Honeybees: Masters of Utility
You hear of insects that are fearsomely big, some that are poisonous, and some that are beautiful. But can any of them be stranger than the one that produces several products we can use? The honeybee is so familiar to us that we take this miracle for granted.
Bees are indispensable for agriculture. A third of crops worldwide are pollinated by honeybees. In the US, bees are responsible for billions of dollars in food production in pollination. If this was all they did, we'd still be grateful for the honeybee.
Honeybees are masters of biological manipulation. They produce royal jelly to feed larvae; therefore it is nature's babyfood. Bees use different formulas of babyfood, meaning different proportions of royal jelly, pollen, and honey to decide which larvae will be born queens and which will be worker bees. An experienced beekeeper can harvest up to 500 grams of royal jelly from a single hive every year. Royal jelly is sold as a nutritional supplement.
More honeybee products, after the jump.
Bees are the masters of chemistry as they make wax with their bodies. Bees between the ages of 10 and 16 days can secrete wax through special glands in their abdomens. The wax is produced from honey. A bee must consume 6-8 pounds of honey to produce one pound of wax. The tiny clear droplets of wax are collected from the abdomen and chewed until it is the right consistency for honeycomb-building. Beeswax must be maintained at the proper temperature (about 95 degrees) or it will be either too brittle or too soft. The colony works together to keep the temperature just right.
Bees are the masters of engineering in constructing honeycombs. is an awesome feat of engineering. The interlocking hexagonal cells provide the hive with maximum strength using the minimum amount of wax. Honeycomb is itself edible, and the wax is harvested to make candles, molds, wood polish, and solid lubricant.
And then there's honey. While wasps and hornets are busy building scary papery nests, honeybees are making sweet, sweet nectar to ensure the survival of their clan and descendents through the winter, making them masters of manufacturing. Bees can produce half again as much honey as they need, which is why we can help ourselves to the bounty. Honey is esssentially glucose and fructose, made from flower nectar processed with enzymes from the bee's body. The resulting liquid is stored in open honeycomb cells until the water content is reduced to around 17%. Bees hasten the evaporation process by fanning the open cells with their wings. Then the cell is sealed with a wax cap until the honey is needed.
Honey does not spoil like most foods. To say that honey is the only food that doesn't spoil is not quite true -granulated sugar does not spoil, either. The secret of honey is its low moisture content. Raw honey is only 14-17% water; very low for a liquid. Bacteria cannot multiply significantly in a medium with less than 18% water. It is also acidic, with a pH level between 3.2 and 4.5, which also deters bacterial growth. That does not mean bacteria are not present. Babies under a year old should not be fed honey, as even small amounts of bacteria (particularly botulism spores) can be dangerous for infants. Honey has been used since ancient times as medicine for its antimicrobial effects.
This effect can be illustrated with a simple experiment. Mix some water with honey and leave unrefrigerated for several days. Then compare the mess you have with the rest of the raw honey in its original jar. Then throw it out. Personally, I prefer mixing honey with butter, which must be consumed immediately.
Update: As for the recent news of fewer honeybees in the US, experts believe it is due to Colony Collapse Disorder. In my neck of the woods, there were few bees seen in 2006, but the population was way up in 2007.