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Why all the buzz about honeybees?

By Tom Brinda and Lynn Kirk, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
Published January 2008 in the Richmond Times-Dispatch

There’s a critical need for more honeybees across the country – including here in Virginia. Honeybees serve a vital function that directly impacts our food chain and agricultural economy. In Virginia alone, they pollinate more than 100 different crops whose annual value exceeds $80 million per year. For each Virginian, that means one in every three bites of food is a byproduct of the honeybee’s work.

Yet in spite of this reliance, the number of beekeepers and honeybees in our state has dwindled by more than 30 percent in the last 25 years.

Many are working to change this trend, including the staff at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden partnering with the Richmond Beekeepers Association.

A hobby with sweet pay-offs
With four wings, six hairy legs, hooked feet, multiples eyes, a long sucking tongue and a stinger, the honeybee doesn’t seem to invite a friendly relationship with man. However according to Keith Tignor, state apiarist with the Virginia Department of Agriculture, beekeeping is not only safe and easily managed when proper equipment and techniques are used, it is very rewarding. He recommends beekeeping for several reasons:

• Little effort involved. Honeybees are basically low-maintenance animals. Though domesticated, they are capable of living on their own as long as flowers, vegetables or trees are growing within a mile.

• Minimal space required. A two-by-two-foot protected section of a
yard or deck usually is sufficient for a hive, whether a rural or urban setting. Currently, bees are being raised on the rooftop of Chicago’s City Hall, in New York City’s Central Park and in downtown Richmond.

• Minimal costs incurred. A hive, initial bee colony and safety equipment (veil, smoker, gloves) cost around $250 to $350 total. Additional hives can be purchased from specialized suppliers for approximately $150 each.

• Benefits at harvest. Honeybee pollination can improve the quality and quantity of vegetables and fruits in one’s garden. Simply stated, it is nature’s way.

• Honey produced. A typical Virginia hive produces in excess of 60 pounds (about five gallons) of honey each year – a sweet deal for the beekeeper and his or her friends! Since the honeybee is generally faithful to one type of blossom, the resulting honey varies in color and taste, including specialties such as sourwood and clover.

• Fascination through observation. Honeybees demonstrate sophisticated socialization based on a specialized division of labor. How interesting it is to watch the queen bee take charge or to see a female worker bee serve as an engineer, scout, nurse and guard during different stages of her short life.

• Related hobbies result. Beeswax, another beehive byproduct, also is collected for candle making, wax carvings and for use as a non-allergenic ingredient in lip gloss and hand cream. Sometimes beekeeping also perks the hobbyist’s interest in related areas, such as journaling and photography.

Additional resources
To learn more about the ancient and vital craft of beekeeping, register for Lewis Ginter’s beekeeping program; visit its Lora M. Robins Library; or log on these websites: www.richmondbeekeepers.org, www.virginiabeekeepers.org or www.maarec.cas.psu.edu.

Bees’ facts
• A colony with the right conditions can house 60,000 honeybees.
• A queen bee can lay 1,000 to 2,000 eggs every day.
• A honeybee’s wings beat up and down 200 times per second during flight.
• Some worker bees live only 30 days, while the queen bee lives up to five years.
• Usually the only time a honeybee stings is when its hive is threatened, for the once-in-a-lifetime action causes the bee to die shortly thereafter.
• The production of one pound of honey requires thousands of bees visiting more than a million flowers.
• Pollination of tomatoes and eggplants is the work of bumblebees – not honeybees.
• A honeybee colony in a tree cavity is not necessarily bad. The bees’ secretion of an anti-fungal, anti-bacterial coating can protect the host tree against disease and additional environmental damage.
• Honey is a safe and wholesome sugar substitute for older children and adults, but should not be fed to infants less than one year of age.

How does pollination occur?
When a honeybee enters a flower, it shakes the long stalk (anther) which contains the pollen, and then attracts the pollen onto its body through an electrostatic charge that built up among its hairs during flight. Pollination occurs when the bee transports the pollen to another bloom, which usually results in fertilization and reproduction. Today, some areas of the country rent migratory honeybee colonies for short-term, managed pollination of orchards and farm crops.