honeybees

Honeybee workers in a hive-- the glistening liquid in the cells is nectar being transformed into honey. The odd-shaped cells at the top are where the hive is producing a new queen.

As I noted last week, one of the most popular things to see at my nature center is the observation beehive, our bee colony behind a glass window. If you've not yet seen it, please come check it out. When you open the door, thousands of bees greet you, but all behind a glass window. And there is movement in all directions, a veritable tornado of bees swirling in all directions.

But looks can be deceiving.

Last week, I wrote about how bees dance to communicate – grab the story online – so when you open the observation hive window, you’ll see this bee here dancing a figure eight in one direction, that bee there dancing a figure eight in another, a third bee spazzing out in a vibrating dance, and more. But bees everywhere seem to be walking in all directions.

There is a method to this madness.

Imagine one of the tens of thousands of bees living in a typical hive. It emerges as an adult female worker from a cell in the hive, other adult bees having cared for the larval stage. Once emerged, it immediately sets out to take its place in the long list of occupations female worker bees engage in.

“Worker honeybees start their careers as janitors when only a few hours old,” writes Canadaian beekeeper Mark L. Winston is his fabulous book, "Bee Time," “removing cocoons and excreta (my note: a scientific word for poop) from used cells in the comb. They also eliminate debris from the nest, including … dead adults. Their first major switch,” he continues, “happens a few days later, when they become cooks and nurses.” Here, they are feeding baby bees – the larvae they once were – mouth to mouth.

Around 10 to 15 days into adulthood, they switch careers again, becoming food processors, receiving nectar from foraging workers returning from the field. They regurgitate the nectar into cells – and this is the raw material later transformed into honey. They also accept pollen from workers, packing the pollen grains into other cells. Bees are steak-and-potato eaters, the pollen serving as their protein and the honey their carbs. “Next up is construction,” Winston writes, “secreting wax and building the precisely ordered [hexagonal] cells that make up the comb.”

Almost three weeks into adulthood – and sadly nearing the end of their exhausting lifestyle – they graduate, becoming guard bees, standing at the entrance to keep out invaders like predators, parasite, and marauding bees from other hives. “Finally,” Winston concludes, “once their few days of military service are over they begin their last career, as farmworkers harvesting crops.” These are the bees heading out into the wild to bring back nectar, pollen, and water.

So when you peek into the observation hive and see the whirl of activity, you are seeing some foraging bees dancing to communicate where good nectar can be found and other foraging bees are regurgitating nectar into food-processing bee stomachs. There’s also construction workers building comb, janitors carrying dead bees out of the entrance, other bees feeding larvae, the queen walking through the hive depositing eggs with her surrounding consort of workers, and more.

So, “busy as a bee,” yes? Turns out that might be a misnomer. “Based on how they spend their time,” Winston continues, “‘resters’ rather than ‘workers’ would be more accurate nomenclature for worker bees.” When you open that hive door, in spite of all the activity, fully two-thirds of the bees are doing nothing. Absolutely nothing. While they go through a sequence of maybe 10 different jobs in their short adult lives of only a couple of months, they are doing nothing much of the time.

Which means they are available in an emergency, a crisis. If another hive attacks, they are available to help. If the hive needs to split in two and send a swarm off to start another colony, they are available. There is a deep pool of bees on hand to handle whatever nature delivers-- and deliver nature will, for nature is nothing if not unpredictable. There is a lesson here for business, but it seems unlikely that a factory will have two-thirds of its workforce standing around idly waiting for an emergency to strike. But when it does, God, you wish you had that.

And bees don’t multitask either. During the time they are cemetery bees, they do that one thing. When they are foraging bees, that is all they do. When they are guard bees, they do nothing else. Bees focus singularly and exclusively on one task, do it very well, and then move on. Beess “accomplish jobs more efficiently through serial rather than simultaneous work,” concludes Winston.

Turns out that might actually be a better model for people. “Research conclusively demonstrates,” reports Winston, “that each task suffers when we try to do more than one thing at a time, our brains overwhelmed with information and choices.” He notes that “almost every study has shown that even youth are less effective at doing tasks when also paying attention to emails, texts, Facebook, Twitter, video, or audio.”

If you have too many things to do, the bees tell us, don't do them all at once, as each suffers. Bite them off serially-- finish that report, then move to the next task.

And that’s the buzz from the bees.

Mike Weilbacher directs the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in Upper Roxborough, tweets @SCEEMike, and can be reached at mike@schuyulkillcenter.org.

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