ZOO TALES: Visitors Can Catch the Buzz at Zoo's Bee Exhibit
How does a zoo increase its animal collection by 50,000 in one day? Get a hive of honey bees -- which is exactly what the North Carolina Zoo recently did. The bees are part of the zoo's new honey bee exhibit, which opened in June in the North America region.
Visitors can investigate bees and other beneficial pollinators as they walk through an
over-sized beehive, identify some of the many food-plants honey bees help pollinate, overlook a beautiful flower garden and discover why bees are so important to us all. Additionally, visitors can see what we all can do to help bees and even see a live hive.
Speaking of hives, let's talk bee terminology. A "colony" is the biological term for a nest of Apis mellifera -- honey bees. A "hive" is a man-made container designed to house that colony. The two terms are often used interchangeably, but incorrectly.
Honey bees, one of about 20,000 known bee species, have been a source of study and admiration since the time of Greek philosopher Aristotle. One reason might be that they have provided us with one of the rarest of prehistoric commodities -- sweetener.
The earliest records of hives and beekeeping are found in tombs and in paintings and drawings in ancient Egypt. Some traditions suggest that these ancient Egyptians moved their hives down the Nile on rafts to keep pace with the progressing blooming season. Whatever the case, in about 1180 B.C., Ramses III offered the Nile god 14,000 kilograms of honey as a sacrifice.
Later, the Greeks were using the same baked mud hives that the Egyptians had used earlier. Aristotle, in about 343 B.C., was the first person to study honey bees seriously and focused his attention on two lingering questions: from where do honey bees come, and why are there three castes of workers, drones and the queen?
In all his study, he never saw the eggs of the queen and reasoned that the bee larvae came from flowers.
Concerning the bees' caste system, Aristotle erroneously thought that since the "ruler" of the hive had a stinger, it must be a male and that all the stinger-less drones were females. It wasn't until 1670 that biologist Charles Butler seriously challenged the idea of a "king" bee.
By the time the Romans began beekeeping, the designs had evolved somewhat, but the basic design of the man-made hive remained the same: a long, low cavity with a small entrance hole at one end and a door at the other end for extracting the honey.
Modern beekeeping is generally thought to have started in 1852, the year that Lorenzo Langstroth, a Congregational minister from Ohio, patented his
movable-frame hive. He was the first to understand the necessity of a minimum distance between the combs to permit bee movement in the nest.
The honey-bee hive is more like a single, living organism that moves, feeds, reproduces -- even breathes -- than the community of individuals in it. A queen can lay as many as 2,000 eggs per day.
The tens of thousands of hive workers are all females, but cannot mate due to their poorly developed ovaries.
The purpose of the drones is strictly to mate, while that of workers is to guard the hive, collect food, feed the queen and drones, build the honeycomb and rear the young.
Known for its precise navigation, an average honey bee flies more than 55 miles in the course of gathering nectar and pollen.
Their poor sight is overcome by a navigational system that can bring a returning bee within two yards of home from a food source hundreds of yards away by using the sun (the brightest point in the sky) as its primary compass.
The fact that honey bees are endangered may seem like a good thing at first since they won't be stinging us as often, but remember that one-third of our total diet in this country is derived from insect-pollinated plants, so the survival of bees is incredibly important.
A trip to the zoo's bee exhibit can help us all begin to understand better these clever creatures with whom we have the pleasure and good fortune of sharing our planet.
Tom Gillespie works for the public affairs office at the N.C. Zoo.
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