Some of the Audubon Zoo's smallest critters create quite a buzz

NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - Many visitors to the Audubon Zoo are surprised when they stumble upon one of the zoo's lesser-known exhibits.

Behind the gator lagoon in the Louisiana Swamp Exhibit, 60,000 honey bees toil in one of nature's sweetest food factories.

In two separate colonies, curators and animal keepers have maintained the bees since 2016. Here, assistant curator Dominique Fleitas suits up in beekeeper gear and checks on the two wooden boxes that contain this thriving population.

"Some people run in terror because they actively think we have bees in whatever we're holding," Fleitas said. "Some people are really excited and start following us, and we encourage that because we can talk about what we're doing."

While the zoo started actively growing bees after a several year absence, the bees did not exactly disappear. Fleitas explained that honey bees thrive in the giant oak trees all throughout Audubon Park.

"These bees here that are actively sitting over the larvae that are open, they are actively feeding them, making sure they have everything that they need to become large, healthy bees," Fleitas said.

Which prompts the question: Why in the world is the zoo growing bees?

"Because we need to educate people on why they're important and why they affect what we eat," Fleitas said.

Some scientists believe one in every three bites of food that Americans eat comes from something that's pollinated by bees, butterflies, hummingbirds or even bats.

The bees turn nectar, the sugary secretions of plants, into a gooey delight.

The U.S. Agriculture estimates there are 2.5 million honey bee colonies in America - less than half the number in the 1940s. Theories vary about what's killing the bees, everything from disease to loss of habitat and the use chemicals.

Fleitas said the zoo teaches visitors that pesticides, "are commonly used to keep grounds pretty, but are really damaging the bees and their health."

While a debate rages about pesticide use in the U.S., European regulators have moved to ban some pesticides frequently blamed for colony collapses.

Last week, the EU announced plans to ban the neonicotinoids from all fields, expanding earlier limits on the use of the pesticides on flowering crops.

Honey production serves as a good sign of a healthy colony.

Audubon's bees produce about 120 lbs of honey each year, enough to share with the swamp exhibits bears and some other zoo creatures.