September Is National Honey Month

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What’s the Buzz about Honey Bees?

Did you know that North Carolina’s official state insect is the European honeybee? In 1973, the North Carolina General Assembly recognized how important pollinators are to the agriculture industry. They are not only vital for the state’s major cash crops, but also for home gardens. Pollinators promote the production of over 85% of our food and fiber producing crops. In the world, more than 3/4 of the world’s flowering plants, including fruits and vegetables, depend on animal pollinators. Humans also depend on pollinators to help provide us with the food we eat.

The European honeybee, also referred to as the western honeybee naturally occurs in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The species has since been subdivided into at least 20 recognized subspecies, none being native to the Americans. European honeybees are typically black or brown with yellow bands on its abdomen, grow to between 3/8 and 3/4 of an inch long with two sets of wings. The dark brown to bright yellow bands on the bee’s body warn predators of its venomous sting, deters attacks to the hive and the bees. Some mammal predators such as bears and skunks will attack hives for their honey.

Honeybees live in hives that host up to 80,000 individuals. A hive is made up of one queen, a small group of male drones, and sterile female worker bees. Young worker bees are referred to as house bees, their job consists of constructing the hive and maintaining the comb, caring for the eggs and larvae, tending to the queen and drones, regulating temperature, and defending the hive. Old workers are the field bees, their job consists of gathering nectar and foraging for pollen, and to water and plant resins used in the hive construction. Worker bee’s anatomy consists of an extra stomach and a special pollen basket on their hind legs.

Adult bees eat pollen and nectar that is collected from flowering plants by the worker bees and concentrated nectar or honey. Young larval bees eat honey, nectar, and bodily secretions from worker bees called “worker jelly” or “royal jelly” which is used to determine if a female will be a worker or queen.

During the spring and summer months, mating will occur near bee hives. Since the queen bee is the only female in the colony capable of reproduction, she will fly through droves of bees from her own hive and other hives. Drones are attracted by her pheromones and mate mid-flight. The drones will fall out of the sky and die within a few hours of mating. Fertilized eggs will develop in female bees, whereas unfertilized eggs will develop into male bees. Eggs hatch into larvae approximately three days after being laid and are cared for by worker bees. During this stage, if female bees are fed royal jelly they can develop into worker or queen bees. In about 15 to 24 days, the larvae will develop into adult bees. Worker and drone bees live a few weeks to several months. Queen bees can live up to five years.

Do Bees Communicate?

The answer is yes. Honeybees use the dance language to actively communicate. This language is used by an individual worker to communicate the distance and direction to a location of a food source or patch of flowers. The language is used in many ways for communication. It is often used when experienced foragers return to their colony with a load of food, nectar or pollen. A “dance” will be performed on the wax comb surface to recruit new foragers to the resource, when the quality of food is high. The language can also be used to recruit scout bees to new nest sites.

Dr. Karl von Frisch is accredited to interpreting this honeybee language. His team of students used multiple research experiments to define the components of their language. Several scientists have argued that floral odors on a forager’s body are the major cues to recruit others to the food source. However, the commonly accepted view is that new recruits move to the area that is depicted in the dance and use odor cues to zone in on the flower patch.

The honeybee has many forms of the “dance” language; the round, waggle, and sickle dance. The round dance is performed by a forager when the food source is precisely close to the hive, less than 50 meters away. This dance is performed by the forager running around in narrow circles then abruptly reversing direction to her original course. The dance may be repeated several times at the same location or she may move to repeat the dance. After she has finished, she may distribute food to the foragers following her. If a food source is between 50 to 150 meters, she will form a crescent-shaped dance called the sickle. The sickle dance is a transitional dance between a round dance and waggle dance. The waggle or wag-tail dance is performed for food sources that are over 150 meters away from the hive. This dance helps communicate distance and direction to potential new forager recruits. The dance is performed with a straight forward run for a short distance, returning in a semicircle back to the starting point, running straight, then making a semicircle in the opposite direction to complete a full figure-eight circuit.

Learn more about the honeybee language

How to Grow a Pollinator Garden?

Colonies of honey bees have been declining as the number of hives declines by over 40% since the mid-1980s. It is important that we are protecting our pollinators. How can you help protect our pollinators? Consider growing a pollinator garden!

To grow a pollinator garden, you can incorporate a variety of flowers to support not only honeybees, but other important pollinators such as birds and butterflies. Select the size of pollinator garden that fits your space, any size helps. Pollinator gardens are best fit with an area that receives full sun. It is important to plan for bloom times from early spring through frost, with late summer being the most critical time. When selecting flower varieties for your space, avoid flowers with an excess of petals where bees are unable to access pollen or nectar. Remember, bees get thirsty just as humans do, try providing a water station such as a birdbath filled with rocks for safe hydration.

There is a wide variety of plants that can be planted in a pollinator garden. Some examples include; Asters, Black-eyed Susan, Blazing Star, Coneflower, Daisy, Goldenrod, Milkweed, Piedmont Azalea, Sunflower, Swamp Rose, and many more. Not only do flowering plants provide pollination, you can also select to plant a tree, shrub, vine, or herb as your pollinator plant(s).

For a list of native pollinator plants, contact your local extension office

Want to Learn More about Bees or Beekeeping?

The Yadkin County Beekeepers Association is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to educate and encourage better beekeeping practices. They strive to promote cooperation among beekeepers in Yadkin and surrounding counties. The Association meets monthly on the 2nd Monday at the Yadkin County Senior Center; 207 E. Hemlock St., Yadkinville, NC 27055. The monthly meeting begins at 6:00 p.m. with a potluck dinner followed by a business meeting/program. These meetings are open to everyone; members, guests, and anyone wanting more information about honeybees. They hold an annual beekeeping school during the springtime for those interested in learning about honeybees. Check out their Facebook page for more information.

If you have any questions related to bees or other horticulture questions, please contact Kellee Payne at or 336-849-7908.

As seen in Yadkin Valley Magazine July/August 2023.