Recently, students from University of South Florida’s Patel School of Global Sustainability asked me what natural system could they examine and readily learn from. I replied, the honeybee hive.
Around the globe, over 1.8 trillion honeybees work in concert for their respective hives or cities of approximately 100,000 animals. And they do so, all for the common well-being of the colony.
Honeybees produce an astounding array of services and goods including pollinating most of our food crops, 2.2 billion pounds of honey and 44 million pounds of beeswax, annually. Incidentally, the Roman Catholic Church uses 3.1 million pounds of beeswax in their candles each year.
Honeybees also produce millions of pounds of propolis. They mix tree resin collected from buds, leaves and bark with enzymes from their gut into a potent, sticky substance or glue that’s used throughout the hive. Propolis is also loaded with flavinoids, amino- and fatty-acids, making it a powerful anti-oxidant, anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, anti-bacterial and cancer-arresting compound. Last month researchers discovered that propolis effectively stopped growth of prostate cancer in mice.
Selfless and indefatigable honeybee genes collectively make the honeybee hive the most optimal food service industry that I’m aware of. As many as 96,000 female workers rise before sunup and work just past sundown. There’s zero percent unemployment and multi-tasking is common place. Scout bees are constantly searching for new patches of nectar, pollen, water and tree resin.
When scouts locate rich patches of the aforementioned resources they fly back to the hive and communicate to other workers by performing a precise and elaborate waggle dance. Within 10 minutes or less tens of thousands of workers change their tasks. There’s no human factory with as many workers able to alter production within such a short time frame.
Consider this: It takes 66,000 bee-hours of activity to produce the 77,000 splendid hexagonal cells that form the comb of the hive. Almost 20 pounds of honey are required for young worker bees to produce two pounds of beeswax. Bees eat the honey and trigger a gland in their abdomen to secrete wax. The bees then chew the wax flakes to soften them.
Two pounds of this hearty wax can support 48 pounds of honey — more than 20 times its own weight. Many decades ago, the aeronautics industry recognized the strength of honeycomb and adapted nature’s design to enhance the bending and stiffness of aircraft wings, as the wings must support heavy loads of fuel in the aircraft.
It turns out that honeybees and humans share many similarities: we socialize, dance, eat honey, touch, feel, mimic one another, sleep, enjoy caffeine and nicotine, and we vote. By the way, it takes about 13 honeybees to form a quorum.
Interestingly, bees are showing scientists many lessons readily applicable to existing businesses as well as inspiring new innovations. For instance, real-world applications from the beehive have been translated to optimize a web-hosting company. Honeybee communication systems have been adopted by programmers to efficiently run Internet servers, which must contend with lulls and surges in traffic volume. By using the honeybee hive model, online Internet sales rose by as much as 20 percent whilst energy consumption fell by 20 percent.
Hexagonal honeycomb architecture has inspired scientists to develop nano-sized magnets, in a material called spin ice, that is leading to new types of electronic devices with far greater processing capacity than currently exists.
Honeybees have been trained, within five minutes and an accuracy of 98 percent, to respond to greater than 60 odors, from methamphetamine to TNT and enriched uranium to tuberculosis and diabetes. Around the globe, honeybees will soon be deployed to protect humankind in war zones, shipping ports, airports, international boarders, sports stadiums and doctors’ offices.
In the meantime, many Fairmont Hotels are now keeping beehives on their rooftops, helping pollinate millions of urban trees and offering healthy honey for their chefs to create delicious recipes.
The next time you enjoy a tablespoon of local honey, remember that 12 worker bees spent their entire foraging lives of three weeks flying a combined distance of over 6,000 miles to produce it.
Please do not use insecticides, herbicides, miticides or fungicides in your yard or balcony. Especially in light of the irrefutable research from Britain, France and the U.S. that neonictinoids are known to kill honey- and bumble-bees.
Earth Dr. Reese Halter is a broadcaster, writer and biologist. His latest books are “The Incomparable Honeybee,” and “The Insatiable Bark Beetle,” Rocky Mountain Books.