Sunday, December 7, 2014

Honey Bees

The honey bee is a social insect which evolved in Africa from where it spread to all adjoining land masses. Wild honey bees build colonies in cavities in cliff faces, hollow tree trunks and other suitable places. Colonies often consist of tens of thousands of female workers and a queen bee and at times of the year a small number of drones.

The queen bees spends her entire life in the colony laying eggs. The drones take part in a nuptial flight during which the queen bee is fertilised.

The workers gather pollen and nectar which they take back to the colony. The nectar is converted into honey which is used as a concentrated source of energy. Honey that is not used immediately is stored to be used when it is not possible to find enough nectar for their immediate need.

A long time ago humans found out that they could obtain honey by raiding bees’ nests and at some point they discovered that they could increase the amount of honey they collected by providing the bees with hives, artificial cavities where they could set up new colonies. The hives had the advantage that they could be taken care of all year round, the honey inside was easier to reach and they could be moved from one place to another to ensure that the bees are were always close to good sources of nectar.

In spite of the fact that humans have been providing bees with hives for thousands of years, the bee was never domesticated. It remains a wild animal and bee colonies can sometimes be found in nature which were initiated without human intervention.

The honey bee is also important as a pollinator. It is estimated that honey bees contribute 22 billion Euros to European agriculture with 84% of crops needing insect pollination. Beekeeping is also associated with the production of other products such as wax, royal jelly and propolis.

The Maltese islands can boast of their own race of honey bee. A race that adapted itself for the local environment. Nowadays another race, the Italian bee, can be found in the Maltese islands. This race was imported in large numbers in the 1990s from New Zealand following the decimation of the local bees by disease.

During the past two decades the two races intermixed and produce hybrids and it is doubtful whether pure forms of the Maltese race still exist.

This article was published in The Times of Malta on 11 September 2014. 

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