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The Altruistic Gene

The mark of a sophisticated society is one which encourages natural evolution. It encompasses the ability to communicate effectively with all who share the same environment while synchronizing behaviour to enable a safe and productive atmosphere in which the essentials of life – food, shelter and the ability to procreate - are all assured. Some social species like Homo sapiens do, at times, exhibit signs of such civility. Honeybees, however, are a shining example of how to thrive within a complex ecosystem within an atmosphere of peace and selflessness while dealing with complex social issues.

For millions of years these industrious, enlightened creatures not only captured the spirit of coexistence to sustain their whole, but they practice the act every single day. Honeybees live in peaceful coexistence, never in competition. Together they build communities that are safe and secure for all those within. They accomplish this honeybee nirvana by assisting two entirely different species maintain their specific environments. In the true spirit of interdependence, by assisting the plant kingdom and homo sapiens, honeybees have combined motive, means and opportunity and created a zero-carbon, zero-waste society that we humans characterize as hardworking, self sufficient and sustainable. Not bad for a species that is governed by brain tissue that is smaller than a single cubic millimetre. That’s a neural density 10 times higher than our own cerebral cortex.

In the Wild
The vast majority of bees are a solitary species spending their time caring for themselves and their offspring. Only a few species of bees actually spend their daily lives in some form of colony. None is more impressive than the genus Apis mellifera. Literally meaning honey-carrying bees, when in their natural setting, all is their domain. On the wing, they are limited only by the absence of suitable forage. They explore millions of flowering pedals in backyards, orchards, gardens, herb beds, farmers’ fields, parks and meadows from late spring to early fall.

Ecologically minded, honeybees harvest their nutritional needs without as much as disturbing a single pedal of the plant they visit. Unlike other munching insects such as caterpillars, beetles and fruit flies that dine on the host’s leaves, stems and seeds, honeybees prefer their dinner takeout style. Once foraging is complete, this home-loving species flies back to her nest to deliver her harvest. Then, before she takes flight again, she downs a quick meal of bee bread dipped in homemade honey made by her industrious sisters and aunts.

Considered one of the wonders of our natural world, wild (feral) honeybees are an interesting blend of engineer, nursemaid and magician. Colonies contain up to 20,000 residents. Yet, despite their enormous numbers honeybees remain, for the most part, invisible. Hidden from view, their nests are impressive examples of adaptation and engineering. Using their limbs and mandibles as tools, they build interlocking hexagonal structures which are considered to be one of the strongest, light-weight structures known to humankind. Outlasting summer’s blaze and winter’s fury, generations of honeybees live out their existence in the same structure for years.

Home Sweet Home
These self-possessed functionalists accommodate their specific purpose by building their nests in dark, dry enclosed spaces. Because they create a surplus of food -- honey from nectar and bee bread from pollen -- they build nests to include large storage areas which have the capacity to hold at least 15 liters of honey (just over 63 cups).
Honeybees never sleep, nor do they hibernate during the winter. Their constant activity means they are in continuous need of a safe food supply. The stored surplus guarantees the entire colony is well fed.

Over-wintering as a colony is unique to the genus of honeybees. In the fall, everything slows down. As days cool and the colony’s numbers decrease, the remaining honeybees put their focus on sustaining a warm and cozy environment. During this time, there are very few offspring. Those born during the fall do not care for the brood. Rather, they develop a padding of fat in their abdomen which helps them survive the cooler months, while caring for the Queen. In the bitter cold of winter, worker bees congregate to form a compact heat generating globe. A muted shhhhing sound emanates from the collective as their soft, furry bodies endlessly brush against each other to generate warmth for the entire nest. This warming sphere reaches temperatures up to 25ºC (77ºF) ensuring the inhabitants of the nest will survive until the warming days of late spring return.

Honeybees, much like humans, also harvest natural plant chemicals. Propolis (think acropolis) is a sticky plant resin harvested from conifer and poplar trees. Useful to both species, propolis is full of antibacterial, antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties. It has been used by the human race for over 3,000 years to fight off infections. Worker bees collect the plant resin from the buds and trunks of the trees for much the same reason.

Gathering can be a slow process. Often taking over an hour to bite off tiny fragments of resin, honeybees pack the tiny chunks into their pollen baskets, the corbicula located on their hind legs. Once delivered to the nest, other worker bees use the powerful plant chemical to fill in small cracks in the nest walls to keep the structure waterproof and free of drafts. They use propolis to attach their combs to the top and sides of their housing structure. Once affixed, these sturdy combs fill up quickly. Each 30 square centimeter can hold up to a kilogram of honey or 2.2 pounds. Then they really get creative. Should an unwelcome intruder be too large to eject from the nest, honeybees embalm the predator in the plant resin to protect the colony from deadly bacterial infestation.

Propolis also plays an important role in the nursery. To protect their young from any undesirable bacterial or parasitic growth, honeybees use a thin layer of propolis proactively to varnish the inside of the brood cells before the queen lays her egg. Then, as the days grow shorter and temperature drops, they mix the resin with bees wax to seal off the only entrance to the nest in preparation for the long days of winter ahead.

Renos
When building or repairing their nest, the youngest honeybees work collectively in large clusters to raise their body temperature to produce the wax necessary to aid in renovation efforts. Slowly secretions of warm wax, the size of a pinhead, appear from four pair of glands located under their abdomen. Weighing no more than one mg each -- less than a single rice crispy -- some slivers of wax are taken to areas of the nest that require maintenance. Others are taken by the older, more experienced honeybees to create the transparent, hexagonal chambers which will ultimately store their food and cradle their young.

Taking up to 80,000 waxy scales to make a single honeycomb, these chambers are built to exact specification. All new comers to the community are identified by the size of the chamber or cell. Cells that are long and hang vertically are reserved for the new queens. The smallest ones hold the fertilized eggs which mature into sterile female worker bees 21 days later. Larger cells hold the unfertilized eggs that become male drone bees in 24 days. All eggs pass through the same metamorphic process going from larvae to pupa then emerging as young adolescence honeybees. None have the ability to fly. But exactly how a Queen manages to lay both unfertilized and fertilized eggs still remains a mystery of Nature.

Altruistic Gene
While all this highly evolved process represents the pinnacle of a sophisticated social organization it’s altruism that’s at the heart of its success. During the HoneyBee Genome Project, scientists believe they located the honeybee’s altruistic gene which has made the insect one of the most advanced species on Earth.

Altruism is the social glue that enables a complex society to naturally evolve and function. Honeybee loyalty is unwavering. Every action they undertake supports the common heritage of the entire community. Collectively they build complex architecture using intricate systems of division of labour. They organize their defense and their expressions of personal sacrifice are unheard of in most of the animal kingdom.

Queens and their workers have identical genotypes but queens live two orders of magnitude longer and can lay one egg per second for several years. The vast majority of colony members spend their lives helping the Queen to reproduce rather than increase their direct fitness by generating their own progeny. In so doing, by helping their closest relative, the mother Queen to reproduce, the sterile worker honeybees ensure their genes are passed along. And while it may be an evolutionary enigma, inconsistent with basic Darwinian theory, it’s a genetically encoded law that helps maintain the harmony of the entire species.

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In Captivity
As beekeepers learned to adapt honeybee colony behavior to commercial operations, they capitalized on the honeybees’ proficient lifestyle turning their nests into giant beehive factories. These honeybee factories are large enough to hold 40,000 to 60,000 adult bees – two to three times the size of feral colonies. A single hive that large needs to accommodate 5,000 to 7,000 eggs; 7,000 to 11,000 larvae being fed up to 1300 times a day; and, up to 24,000 pupae wrapped in pristine sealed cells – all managed by worker bees.

What makes commercial beekeeping so attractive to big business is the honeybees’ ability to visit a vast diversity of plants satisfying both the pollination requirements of modern agriculture and the human demand for bee-related products. The honey harvested from these large commercial hives is from a mixed variety of blooms and sold to large scale users. The sweetener is used in baking, confectioneries, cosmetics, meat packing, pharmaceuticals and for curing tobacco. Pollen and royal jelly are sought after for their nutritional value and honeybee venom is used in the treatment of bee hypersensitivity. World production of beeswax exceeds 10,000 tons annually. Beeswax is used in the production of a myriad of products from cosmetics and candles to electronics, lubricants, leather and fabric preservatives, polishes, inks and paints. Commercial beekeeping has also given rise to the sale of worker bees. In this highly specialized form of beekeeping, honeybees are packaged by the pound and delivered worldwide by the postal service. Queens are a lucrative commercial enterprise too. Often advertised as being of a specific genetic origin, the bitter truth is breeders have created reliance on a single genus resulting in a lack of diversity -- a danger for any species.

It is the mobile beekeepers, those who provide bee pollination services to the farmers throughout North America, which really put captive honeybees through their paces. Early in the year, beehive factories are trucked to from field to field following the spring north, then back again into the southern hemisphere, all the while pollinating a variety of orchards and field crops assisted by wild honeybees in the area.

Early each May, more than 100 truckloads of honeybees head northward from Florida and other states to Maine to help pollinate blueberries. A typical truck carries 400 to 500 hives of honeybees, each with a queen and 40,000 to 50,000 drones, worker bees and young. Many of them have just finished harvesting a crop of orange-blossom honey in Florida; after they are done in Maine, about half of them will move to Massachusetts to pollinate cranberries, and others will go west to Michigan for cucumber pollination. Then it will be New York state for goldenrod honey, then home to the South.

The demand is mind numbing. California is now the biggest bee renter, using 900,000 colonies to pollinate its almond harvest alone. Rental fees are $35 to $60 a colony. To pollinate California’s 360,000 bearing acres of almonds, an estimated 350,000 colonies of honeybees must be borrowed from other states to add to the 650,000 colonies already in the state. If an average beehive holds 50,000 inhabitants, 37.5 trillion honeybees are required to pollinate just one crop. Multiple that by the number of farms and orchards across the nation which require pollination and one begins to get a sense of how much we rely on commercial honeybees.

Unfortunately, there is little evidence of human altruism in these commercial operations. To further capitalize on the honeybees’ incredibly efficient lifestyle, commercial beekeepers encourage the overproduction of honey within the hive. That honey is then harvested and sold often leaving the honeybees without enough natural food to sustain them. To save money and maintain profits commercial beekeepers feed them a supplementary diet of soy protein and sugar water, often made using high fructose corn syrup. Natural, homemade honey and pollen are important elements of the honeybees’ sophisticated survival strategy. Commercial corn syrup is not natural, nor is it honeybee nutritious.

Once back home, all the commercial grade honey is harvested. The hardworking honeybees are fed rations of commercial grade sweeteners which often contain genetically engineered HFCS and are sealed in their hives in wait for the entire process to begin anew with the first onset of spring.

Related Posts

  • Death By Nutrition
    Both the medical and independent scientific community have declared a nutritional pandemic and the forecast for our children is not promising.
  • The Gene Gamble
    As recently as the last two decades, science has uncovered some exquisite truths about both honeybees and humans -- not the least of which is the barriers which separate us are thinner than we like to believe.
  • The Black Swan
    Between 1995 and 2004 the US Geology Department took on a monumental task. In the most comprehensive river study to be carried out to date. What raised the Black Swan of concern was how prevalent the new species of ‘intersex’ fish swam in the fresh water river ways throughout North America well away from industrial sites and over populated urban areas.

Resources

  • CRANE, E (1975) History of honey, In Crane, E (ed.) Honey, a comprehensive survey, William Heinemann; London; pp 439-488.
  • Lifetime learning by foraging honey bees, Reuven Dukas, P Kirk Visscher, Department of Entomology, University of California, September 1993
  • D. Cox Foster, Pennsylvania State University, and C. Rexrod, USDA’s ARS, Statement before the Subcommittee on Horticulture and Organic Agriculture, U.S. House of Representatives, March 29, 2007, at [http://agriculture.house.gov/testimony/110/h70329/
    CoxFoster.pdf] and [http://agriculture.house.gov/testimony/110/h70329/Rexroad.pdf]; and published interview with Jerry Hayes, Florida’s
  • http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2006/07/060721-bee-study.html

Rethink Food

The average consumer believes they are not very powerful - but the exact opposite is true. Corporations deliver what the consumer demands. The average meal purchased from your supermarkets travels 1500 miles to arrive at your dinner table. You can change the industrial food system with every bite.

  • Vote with your purchasing dollar
  • Read the food label
  • Buy only from companies that treat workers, animals and the environment with respect.
  • Choose foods that are in season and locally grown.
  • Buy organic or naturally grown food
  • Shop at farmers' markets
  • Cooking is fun and easy. Make the time to cook a meal
  • Our government agencies are supposed to protect us. Tell them to enforce food safety standards.

Citizen's Science - Be Involved

Wildflower Initiatives
There are over 20,000 species of wildflowers in North America belonging to 300 different families. Kissing cousins to the flowering food crops that end up on our dinner table, their colour and beauty grace our landscapes. From the delightful eye candy of wildflower fields to a groaning board full of culinary delights, honeybees make it all happen. Today half of the world-wide honeybee population has vanished.

Often there appears to be a great divide between ecological problems and probable solutions. Not in this case. Without honeybees diversity rich food sources which are naturally grown are in jeopardy. But we can turn things around using practical applications that are accessible to everyone. We just have to shift perspective - abit. Please join us.