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A great deal of life on earth is sustained by the amazing life and work of the tiny honeybee. Without its carefully tuned and executed cycle of pollination, many kinds of plants would cease to exist—and even mankind would be at risk.
The amazing honeybee testifies to God’s amazing handiwork. Regarding the eight species (of the genus Apis), of which the Western honeybee is the best known, observers admire how perfectly they are designed and how flawlessly they function in carrying out their crucial roles in life on earth.
All the intricate details of pollination had to work right the first time for the bees to thrive and for the flowering plants that rely on them to reproduce and bear fruit. Author Holley Bishop puts it simply, “Flowering plants are a prerequisite for the bee, and vice versa” (Robbing the Bees: A Biography of Honey, 2005, p. 116).
It’s a good thing a honeybee is perfectly equipped to locate and collect nectar, because, as Bishop writes, one pound of honey represents 55,000 bee miles and more than 2 million flowers. No wonder honey has been called “liquid gold”!
Quantified another way, in the words of a classic film presentation, just over one ounce of honeycomb “represents over 20,000 bee miles for collecting the nectar, over 100,000 bee hours for changing the nectar into honey and wax and an additional 18,000 bee hours spent in working the wax into honeycomb—all according to a precise pattern” (City of the Bees, Moody Institute of Science, 1962).
That last phrase aptly describes how a scout bee, after locating a source of nectar, pollen or water, conducts a briefing session back at the hive, presenting the kind of food it’s found, the sugar content, distance and direction.
Think about it: Conveying all of this information accurately would be challenging enough for human beings blessed with voice and shared language. How does the scout bee do it? Incredibly, it’s done with an energetic dance some liken to a bee conga line!
This amazing dance “language” of bees conveys an incredible amount of important information. Note again the four aspects just mentioned. The scout bee points out what kind of source it has found, passing out samples stuck to its hairy body. Bishop describes a bee’s hind legs as “phenomenal pollen-collecting architecture.”
Next, a bee’s dance tells the hive about the sugar content of the find. The audience judges this by the vigor of the scout’s waggle.
Next the hive learns about the distance to the source. The scout does a round dance if it’s close by or a figure-eight if it’s farther away, up to a mile. Sensing movements with their antennae, the bees note the length of time the scout spends shaking its body and the number of pulses of sound emitted in each buzz.
The bee’s dance also shares the direction of the find. If the dancer shimmies straight up, it means other bees should fly toward the sun. If the dance is downward, that means away from the sun. The dance’s angle relative to the vertical axis means the bees need to fly that many degrees left or right of the sun.
God’s design of the bee is so perfect that He even included a built-in “compass” in its physiology. A honeybee is equipped with a polarized light compass built into its complex eye!
Imagine the first honeybee long ago “thinking up” this intricate dance as a way to meet the life-and-death need for all this critical information. Knowing how confused some of us get trying to analyze and copy some relatively simple dance steps, how likely is it that the bewildered bees could have derived essential meaning from another bee’s movement?
Thankfully, by design, the honeybees interpret these movements correctly. Moody Institute scientists marked the specific bees watching a dancer and verified that those were the ones that showed up at the food source. Other groups appeared at the sources communicated by their respective dancers.
“Bees actually stake their lives on the accuracy of the information they have been given,” explains the video, because the bees only fuel up with just the right amount to make it to the source. This ensures that the bees don’t deplete the hive’s honey resources and that the workers have storage room in their stomachs for nectar. They also fill up two tiny saddlebags called corbiculae, or pollen baskets, which are hidden on a bee’s back legs for the purpose of carrying pollen.
A bee flies about 15 miles per hour and makes 30 to 50 trips per day. It covers about 500 miles in a lifetime and can haul up to half its weight of 40 milligrams. In flight, bees generate static electricity, which causes pollen to jump onto the minuscule hairs of their charged bodies. This static cling proves absolutely vital for pollination, as this enables the bee to spread the pollen to other plants so they can reproduce and carry on their life cycles as they were designed to do.
This is just a small sample of the fascinating and intricate details scientists have discovered about honeybees. We should be grateful to our Creator that “the most important insect on earth” has been carefully designed and provided as part of this magnificent creation to pollinate and generate food for us to enjoy.
So the next time you encounter a humble honeybee, consider how it plays an intricately planned part in making life here on earth not only possible, but enjoyable for us all!
Beyond Today Magazine (Jul-Aug 2018)