Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Mystery of Skyscraper Beehives

(For those of you who don’t know, we recently installed 3 beehives on the roof of NRDC’s green building in Manhattan. Here is a link to the Director, Peter Lehner’s (yes, a relative), blog about the bees.)

What I Like about having hives on the roof of a 12-story building:
The elevator

What I don’t like:

What remains a mystery:
If the bees like the altitude.

We know that a virgin queen on her mating flight will fly up to 200-300 feet in the air, where the drones fly around all day hoping for the arrival of a queen in need of insemination, so that they can fornicate and die. *
It seems incredibly random to me, but it has worked for honeybees for a few million years.

So what happens when they bees START out at 130 feet above the ground? In our three hives there are currently no virgin queens, only the 3 mated queens we installed with them. But things can happen. Queens can die or swarm. And then the bees will force-feed Royal Jelly to a fertilized pupa and create a newly designated queen, or 2 or 3. (Someone asked me if this was like choosing the next Dalai Lama. Yes and no. More yes than no.) And that new queen, a virgin, will go on a mating flight.
So here is the question: does she fly to a designated place – in relation to the sun and the earth - that she instinctively knows? Or does she fly up from her hive a designated distance that she is genetically programmed to travel? In which case, does that mean she will fly around at 400-500 feet above ground, futilely awaiting a lover? I figure that the rooftop of the NRDC building, being one flight up from the 12th floor, is somewhere between 130 and 146 feet high. Bees in nature often make their homes in hollow trees and I happen to know that the tallest trees in the world, the Giant Sequoias of California, can reach an average height of 165 feet. But I have never heard of beehives in Giant Sequoias, though there is no reason I should.
So I wonder: where in nature would bees ever find themselves coming home to a hive at that altitude? What are we asking of them in terms of thrust and lift? By placing beehives on a roof that high, are we thwarting apian sexuality?

*Because, poor things, like the worker bee’s barbed stinger, the male organ is barbed and so it stays behind inside the queen and rips away the drone's inner organs, wthout which he dies.

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