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How honeybees toil hard to feed humans and die warding them off

Not only do thousands of honeybees take three rounds of the world to visit 800,000 flowers to produce 500 gm honey – eight bees produce one teaspoon – their stings prove fatal to them

Written by Ranjit Lal |
June 6, 2021 6:10:10 am
honeybee, ranjit lalThousands of honeybee visit 800,00 flowers for 500 gm honey (Ranjit Lal)

The other day, I was listening to Stephen Fry and Richard Dawkins on YouTube. They were talking about how mythical stories evolved to explain phenomena not understood at the time — for example, what was the force that made a leaf push out of a twig, year after year. Ancient civilisations ascribed these powers to the gods, thus there was a god of nature, god of the sea, and so on. Then Fry gave this enchanting example from Greek mythology:

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When Zeus was going to marry Hera he decreed that the creatures on earth each prepare a dish for the wedding. He would grant any wish to whosoever made the most delicious dish. (Immediately, I got a little sidetracked: hah, I thought all the carnivores, lions, tigers and leopards would have turned up with the finest cuts of meat — roast venison, beef tenderloin, pork-belly, and chuck steak. All the bovines, buffalo, wildebeest, antelope would have produced fresh, organic cud — ruminated and masticated probiotic veggies. Even the lowly dung-beetle would have rolled a magnificent ball of dung and presented it as a rich and nutritious fruit cake.)

Anyway, the creatures all turned up with their dishes and Hera and Zeus began tasting. At last, Hera came across an offering in a tiny little pot made by a tiny little creature called Melissa. Hera loved it and passed it on to Zeus, who also found it absolutely delicious. Little Melissa was duly declared the winner and Zeus asked her for her wish. Melissa said her dish required an enormous amount of work: that she had had to visit thousands of flowers, sipping a little nectar from each of them and then turning the concoction into the elixir: honey (Melissa was, of course, a little honeybee). It took days and days and days of toil and all her work could be undone by a single lick by a bear, or swipe of a fox’s tail. While the gods had given the scorpion a poisonous sting to defend itself, and the snake a venomous bite, she had no weapons. So, could she be given a fatal sting to deter looters? But Zeus got mad and thundered a bit. Appalled by Melissa’s apparent selfishness, he said, I will give you a fatal sting – but it will be fatal to you! Which is why honeybees die after stinging a victim — and horribly: their stings are barbed and stick in the flesh of their victims, so that when they try to pull it out, they virtually disembowel themselves, with their intestines and other organs being yanked out — killing them (bees and wasps belong to a group called Hymenoptera, meaning wedding wings).

Science, of course, has a different explanation. Unlike the wasps’ multiple smooth stings, the honeybee’s sting (modified ovipositor) is barbed since it enables the gland to continue pumping venom into her victim (often thick-skinned), until it dies or flees, even after the poor bee has disemboweled herself trying to extract it. All the worker honeybees in a hive are sisters, with a 75 per cent genetic match (because papa bee — the drone — who mated with the queen has only one X chromosome, not two), more than the 50 per cent match with their own progeny if they had any, but that’s solely the queen’s privilege. Also, the interests of the hive and queen come above those of individual bees. So, she gladly sacrifices herself for the colony: as she stings her victim she sends out a war cry through her pheromones, beckoning her sisters to the battlefield.

Bee stings are nasty, but, unless you are allergic and go into anaphylactic shock, not deadly. Now, you may or may not agree that Melissa was being selfish when she asked to be “weaponised” but in one respect she was right — the amount of work it takes to produce honey. According to one calculation, a honeybee must visit at least 1,000 flowers to sip enough nectar to fill her special “honey stomach” with just 40 mg of honey, and which might just equal her own un-laden body weight. Another calculation mentions that it takes eight honeybees their entire lives to make just one teaspoon of honey. To make around 500 gm of honey, thousands of honeybees must fly the equivalent of three times around the world and visit 800,000 flowers. And here we are, ripping off 1.9 million tonnes of the sweet golden elixir every year (this was in 2019), with China leading the way. Honeybees make honey, which is mainly glucose and fructose to power their mighty flight muscles and feed their larvae. We love it because it is both sweet and golden. Now, every time I put a teaspoon of it on a toast I think of the eight bees that toiled to produce it. My jar claims to contain “organic, wild honey”, but there’s more to it than just smoking out a hive and squeezing the liquid from the combs into a bottle.

Wait a week to know how the bees actually make it.

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