The Beauty of Bees

We have had bee hives for the last five years. I truly love having our own supply of Divine Elixir; delicious, nutritious, medicinal honey. I also love our bees- I am in awe of their meticulous, industrious, super-efficient co-existence – a veritable hive of activity operating collectively.

I took this photo while we were working on one of our hives. It was a point and shoot photo taken with a very basic camera. The result astonished me and continues to fill me with delight.

The small white dots visible in the darker cells, are bee eggs. There are also developing larvae in some cells. The raised “cup” is a Queen cell cup- not yet holding a Queen bee egg as it is open, not capped.There are a few cells of capped honey (possibly also containing pollen) in the bottom right hand corner. There are some worker bees, all female and smaller than their absent all male drone brothers- who exist purely to mate with the Queen on one of her mating flights.

And then there are the absolute gem cells of pollen. This is what really captured my attention. Do bees consciously divide and store their pollen supplies in separate colour co-ordinated caches? And if so, how and why?

In recognising the bees’ amazing talents in building, creating and running a productive hive, this should surely come as no surprise… and yet the more I looked at this photo, the more I marveled at how beautiful the bees’ system is and how purposefully productive they appear to be.

I consulted many books on bees. I asked several more experienced apiarists. I trawled the internet looking for answers to my questions; finally I found the confirmation I was looking for. It is no accident that bees separate different plant pollens; it appears to be a conscious decision with cognoscent purpose behind it. It is not just to delight the apiarist’s eye!

Pollen is a complete food for the developing larvae and bees and is an essential store for the whole hive throughout the winter. Scientists have been unable to replicate the nutritional and medicinal benefits of pollen in a laboratory setting- there is no such thing as artificial or synthetic bee pollen. Bee pollen is the result of the bees combining plant pollen with enzymes, nectar, bacteria and fungi which produces bee pollen, or bee bread. The bees add an unknown ingredient which perfects their essential food source- this ingredient and the pursuant processing of the pollen into bread is what eludes the scientific world.

Scientist Karl von Frisch proved in a series of experiments in the early 1900s that honey bees operate using both discrimination and colour memory in their gathering of pollen. Further evidence and findings were discovered later by Randolf Menzel in continuing von Frisch’s observations. Combined, their findings indicated clearly that bees both distinguish and discriminate between colours, particularly those that naturally predominate in the plant kingdom.

Blacks, blues and greys appear to be of little value to them. Different coloured pollens contain differing levels of proteins and carbohydrates, minerals and vitamins. Chromatic colours, such as reds, yellows, greens, oranges and browns, are the stronger colours in terms of nutritional value. The bees process and assess colour variation on their approach to landing on and feeding from each individual flowering plant. This allows them to determine the nutritional value of different pollens from different species and therefore what to gather. The worker bees learn to distinguish and differentiate as soon as they start gathering nectar and pollen.

Bees communicate information to each other through various forms of the “waggle” dance; providing each other with a map and directions to where the best pollen and nectar may be found. After a series of experiments, scientist James Gould concluded that bees may possess a cognitive map- communicating visible landmarks to each other. When provided with choice as to where to gather pollen and nectar, ie, if their environment within a five mile radius contains a diversity of flowering plants, bees will choose the more nutritional colours, even if it involves flying further afield to forage!

Where their environment predominantly holds one species, as in the lavender fields of France or the almond groves of California, that is where their focus will lie; the perfect apiculturist’s assistant! So, yes, it would appear bees do deliberately distinguish between colours and store their grades of pollen separately and they do it to get the optimum nutritional benefit.

About the author: 

Claire Mathews is a Network reader and avid apiarist, she can be contacted by emailing us at [email protected]

Further Reading: 
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