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What’s love got to do with it?
January 3, 2014
By Pat Kettles

“Birds do it, bees do it...” So go the lyrics to an old standard by Cole Porter. The “do it,” according to Porter, is falling in love. But in the words of the more recent songstress, Tina Turner, “What’s love got to do with it?” When it comes to bees and plants and the ancient symbiotic role they play in the survival of mankind, love does not enter the equation.
 
Bees and flowers appeared on Earth around a hundred million years ago. Early in their evolutionary cycle honeybees became vegetarians, developing a taste for nectar and pollen essential for the bee’s survival. In this process the honeybee evolved into a creature with the ability to transform nectar into honey, but more importantly, and not to be underestimated, is their cross-pollination services assuring survival of crops that feed mankind.
 
Honeybees are thought to have originated in Asia or Africa. The Egyptians were likely the first civilization to practice beekeeping. Jars with honey residue have been found in the tombs of pharaohs. Honey and the bee appear as potent symbols in Greek mythology, the Koran, the Bible and other religious texts.
 
Honeybee behavior is little changed since the species appeared on Earth. The manse is ruled by a queen surrounded by female worker bees that build hives, care for the young and gather pollen and nectar — and in the process cross-pollinate various plant species. Field worker bees gather nectar, storing it in their nectar stomachs until returning to the hive, where it is transferred to hive worker bees who swish it around in their stomachs, transforming it into raw honey to store in comb cells for future use. All the while the queen lolls around munching bonbons. The queen’s only mission is to lay eggs and dine on the best food while disseminating pheromones that inhibit other hive females from reproducing. The male drones, a sorry lot, have no function other than to laze around dining on the largess of the worker bees while waiting to mate with new queens.
 
Man may think he domesticated the honeybee. Ancient man discovered smoke rendered honeybees docile, making honey harvesting less dangerous, but the hive was an organized working entity before man appeared. Michael Pollan, in his book, The Botany of Desire, hypothesizes man is merely a voyeur in domesticated honey production. The deal for honey is not struck between bee and man but rather it is a coevolutionary bargain struck between the bee for food and the plant for transportation of its genes to ensure propagation of the plant species.
 
Modern-day beekeeping did not come into fruition until the 18th century. Specimens of indigenous ancient bees have been found in North America, but the honeybee, Apis mellifera, was brought to America by the pilgrims.
 
With so much riding on industrious honeybees, understandably their disappearance in some areas is cause for alarm. Colony Collapse Disorder is the name given to the phenomenon where worker bees inexplicably abandon the hive. Maybe the worker bees just get fed up with their lazy queen and those sorry drones. More likely modern man with his pesticides is culpable. Environmental and education entities are studying colony collapse in hopes of stemming the phenomenon. The loss of honey would be a giant blow to mankind, but the breach of the coevolutionary contract between bees and plants for pollination services would be catastrophic.

Pat Kettles has confirmed her status as Longleaf’s most dedicated researcher.
 
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