Get the buzz on bees: Nine facts

By Marilynn McLachlan

Hundreds of beehives are stolen each year around New Zealand. Photo / Thinkstock
Hundreds of beehives are stolen each year around New Zealand. Photo / Thinkstock

Today marks the 175th birthday of honey bees in New Zealand, described by Shakespeare as "singing masons building roofs of gold".

Two hives of honey bees were brought to New Zealand from Sydney in 1839 by Mary Bumby. Since then, beekeeping has evolved from being a home craft to a skilled art. Honey exports are now valued at around $81 million per year. Unfortunately, bees are under threat worldwide, which could be agriculturally and economically devastating for New Zealand.

To celebrate the arrival of the honey bee in New Zealand, we explore some amazing facts about bees.

1. Bees can recognise the human face

In 2010, a team of researchers discovered that both humans and bees recognise faces in the same way - by piecing together components of a face to form a pattern.

Their ability to do this might provide computer scientists with ways to improve face recognition technology.

2. Honey bees may help in national security

The American Defence Advanced Research Laboratory (DARPA) has been working with honey bees since 1999 and has discovered that their sense of smell can challenge that of a dogs. Using Pavlov's dog strategy of associating a stimulus with an award, the DARPA have associated the smell of bomb ingredients with the reward of sugar water. Using tiny tracking devices attached to the bees, the research has shown that the bees swarm when scents are detected. This means they can search out chemicals used to make explosives.

3. Honey bees can be used to improve health

Propolis, the resin that bees use to seal their hives and has a history of medicinal benefits dating back to 350 BCE. Web MD reports that it was used for abscesses by the Greeks and the Assyrians used it for healing wounds and tumours. It is still used today and appears to have activity against bacteria, viruses and fungi as well as anti-inflammatory effects. Evidence supports its effectiveness in treating cold sores, genital herpes and promoting healing after mouth surgery, but more evidence is needed to prove its effectiveness in treating cancer sores, the common cold and other illnesses.

4. Honey bees have personalities

Scientist had once believed that honey bee communities were a regimented colony of interchangeable workers, but this changed after a study from the Institute for Genomic Biology suggested that honey bees might have feelings. They discovered that some bees exhibit thrill-seeking behaviour, while others didn't which led the study to conclude that "our results say that novelty-seeking in humans and other vertebrates has parallels in an insect."

5. Honey bees are the only insect that produces food eaten by humans

Honey bees transform nectar into honey, and a cave painting in Valencia, Spain shows that humans have been hunting for honey for at least 8,000 years.

6. Honey bees work themselves to death

While a queen bee can live for several years, the worker bees - all of whom are female - live for 4-9 months in the winter but only six weeks in the summer, when they are at their busiest, literally working themselves to death.

7. Humans can help care for the honey bee

With the health and number of bees under threat in New Zealand and around the world, people can take simple steps to help maintain numbers. This includes planting bee friendly trees and plants, having a water source in the garden and ensuring any garden sprays are bee friendly. Click here for further details.

8. Beehive theft is common in New Zealand

Hundreds of beehives are stolen each year around New Zealand as their worth continues to rise due to the high value of honey and honey related products. In September last year, a complaint about swarming bees in the Wairarapa led to the discovery of more than 30 stolen beehives. Whangarei Bee Club president Kevin Wallace said that thieves are costing farmers tens of thousands of dollars each year.

9. Honey bees may offer help in understand age-related dementia

Honey bees have different roles within a hive. After a period of nursing, bees become foragers and age very quickly - their wings get worn down, their body loses hair and they lose their brain function. Scientists at Arizona State University discovered that when these older honey bees take on roles that are usually handled by younger bees, they effectively reversed brain aging. In their research they noted that two proteins noticeably changed and that this same protein can help protect against dementia, including Alzheimer's. Scientists are considering that changing how people deal with their surroundings may help the brain stay younger.

(Photos / Thinkstock)

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