The Art of Pollination

The Honey Diaries - The Art of Pollination

What came first: the flower or the bee?

Both of these organisms seem so innocent and meaningless in most of our day to day lives. Yet we are so dependant on their partnership that if we lost one, it would change the course of life as we know it. 

Let's first talk about who pollinators are.

Though honey bees play a major role in pollination, there are lots of other species out there spreading the pollen-love. Types of bees like bumble bees and mason bees, as well as other insects like butterflies and moths. Birds also pollinate, like the hummingbird and even some mammals like bats, rodents, and monkeys!

The definition of a pollinator here is anything that helps transfer pollen from one flower to another. Wind and water play a crucial role in helping things along as well. There are even some cases of human pollination, as the livelihood of natural pollination dwindles.

Now, what exactly is pollination?

I have the Merriam-Webster definition here:

Pollination: the transfer of pollen from an anther to the stigma in angiosperms or from the microsporangium to the micropyle in gymnosperms

This basically means pollen being transferred from one flower of a plant to another of the same species in order to create seeds and reproduce. There are two types of pollination. Self-pollination allows a flower to fertilize itself by shedding pollen. The other is cross-pollination, which relies on our pollinator team to reproduce.

In cross-pollination, pollen is being transferred by accident by the pollinator. While they are in close proximity to the flower, pollen sticks to their face or body and when they move along to the next flower, some of that pollen falls off and transfers to the new flower. The new flower then has a chance to reproduce and create seeds without the pollinator even knowing the difference.

Below is a simple diagram of cross-pollination:

Let's remember, we aren't just talking about petunias here.

Flowers are a plants tool to use for reproduction and tons of plants use them. This includes foods we eat like tomatoes, cucumbers, apples, berries, onions, vanilla, coffee, almonds and so much more. The plants create flowers that are bright and fragrant to attract more pollinators to them.

So far this may seem a bit one-sided. The flowers get help creating seeds and reproducing, but what's in it for the pollinators? The answer to that is two things. Nectar - the sweet substance made by flowers - is specifically used for luring pollinators to land on them and eat, taking pollen stuck to them when they go. The other is pollen; a food for many insects and a tasty treat. Pollen is an excellent source of protein and a staple in the diet of the honey bee.

What would life look like without pollinators?

As the downfall of honey bees and other pollinators in nature continues, it starts to illuminate issues directly affecting our everyday lives.

Pollinators are responsible for about 3/4 of our major food crops. Our grocery stores would be barren of flowering fruits, vegetables, nuts... and chocolate!

Education is the first step to helping out these little guys and appreciating the work they do everyday. Aknowledging that there is a issue out there and wanting to do something about it is going to empower many people to take the next steps in conservation and awareness.

So the next time you see a little bee out there hard at work gathering nectar and pollen, think of the art of pollination and the amazing phenomenon that is nature.

 

What is a Bee Hive?

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Getting familiar with the parts of a beehive can feel a bit daunting. 

Before I dive into our hive here I would like to point out that there are different types of hives out there. The most popular by far is the Langstroth hive, which we are using and I will be showing today. However, there are different types of hives available including the Top Bar hive and Warré hive. Each of these types of hives are unique and provide different advantages and disadvantages to beekeeping.

The hive that I am demonstrating with happens to be our own hive that we will be using to house our very first colonies of bees. We have purchased two hand made hives from a local company called Bee Furniture who makes the most beautiful "bee furniture". The owner has also turned into our personal bee guru and has already helped us immensely. 

I am going to break this hive down into each part and explain how it works!

The Bottom Board

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Some hives are propped up on a stand to keep it elevated off the ground. We are going to be placing our hives up on blocks so we do not need a stand for our bottom board to rest on. 

The bottom board here is screened and has a corrugated plastic board underneath it that can slide in and out. The purpose of the screen is to properly add ventilation when needed. Adding or taking away the board can aid with controlling the temperature and ventilation of your hive.

The second purpose for this screened bottom board is for varroa mite control. The mite inspection tray pulls out and allows you to count the mites that have died and fallen out of the hive. This determines a course of treatment for these mites.

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The Hive Body

The hive body consists of the largest size box for the hive. It sits on the bottom board and through the front, you can see an opening which is the main entrance for the bees to the hive. You can see guard bees standing out here protecting the entryway.

We have chosen a 10-frame sized hive, meaning that ten frames of comb can sit in each box of varying heights. 10 frames are the most common though they do have different sizes like the 8 frame or even 6 frame sizes.

We have not ordered our frames for our hives yet so I don't have a photo to show for now. 

Another name for this box is a brood box or deep super. All of these names mean the same thing and are just referring to the height of the box. 

The purpose of placing the largest box on the bottom is to give the colony lots of room to live and grow. With the longer frames, they have room to lay and hatch eggs as well as store pollen and honey to eat. The hive body is the area where the colony thrives and lives.

In each of the 10 frames, there are areas for brood (eggs), pollen and honey. The bees work from the middle out filling frame by frame. Once the bees have filled out 7-8 frames in the hive body, it is time to add another box!

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Honey Supers

Honey supers are smaller boxes, sizes medium and small, that sits above a hive body with shorter frames inside. These are added on once the hive body fills up, and gives the worker bees more room to start storing their honey.

In the wild, many honey bees make their home inside hollow trees. These hives mimic colonies in the wild by stacking vertically so the bees build up, just like the trees. The higher up in the hive you get is where you start to see that golden honey, so adding these supers creates more space for these bees to work.

Another reason to add on supers is that the colony can outgrow the hive. When this happens the queen packs up and moves out in search of a more suitable home and takes all her babies with her. Waking up to see that your colony has swarmed and left is not a good thing! Adding on a super, or splitting your hives if you have too many supers on already, can help save this from happening.

We have to keep in mind when adding these supers to a hive, it also creates more weight. A full small super is around 30lbs, a medium 50lbs and a full deep super can get up to almost 100lbs! Once you have a few of those stacked high, it can be quite the workout. 

The frames for these boxes vary in height for the small and medium. Some beekeepers suggest sticking to having your supers all small or all medium (or all deep to match the hive body, but that can get quite heavy) so that they can mix and match equipment easily.

A queen excluder is a framed screen, similar to a bottom board, that allows worker bees to pass through but keeps the queen blocked below. Beekeepers use this to prevent queens from going up into the honey supers and laying eggs, but this seems to be more commercially used and less for backyard beekeeping, so we decided to not go with one.

Inner Cover

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The inner cover is placed on top of the final honey super. It helps to regulate the hives temperature, as well as a barrier to help ensure the worker bees don't glue the roof of the hive to the top honey super with propolis. A hive tool is sometimes needed to help remove the inner cover as the girls do a great job of sealing everything up.

The reason there is a notch in the top of the inner cover is for a second entrance into the hive. Once the hive is a few boxes high, it can be a quicker route to the honey than climbing up from the bottom.

It can also help with ventilation into the hive, which is very important for colony health. Ventilation is a common theme to pay attention to, especially in the damp climate that we live in!

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Outer Cover

The most common outer cover you will see is a flat roof, telescoping cover. These roofs fit over the top of the inner cover and serve as protection from the weather.

With the bee furniture that we have purchased, we have gone with peaked roofs. The main reason for this is our damp and mild temperatures. This causes many problems with mold and mildew, so our best friend will be proper ventilation. 

As you can see in the photo, there are multiple screened holes in our cover that allows air to pass through. The peaked roof also acts similar to the attic of a house, helping regulate the overall temperature.

The cover still telescopes over the rest of the hive and keeps everything covered from the elements as well holding everything in nice and snug.

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Entrance Reducer

An entrance reducer is the small piece of wood you see blocking the bottom entrance to the hive between the bottom board and the hive body.

It is used to protect the hive from different creatures that may try to rob the hive including small mice and especially wasps. 

The reducer can be added during wasp season but also taken out when there is less threat to allow more ventilation. 

All these parts combine to create an amazing example of biomimicry.

Creating amazing structures that originated in nature and utilizing their systems. 

The reason we decided on getting two hives instead of just one was the idea that we could easily help one hive if it was looking in need, with some frames of bees from the other hive.

Not to mention, more hives = more honey!

Anatomy of a Honey Bee

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No, we will not be dissecting our little pollinators, but instead admiring the basic anatomy that makes up a worker honey bee.

Studying the anatomy of honey bees can help grow our understanding of how to care for them. There are common similarities that group these guys in with the Insecta classification, but there are a few things unique to only our friends the bees.

While this is a brief and basic look at the anatomy of a honey bee, it has given me a better understanding and appreciation for how they operate. I also learned quite a few fun facts that I hadn't known before!

The Head

The head is the front part of the honey bee which holds many sensory organs as well as the bee's brain.

At the very front, we have the two antennae. Though these are a small part of the honey bee they are arguably the most important. Used for not only feel and depth perception but also smell, taste and even a form of hearing! It is safe to say that without the antennae, our bees would be helpless.

The honey bee has two sets of eyes - simple eyes and compound eyes. The simple eyes, or ocelli, are the three small eyes on the top of the head. They are used to detect motion in their surroundings.

The compound eyes are the two big, round, noticeable eyes on the sides of the bee's head made up of tiny light detectors. They are similar to a house fly's eyes you might see in a cartoon, many small versions of an image are sent to the brain to make one clear image. 

The tongue of the honey bee is called the proboscis. It is very long in comparison to the length of the honey bee. It is used to go down into the nectaries of flowers and drink up the sweet liquid used to make honey.

The Thorax

The thorax is the center section of the honey bee where the wings and legs attach. Muscles in the middle of the body help fuel their fast-beating wings. The thorax also houses the esophagus which connects to the stomach below. 

There are two sets of wings belonging to the honey bee. The larger forewings and smaller hindwings both contribute to lifting our little bee up off the ground and get to where she needs to go. Honey bees fly about an average of 24km/h (or 15 mph). Another big contributor to their flight are muscles located in the thorax that help thrust them up into the sky.

A honey bee is each born with six legs. The legs are all used for landing, as well as equipped with taste sensors to help find their food. The front two legs are used to clean off their sensitive antennae. The middle are used to help with pollen collection and the back legs are set up with pollen baskets to carry pollen back to the hive.

Pollen baskets are very important to a honey bee. They are long hairs that wrap around the hind legs and can be filled with pollen. When filled, they will look like colourful "pants" on the hind legs. You can see different colours of "pollen pants" coming back to the hive, as pollen can be many different colours. 

The Abdomen

The abdomen is the round, back end of a honey bee. It is home to many of the honey bee's organs including the heart, digestive organs, and their venom sac. This is all protected by their tough outer shell exoskeleton.

Underneath the abdomen lies they honey bee's wax glands. These glands can only be used for about the first 12 days of a honey bee's life. After that they degenerate, no longer produce wax. This keeps the queen bee busy, supplying the hive with many young bees to create more wax.

The dreaded stinger. A fear to most, this part of the honey bee is also detrimental to itself. The stingers are barbed and are made to stay stuck in the victim. What ends up happening is that the honey bee dies trying to free herself and ripping out her own stinger from her body.

A fun fact about stingers is that queen bees have no barb and can sting many times, and drones (male bees) have no stinger at all. Sorry boys!

Below I have added a diagram that I have found very useful in my research.

It depicts certain body parts of the worker honey bee as well as the head, thorax and abdomen sections. It is also from an above view which I think is easier to read than the side view diagrams.

Photo Source: https://www.benefits-of-honey.com/images/honey_bee_body_parts.jpg

Photo Source: https://www.benefits-of-honey.com/images/honey_bee_body_parts.jpg

Now that we have a better understanding of what makes up a honey bee, we can make more sense of how our amazing fuzzy friends do what they do!