People sometimes claim the beaver is the engineer of the animal world. (The people who make such claims tend to discount humans as animals.) But you could just as well assign that distinction to the honeybee. A beehive is truly an engineering marvel: it’s the world’s most efficient jobsite and also (befitting this column) one of the tiniest.
Worker bees tirelessly collect nectar and transform it into honey, then wax. They secrete the wax to build hexagonal cells, which they use for both honey storage and egg development. (A queen lays 1000 eggs per day or more… that’s almost an egg a minute, ‘round the clock.) Turn a honeycomb over and you’ll see the cell grids are exactly opposite, with the center of a cell on one side lining up with a node on the other. The thousands of workers in a healthy hive can begin their grid in different parts of the honeycomb, and when they meet the cells line up perfectly. How they communicate their master plan is still unclear.
You’ve probably heard that honeybees have fared poorly over the past few decades. In this Tufts Magazine article, some beekeepers address the problem by starting new beehives in urban locations, including on rooftops and public school grounds. Bees do surprisingly well in the city. Around Boston, the article reports, honey production is actually higher in urban hives than in country hives, and colony collapse is less likely. Something about the big city makes these insects tougher.
One third of America’s food supply depends on honeybees. A single beehive can pollinate an acre of crops. It follows that you can make a surprisingly large impact by advocating for honeybee colonies in your hometown, or even starting one of your own. Plus, you get to harvest all that decadent raw unfiltered honey!
Thanks to David Silverstein for this article. Thanks to Luke Barns for the picture, and for teaching me pretty much everything I know about bees.