Think you work hard? Inside a beehive, only seniors get to rest, and about 1000 bees can die each day just from exhaustion. It's Bee Aware Month - a campaign dedicated to the industrious insects and the irreplaceable role they play in our orchards, crops and natural ecosystems. Auckland bee expert Steve Leslie, who will be giving free talks at Kings Plant Barn garden centres throughout September, shares his 10 favourite facts about them.
Bees are responsible for pollination of approximately one third of the food we eat - and 90 per cent of fruit trees are pollinated by bees. There's nothing wrong with rice, corn and other plants not pollinated by bees, but we would lose a lot of our diverse and rich variety of food without bees.
2. A 500gm jar of honey is the result of visits to approximately two million flowers and is the life's work of more than 1000 bees. Each worker, or female, bee produces around one 12th of a teaspoon of honey in her life. Such hard work for a lovely and tasty product.
3. Bees invented air-conditioning long before humans. The brood or nest area of the hive needs to stay a steady 33-34C for the young bees to develop properly. This means in winter, the nurse bees warm the area by beating their wing muscles - they can disconnect their wings from the muscles - and on hot summer days they line up across half the hive entrance, fanning their wings and drawing hot air out of the hive. Other bees inside help to push the hot air down to the entrance. Cooler air is drawn in through the other side of the entrance, thereby creating airflow within the hive, and air-conditioning.
4. The hive is a factory, with "inwards goods" where foragers bring back nectar and pollen; "assembly and manufacturing", where they convert nectar to honey; and "outwards goods", home to new bees who will grow up to be foragers. The different areas of the factory communicate with each other so they respond to changes in season, sudden flowering of a good source of food, and so on by shifting labour to the team which needs it.
5. Bees will avoid stinging if they can and will try and warn an intruder away from the hive rather than sting.
6. Bees can make decisions collaboratively as a group. When a hive swarms in spring or early summer, they collect in a tree and send out scout bees to search for a new home. The swarm decides as a group which of the possible new locations is the best based on the enthusiasm shown by the scout for her particular "find".
The female bees are the main labour force in the hive, with the males, or the drones, there to mate with a new queen. In autumn, when food sources reduce, the bees kick the drones out of the hive as they prepare for winter.
8. The hive can lose up to 1000 bees per day, as they die of exhaustion and hard work, their wings tattered with holes. The queen is up to the task though, as she lays her own body weight in eggs every day to keep the hive going. Nurse bees attend her constantly, feeding and grooming her, and carrying her scent through the hive to reassure all the bees that the hive is "queenright".
9. The hive is dark inside, but work carries on 24/7. Only the older and more senior forager bees get to sleep at night, while the younger nurse and house bees look after the brood and make honey.
10. The hive is a very clean and hygienic place. Bees will fly away from the hive to defecate - possibly on your car or washing - and sick bees are ejected from the hive so infection is minimised. Resin from plants is mixed with enzymes from the bees to make propolis, which is an antibiotic. Honey itself can last for many years, and has many health benefits, both for bees and humans.
• Steve Leslie, an experienced beekeeper, will be giving talks at Kings Plant Barn's Henderson store tomorrow at 10am and at Silverdale at 2pm, and at St Lukes at 10am and Remuera at 2pm next Wednesday, September 12.