the sting is different. People can have difficulties in breathing, start sweating, vomiting, and lose consciousness. An EpiPen (epinenephrine) should be given to these people, if they have a prescription from their doctor. They should also be taken to the hospital. People can become more or less sensitive to bee venom over time.

9. Bees can improve human health

Bees make honey and beeswax, which are valuable objects. They also make pollen, propolis (a red or brown sticky substance), royal jelly and bee venom. These things are used in alternative medicine and health food. Bee stings have also been used for treatment of multiple sclerosis (a disease that makes it hard for a person to move and talk).

Research on bees at ASU is contributing to understanding about genetics, longevity, Alzheimer’s disease, learning and memory, robotics and adaptive systems, social behavior and social evolution.

10. Aristotle and Charles Darwin studied bees

The first person known to study bees was Aristotle. Aristotle was a philosopher in ancient Greece. He was curious about how bees divided their tasks and organized their activities. Charles Darwin was also interested in bees. Darwin worked to understand how a colony of 40,000 bees, working in the dark of a hive, could organize and build a honeycomb. He had more success understanding finches.

11. Bees get a buzz from caffeine

Do you’re parents need a cup of coffee to kick-start the day? That’s because coffee has a chemical called caffeine in it, which stimulates the nervous system (in other words, it gives an energy boost). It seems honeybees also get their buzz from drinking flower nectar containing caffeine. Scientists from ASU and the United Kingdom have discovered that caffeine improves a honeybee’s memory and may help plants recruit more bees to spread their pollen.