The unbelievable bee and its impact on food

Monday, Sept. 4, 2017 1:16 PM
Brad Milligin holds up a full honey comb in 2014. He is a third-generation beekeeper, at Milligin Farms.
The deadly parasitic Varroa mite on the back of this honey bee is one of many insect pests that sugar esters may be useful in controlling. Sucrose octanoate, a sugar ester, can kill the mite without harming the bee. Nearly one out of four American honeybee colonies died this winter, but that’s not quite as bad as recent years.
A bee gathers pollen from a flower in this undated photo. A honeybee can fly as far as two miles in one journey, each trip lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to two hours.
Sam Green/Cortez Journal

Gary Milligin in front of the warehouse with stacks of bee hives in 2014.

To make a prairie it takes clover and one bee.

One clover, and a bee, and revery.

Emily Dickinson

Here’s a question for you: How much honey does one honeybee produce in its lifetime? Think about it for a minute and before you settle on an answer, consider the following facts:

A honeybee’s lifespan is six weeks long during the summer;Eggs fertilized by the queen become female worker bees, and unfertilized eggs become drones;A hive is 99 percent female, and they perform all the work of the hive;The first three weeks are spent inside the hive working as carpenters, sentries, and nurses;There are 40,000 to 60,000 bees in a healthy hive;A honeybee can fly as far as two miles in one journey, each trip lasting anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 hours;A honeybee makes as many as 50 pollen-collecting trips a day, collecting the sticky grains on her back legs;One pellet or “loaf” of pollen is collected on each journey, each loaf is 1/3 the size of a single grain of rice, and pollen is the plant protein that bees feed their young.She will log 500 miles of flight in an average lifetime;Every journey is species specific; that is, if she begins with a tulip, she ends with a tulip. The next journey might be marigolds or clover, but it won’t be combined with the tulip foray;A pair of antennae on the honeybee’s head acts as her nose, enabling her to locate flowers, and those antennae are 100 times more sensitive than the human nose;She stores nectar in her honey sac or stomach, collecting nearly half her weight before returning to the hive;She empties her sac of nectar, which is 80 percent water, at the hive to waiting young “house” bees who dry and process the nectar into honey, reducing it to less than 17 percent water;The honeybee is indefatigable, and after about 20 days of toil and flight, she will fly away from the hive and die from exhaustion.Centuries of wonder, curiosity, reverence, fear, and mythology have guided us to our current understanding of bee life. But the currency of the hive – honey– has proven especially perplexing.

Aristotle pondered the mysteries of bees in the olive groves of Athens. He performed some of the earliest known bee experiments and recorded his observations. His work, however, is laced with quaint conjecture regarding the manufacture of honey: “The honey is what falls from the air, especially at the rising of the stars, and when the rainbow descends...”

Three hundred years later, Virgil added his own useful details about the habits of bees. Unfortunately, his findings did not change the current thinking of the day, which was that baby bees were plucked – fully formed – from flowers by adult bees in their mouths and that honey was “heaven-borne, the gift of air.”

First century Roman scholar Pliny the Elder contributed new information to the understanding of how hives work. Unfortunately, he propagated his own mythology around the origins of honey, which he attributed to the “saliva of the stars.” Apparently, even great thinkers can stumble past the truth.

A full and accurate understanding of these complex insects evolved over many centuries and continents. It wasn’t until the invention of the printing press that the dissemination of information began to be widely shared.

Not until the 17th century was it acknowledged that hives had a sovereign ruler; of course, it was believed to be a king. The revelation of the true sex of the hive’s ruler coincided with another revolutionary invention: the microscope. Using this latest technology, it was a Dutchman who verified that the king was indeed a queen.

Centuries of struggle and experimentation were aided by the development of observation hives, which allowed scientists greater access to the inner workings of the hive.

Finally, by the middle of the 19th century, after thousands of years of conjecture – the anatomy and functions of each member of the colony was understood. Likewise, the veil had at last been lifted on the mystery of the queen and the life cycles and foraging habits of her young.

Today, we still are learning about the interconnectedness between the life of the hive and the life of the planet and all its inhabitants.

In her 2005 biography of honey titled “Robbing the Bees,” Holley Bishop claims, “A third of our diet and the very appearance and future of our planet, is the burden and promise that bees carry on their furry bodies and legs.” Just think:Eevery third bite of your next meal is the direct result of bee pollination. Almonds, apples, broccoli, citrus, melons, parsley, sunflowers, cranberries, and clover – to name only a few – are dependent on pollination from bees for their survival. Hundreds more are indirectly reliant on bees.

Today, the agricultural codependence between bees and their keepers and farmers can be a lucrative one. Commercial exporting of bees is a million dollar industry. California’s almond industry relies exclusively on the import of bees to provide ¾ of the world’s almonds, over a billion pounds of nuts a year. Each of the nearly half-million acres of almond trees in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys requires at least two colonies of pollinators.

Bees are also a rancher’s best friend. Alfalfa depends on cross pollination in order to flourish, bloom, and reproduce itself. A healthy crop of alfalfa translates into feed for livestock, which in turn provides us with meat and milk. The next time you pour cream in your coffee or throw a steak on the grill, thank a bee.

Alfalfa and almonds keep Brad and Kaari Milligin of Lewis in the honey business. Milligin is a third-generation beekeeper, and Milligin Honey Farms has been in operation for nearly 50 years. Their 1,600 hives are scattered throughout five counties in Southwest Colorado, foraging and pollinating alfalfa fields, and yielding 40 to 50 pounds of honey per hive each year.

In November or December, Milligin transports his hives to California to “work the almonds.” Kaari explains that none of the honey produced while away from home is harvested; it is all left for the bees. The bees are in the almond groves for one purpose – to pollinate the almond crops. “We want them (the bees) to be just like our children – happy, warm, and well-fed,” says Kaari. That means allowing the bees to keep the golden liquid they produce while sharecropping for their own nourishment.

Note: Do you remember the question? Just how much honey does this amazing creature produce in her brief lifetime? One-twelfth of one teaspoon. My goodness.

Honeyburgers(From Robbing the Bees by Holley Bishop)

1 ½ lb.s ground beef (preferably locally raised and processed)½ C sliced black olives1/3 C finely chopped onion¼ C capers, drained and rinsed3 pickled jalapeno peppers, drained or sliced (add one more if you want really zesty burgers)2 Tbsp honeySalt and fresh-ground pepper to taste

Mix all the ingredients together.

Shape into 4 or 5 burgers

Cook using your preferred method to your preferred doneness and serve your preferred way.