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updated: 7/20/2017 6:15 AM

Don't underestimate the power of the tiny bee

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  • The tiny worker bees perch on the side of a continually fed bird bath to sip the cool rain water on a hot summer day.

    The tiny worker bees perch on the side of a continually fed bird bath to sip the cool rain water on a hot summer day.
    Courtesy of Hope Babowice

  • Serena Dodd, 7, takes a peek at the busy bees in the Fremont Township community garden's top bar hive.

    Serena Dodd, 7, takes a peek at the busy bees in the Fremont Township community garden's top bar hive.
    Courtesy of Hope Babowice

 

"How do bees make their hives?" asked a curious student at the Libertyville Recreation Department Kinder Korner Pre-School program.

Don't underestimate the tiny flying insect, the bee.

As bees buzz around the flowers, trees and plants, their tiny bodies collect pollen and nectar to make honey -- a food source for bees, people and animals, and the basic material used in hive making. In the process, they pollinate hundreds of different crops and even more flower species.

A world without bees would be missing important plants. Farmers estimate bee handiwork contributes billions of dollars to crop production. Birds need bees, too. The flowers they pollinate are important for birds as a food source and as places to perch as they migrate.

But that's not all the busy bees do. They've created an efficient manufacturing system to produce honey -- food they need to survive and a wonderful sweet, sticky, delicious treat people, animals and even insects savor.

Building a bee hive is an incredible skill these busy bees are well designed to carry out.

Imagine moving to a new home that comes with an unlimited food source and security to keep away unwanted visitors. That's how beekeepers convince bees to form hive homes in bee boxes where they build their combs to house their babies, their queen, and their food source: mouthwatering honey.

There are different types of hives for different kinds of bees. Social bees are the ones that form colonies in hives that contain hexagonal wax cells to house baby bees, the queen bee and honey. When starting a social hive, beekeepers purchase bee packages. A package contains up to 10,000 bees plus the most important bee: the queen.

"Their first job is to build a comb," explained garden caretaker Alicia Dodd at the Fremont Township community garden in Mundelein.

The garden is planted with a variety of crops, flowers and fruit trees, as well as two types of bee hives: a top bar with viewing window and the traditional Langstroth boxes.

"It's the strongest and most efficient space to create bees," Dodd maintains, pointing to the multiple sheets of comb visible through the window of the garden's top bar hive. "They've been caged for a week when we get them and we don't want the queen flying off and finding a new home, so we add a container of honey or sugar syrup to the hive so she wants to stay."

At the Fremont Township garden, bees make beelines for the flowers blooming in the arching rows of artichokes, tomatoes and zucchini mixed with marigolds and other colorful flowers. The tiny workers perch on the side of a continually fed bird bath to sip the cool rain water on a hot summer day.

While the bees become accustomed to their new surroundings, worker bees buzz around the new neighborhood, collecting pollen in leg pouches and drinking flower nectar, which will become food for the bee babies. Pollen is a great choice for food -- it contains enzymes, vitamins and protein. When the bees identify a great source for pollen, maybe a marigold or a vegetable flower, the bees mark it with pheromones so co-workers can make a beeline to that location.

The pollen becomes food for larvae. It's chewed and passed from bee to bee to process it into honey. Bees store the honey in cells in the hive and seal it up with wax to be used later.

Workers are also responsible for constructing the wax cells that form the honey comb. Special bee glands use the sugar in the honey to form flakes, which bees chew and spit out to build the wax cells. These cells are strong -- they survive the hot summer sun and the chill of winter.

Life in the hive is busy. The queen bulks up on pollen, making her five times bigger than the worker bees. Some bees tend to the queens. Some are nurses that serve the larvae and babies. Worker bees scout and collect pollen. They dance in front of co-worker bees with movements that communicate the location of the prime pollinators. Some bees are hive cleaners; others are bee cleaners. Guard bees are concerned about honey robbers and defend the hive.

Last year, the township's top bar hive lost all its honey to bee robbers. "Wasps invaded the hive and stole the honey," Dodd explained. Restarting the hive means buying a new package of bees.

Bee colonies have been declining. Experts believe one reason is pesticides spread by farmers and gardening enthusiasts. Brookfield Zoo reports the native rusty patched bumblebee may completely die off.

Be careful when selecting plants to help these pollinators; not all are as bee friendly as they might seem. The zoo advises checking the Illinois Wildflower database to select plants that can help keep bees buzzing. Dodd also suggests that when making purchases at local nurseries, ask if the flowering plants have been primed with harmful systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids. The pollen and nectar in these plants are blended with insecticides that kill unknowing bees as they buzz around the colorful flowers on their daily search for pollen and nectar.

Be a beekeeper. You can start a top bar hive or the traditional box-style, called a Langstroth, if it's registered with your local village or county.

Visit the Fremont Township community garden to find out more about bees, to learn gardening tips about a variety of vegetables and flowers that anyone can grow in our area. Dodd invites visitors to do more than just look at the beautiful flowers and buzzing bees.

"The garden is a community resource and visitors are invited to visit and to collect seeds they find in the garden to use in their own gardens."

See the township website for more information, at fremonttownship.com/volunteer-groups/fremont-township-community-garden.

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