Saturday, 8 January 2011

The amazing world of bees...

The bee is aptly described in the proverbs, “as profitable, laborious, loyal, swift, nimble, quick of scent, bold, cunning, chaste, neat, brown and chilly as a bee,” according to Charles Butler in The Feminine Monarchy or the History of the Bees from 1609.

There is no dull fact about bees, whether we regard them for themselves, or for the metaphorical uses to which they are put by social commentators.

Bees are a “keystone species” which have a disproportionately important effect on their environment, relative to their biomass. Such species affect many other organisms in an ecosystem and help to determine the types and numbers of various other species in a community.

They play a role analogous to the role of a keystone in an arch. While the keystone is under the least pressure of any of the stones in an arch, the arch still collapses without it. Similarly, an ecosystem may experience a dramatic shift if a keystone species is removed, even though that species was a small part of the ecosystem by measures of biomass or productivity.

Bees play an important role in pollinating flowering plants, and are the major type of pollinator in ecosystems that contain flowering plants. Bees either focus on gathering nectar or on gathering pollen depending on demand, especially in social species.

Bees gathering nectar may accomplish pollination, but bees that are deliberately gathering pollen are more efficient pollinators. It is estimated that one third of the human food supply depends on insect pollination, most of which is accomplished by bees, especially the domesticated European honey bee. The former is primarily as an energy source and the latter primarily for protein and other nutrients. Most pollen is used as food for larvae.

There are nearly 20,000 known species of bees in seven to nine recognized families, though many are undescribed and the actual number is probably higher. They are found on every continent except Antarctica, in every habitat on the planet that contains insect-pollinated flowering plants.

In 2005 researchers at Caltech studied honey bee flight with the assistance of high-speed cinematography and a giant robotic mock-up of a bee wing. Their analysis revealed that sufficient lift was generated by "the unconventional combination of short, choppy wing strokes, a rapid rotation of the wing as it flops over and reverses direction, and a very fast wing-beat frequency". Wing-beat frequency normally increases as size decreases, but as the bee's wing beat covers such a small arc, it flaps approximately 230 times per second, faster than a fruitfly (200 times per second) which is 80 times smaller.

Bees figure prominently in mythology and have been used by political theorists as a model for human society. Journalist Bee Wilson states that the image of a community of honey bees "occurs from ancient to modern times, in Aristotle and Plato; in Virgil and Seneca; in Erasmus and Shakespeare; Tolstoy, as well as by social theorists Bernard Mandeville and Karl Marx."

As for the insects as symbol, bees have been used to endorse monarchism, republicanism, hard work ("non nobis" - "not for ourselves" do we work, runs the tag along many Renaissance images of hives) and indolence. Bees have provided templates to explain or guide human society - although we've been almost always wrong in how their society forms and operates.

Honey bees actually live in hives of up to 80,000 insects. They are divided into social classes – the queen, around 6,000 unhatched eggs, 9,000 hatches eggs or brood larvae, 20,000 older larvae or pupae, 300-1,000 drones and 40-50,000 work bees. That's a lot of insects working together for a common purpose - to make life go on - and the delicious honey is a great by-product along the way!

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