Honey Bees- More than a source of honey

European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)
European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) | Source

Bees play an important ecological role in the pollination of plants. Up to a third of food crop is pollinated by bees. Many plants that are eaten by animals are also pollinated by bees. Economic importance of bees has generated much scientific interest, including identification of the complete genome sequence of honey bee.

The importance of honey bees extends beyond pollination and as a source of food. Honey is regarded by ancient people as a celestial food that is collected and made by honey bees from virtuous flowers. It has long been held in high regard by people from various cultures and religious groups; who use honey not only as a food and medicine, but also as an offering to their gods in various religious ceremonies. The symbolic significance of sweet reward for virtuous qualities of hard work, teamwork , persistence and purity has a universal and timeless appeal to all.


Religious significance of honey

(source: wikipaedia)

In Hinduism, honey (Madhu) is one of the five elixirs of immortality (Panchamrita). In temples, honey is poured over the deities in a ritual called Madhu abhisheka. The Vedas and other ancient literature mention the use of honey as a great medicinal and health food.

In Jewish tradition, honey is a symbol for the new year, Rosh Hashanah. At the traditional meal for that holiday, apple slices are dipped in honey and eaten to bring a sweet new year. Some Rosh Hashanah greetings show honey and an apple, symbolizing the feast. In some congregations, small straws of honey are given out to usher in the new year.

In Buddhism, honey plays an important role in the festival of Madhu Purnima, celebrated in India and Bangladesh. The day commemorates Buddha's making peace among his disciples by retreating into the wilderness. The legend has it that while he was there, a monkey brought him honey to eat. On Madhu Purnima, Buddhists remember this act by giving honey to monks. The monkey's gift is frequently depicted in Buddhist art.

In the Christian New Testament, Matthew 3:4, John the Baptist is said to have lived for a long period of time in the wilderness on a diet consisting of locusts and wild honey.

In Islam, there is an entire Surah in the Qur'an called al-Nahl (the Honey Bee). According to hadith, Prophet Muhammad strongly recommended honey for healing purposes. Qur'an promotes honey as a nutritious and healthy food.

Eastern Honey Bee (Apis cerana)
Eastern Honey Bee (Apis cerana)

Honey Hunting (comb of Himalayan Giant Honey Bee)

Honey Hunting, Apidiary, Apitherapy

Honey Hunting, also known as honey collecting, is a way of getting food from nature. It is an activity that comes as naturally as fishing and hunting. Many cultures have been associated with it at one time or another, including those in Africa, Asia, Europe and South America. Discovery of Mesolithic cave painting in Valencia, Spain shows two female honey-hunters collecting honey and honeycomb from a wild bee hive; providing proof that honey hunting is at least 10,000 years old. The skill of honey hunting is being passed down from generation to generation in some parts of the world. It is still being practiced by native tribes who rely on nothing more than the simplest of equipment, bravery and prayers for their personal safety and success. Essentially, it is robbing of beescomb from the bees by the use of smoke, which has a calming effect on bees. This method of obtaining honey does not deplect the gene pool of honey bees. It is in the best interest of the hunter to ensure the continued survival of honey bees. There are certain restrictions observed by the community; such as treating it as a seasonal activity that is only done at certain time of the year, always leaving a small starter block of honeycomb for speedy recovery of the colony and designating certain site as holy, where hunting is prohibited.

Apidiary, Apitherapy and other uses.

Restrictions and the dangers involved in honey hunting has lead to the art of Apidiary or Bee Keeping. Apitherapy is the medical use of all products made by honey bees. This can include the use of honey, pollen, propolis, royal jelly and bee venom. Apilarnil is the use of drone bee larvae as food, nutritional supplement or cosmetic ingredient. Bee Venom Therapy also known as Bee Sting therapy, involves the use of honeybees to sting and deliver venom as a relieve of symptoms to patients suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis (MS), cancer and autoimmunity. Although sharp pain and some swelling and itching are natural reactions to a honeybee sting, a small percentage of individuals are highly allergic to bee venom. A licensed professional should be consulted before receiving treatment.

Honey Hunting (comb of Giant Honey Bee)

Types of Honey Bees

Types of honey bees.

Honey bees can be classified into 3 different groups, based on their method of nesting:

  • Cavity nesting honey bees.

  • Dwarf honey bees or micropis.

  • Giant honey bees or megapis.

  • Cavity nesting honey bees build multiple comb hive, usually on the roof of cavities. These are medium-size honey bees, which includes:

    • European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera), also known as Western Honey Bee.

    • Eastern Honey Bee (Apis cerana) also known as Asiatic Honey Bee or Asianized Honey Bee. Widely distributed throughout Asia and South Asia.

    • Red Honey Bee (Apis koschevnikovi) Distributed throughout tropical forests of peninsular Malaysia and Borneo, Java, Sumatra and southern Thailand. Reddish in appearance, about 10 – 15% larger than Apis cerana.

    • Dwarf honey bees build small, single comb that surrounds a small tree branch. Dwarf Honey Bees are rarely domesticated, due to their preference for open nesting, the abundance of the bees and easy harvesting. Harvested by vigorous shaking of the branch, until the bees fly away. The supporting branch is then cut off, bound to a bamboo tripod stand and brought to the local market for sale.

    • Red Dwarf Honey Bee (Apis florea) Generally reddish brown in colour. Distribution in tropical Southeast Asia. Also present in the warmer parts of Oman, Iran and Pakistan, through the Indian sub-continent and Sri Lanka. Frequently found in forests, farming areas and villages of tropical South East Asia. Nest is built among well hidden plants. Passage along the branch from which the comb hangs is prorected by sticky propolis. This deters insects such as ants from raiding its hive. Nest is usually not more than 10 inch(25 cm) across and within the reach of a person. In Oman, nests are frequently found in caves.


  • Giant Honey Bees build massive combs of up to 1.5m x 1m. Large number of combs, with congragation of up to 200 or more built under cliff overhang, rock face, tree limb or man-made tower. Two closely related species are :

    • Common Giant Honey Bee (Apis dorsata). Distribution in tropical South Asia and South East Asia. Found mostly in forests or towns near to forests. Well known for being the most ferocious insect on earth. When disturbed, defending bees can chase intruders for 100m or even longer distances. Nevertheless, the honey is considered premium and highly prized.

    • Giant Mountain Honey Bee (Apis laboriosa) World's largest honey bee, up to 17 mm length, over twice the size of European Honey Bee. Distributionabove 1,500m Himalayas.

Africanized Honey Bee
Africanized Honey Bee

Bee Sting Therapy, US practitioner

Bee Sting Therapy, Taiwanese practitioner

Dwarf Honey Bee (Apis florea)
Dwarf Honey Bee (Apis florea) | Source
Congregated hives of Apis dorsata under the branches of a "bee tree".
Congregated hives of Apis dorsata under the branches of a "bee tree". | Source
Beekeeper removing a swarm of honey bees from a tree in a school yard.
Beekeeper removing a swarm of honey bees from a tree in a school yard.
Thermal defence  or "Balling".
Thermal defence or "Balling". | Source

Honey bees used for beekeeping.

European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)

The most widely cultivated honey bees worldwide due to high honey production. Mainly in regions with temperate climates. Requires active management and expensive equipment, such as movable frame hive. Vulnerable to Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). The scacity of wild bees for pollination has lead to a new industry of pollination service provided by bee keepers. Mobile bee colonies go around farmland at various times of the year to coincide with flowering season and provide pollination service for a fee.

Africanized Honey Bee vs European Honey Bee.

Africanized Honey Bee (AHB) is also known as Killer Bee. It is not a naturally occurring species, but rather a hybrid of European Honey Bee (Apis mellifera) with African bee (A. m. scutellata). It was specifically bred for tropical and sub-tropical regions of central America, with the intention of combining the hardiness of African bee with the high honey production of European Honey Bee. However, the failed experiment ended up with an overtly defensive hybrid and can fly further and deliver 10 times as many stings during an attack. More recently, selective breeding by apiarists has resulted in bees with more docile traits and high honey production.

  • More likely to abscond from hive, more frequent swarming; as a response to stress and lowered food supply.
  • Smaller in size.

  • Build smaller hive that is usually underground and produces less honey.

  • Not affected by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

  • Stronger immune system. Less susceptible to mites and diseases.

  • Unable to survive regions with harsh winter.

  • More defensive in guarding hive, with a larger warming zone.

  • Easily agitated and remain angry for up to 24 hours.

  • Chase intruder in larger number and for longer distance.

  • More effective foraging and pollinator. Works longer hours.

  • Continue foraging and pollinating, even in adverse weather conditions, such as overcast and light rain.

Eastern Honey Bee vs European Honey Bee.

Long history of domestication in China. Also used for apiculture in India. Inspite of this, there is a strong tendency for the bees to form migratory swarm and abscond from hive. Prefers to chew up, destroy old comb, then build new combs; rather than to clean and re-use existing combs. It has been suggested that these traits are the bees' evolutionery response to the multiple problems of dearth of food sources, infestation by parasites, bacteria and viral deseases. Can be successfully kept in small, rough wooden boxes. The bees can generally take care of themselves.

  • Smaller in size, about 10 mm long.

  • Produces less honey due to smaller size, shorter probosis and frequent swarming.

  • Less hairy, with distinct black and yellow strips on abdomen.

  • Flies faster and erratically. Skillful at dodging predators.

  • Tendency to rob honey from other bee hives.

  • Nests are built in smaller enclosed space, such as hollow tree trunk with about 3 or more combs.

  • Able to colonize temperate or cold mountainous area with prolonged winter.

  • More efficient at foraging and pollinating in an area with scattered or diverse sources of plant floral, such as a forest.

  • Forage and pollinate for longer hours.

  • Keen sense of smell. Wood used for building hive boxes to be washed and dried under the sun before use.

  • Poor sense of direction. Avoid placing bee hive boxes in uniform, straight rows.

  • Easily agitated.

  • Tendency to retreat into hive in hollow tree trunk when disturbed. Further provocation, such as forceful opening of the hive, will result in bees flying out in swarm to sting the intruder.

(top row from left) Removing Drone lava from comb. Fried bee lava- by Grejore.  (bottom row) Eastern Honey Bee kept in a rough wooden box- by Ongsheueli
(top row from left) Removing Drone lava from comb. Fried bee lava- by Grejore. (bottom row) Eastern Honey Bee kept in a rough wooden box- by Ongsheueli

Starting a New Bee Hive

Products from Honey Bees

  • Honey consists mainly various forms of sugars, with 60% to 80% of fructose and glucose. Mainly used as health supplement, sweetener for titbit, baking, as a spread on bread, and as an alternative form of sweetener to sugar for various beverages. While foraging among flowers, nectar is sucked in by the bee via its proboscis. The bee ingests and regurgitates the nectar and then stores it in honeycomb cells. Such regurgitated nectar which is high in water content, can ferment and turn rancid. The bees then fan their wings to encourage evaporation and ultimately turns the nectar into honey.

  • Beeswax is used by the honeybee to build honeycomb. It is secreted from glands at the underside of the young Worker bee's abdomen. Beeswax is extensively used in industry, horticulture, medical, cosmetic and food packaging . These include production of candles, artwork for Batik prints. In industry, it is used in Lost Wax Process for manufacture of intricate-shaped cast iron, as a sealing wax and as a furniture polish. In horticulture, it is used as a grafting wax. In cosmetics, its is used as ingredient for nail varnish, lipstick and bathing lotion. In medicine, it is used as the outer shell for capsules or medical pills. as a material for dental mold. In the packaged food industry, it is used as an outer coating for food preservation.

  • Propolis is also known as bee glue. Resin is collected from tree bark, flower bud and leaves by the Worker bees. Salivary secretions are added while being chewed by the bees, then mixed with other materials in the comb, such as beeswax and pollen. The resulting brown, fragrant, glue-like sticky substance is used for filling gaps and sealing of the hive from external intruders and contaminants. Also used to encase noxious remnants of deceased hive invaders. Hundreds of chemical compounds have been identified from propolis which lend it antioxidant, anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, and anti-inflammatory properties. Inhibit growth of some form of cancers. Used as the basis for fine wood varnishes.

  • Royal Jelly is made of digested pollen and honey or nectar mixed with a chemical secreted from a gland in a nursing bee's head. Also known as Bee's milk it is a yellowish, milky, watery substance that is a special food fed mainly to newly hatched larvae and Queen bee. The nutrient rich food contains protein, carbohydrates, lipids, amino acids, various types of vitamins (B1, B2, B6, B12, E, C, A) and other micronutrients. Royal jelly should not be taken with warm water. Recommended storage in low temperature environment.

  • Pollen is the male germ cells produced by all flowering plants for fertilizationnd plant embryo formation. The honey bee uses pollen as a food. Pollen is one of the richest and purest natural foods, consisting of up to 35% protein, 10% sugars, carbohydrates, enzymes, minerals, and vitamins A (carotenes), B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (nicotinic acid), B5 (panothenic acid), C (ascorbic acid), H (biotin), and R (rutine). (source: backyardbeekeepers.com)


Top Bar Hive

Health Hazards

  • Botulism. Due to the natural presence of botulinum endospores in honey, children under one year of age should not be given honey. The more developed digestive systems of older children and adults generally destroy the spores. Infants, however, can contract botulism from honey. (source: wikipaedia)

    Toxic honey. Honey produced from the flowers of oleanders, rhododendrons, mountain laurels, sheep laurel, and azaleas may cause honey intoxication. Symptoms include dizziness, weakness, excessive perspiration, nausea, and vomiting. Honey intoxication is more likely when using "natural" unprocessed honey and honey from farmers who may have a small number of hives. Commercial processing, with pooling of honey from numerous sources, generally dilutes any toxins. (source: wikipaedia)

Funfacts on Honey Bees.

  • Static electricity enables a bee to attract pollen when it visits a flower. The pollen gets trapped in the pollen baskets located at its hind legs. Some pollen get rubbed off the bee when it visits the next flower, resulting in cross pollination.

  • Thermo defence, also known as “Balling”, is used to kill an enemy, such as an intruding insect. Numerous bees crowd around and climb over the intruder, while vibrating their flight muscles. The resulting heat of up to 47 degree Celsius is enough to kill the intruder. This is below its own critical body temperature of 48 degree Celsius.

  • Thermo regulation of brooding chamber at 33 to 35.5 deg C, even while ambient temperatures vary between 12 to 36 deg C. When it gets too hot, water is collected and the Worker fan its wings repeatedly to evaporate and keep the brood cool. When it gets too cold, the Workers huddle together and vibrate their flight muscle to generate heat and warm.

  • Bee waves or shimmering occurs when a threat is detected, such as a flying insect or bird. This is the bee's warning to the intruder; by pointing its sting upward and flapping its wings, done in unison with other bees in the swarm.

  • Bumping is a way of warning an intruder. Stinging is only used as a last resort, as it can result in death of the bee.

  • Habit of studying an object closely by hovering and observing it from different angles. Ability to distinguish an object or a human face for up to three days.
  • Dance language is used by a successful forager to pass information on food sources to less successful foragers in the hive.

(top, circled) Drone cells are a third larger, with bulging caps .(bottom) Drone cell near the edge of comb, Drone larvae.
(top, circled) Drone cells are a third larger, with bulging caps .(bottom) Drone cell near the edge of comb, Drone larvae. | Source

Swarming.

  • Bees Bees have this peculiar habit of forming swarms occasionally. Swarming can be either reproductive or migratory. Reproductive swarming occurs when a new Queen is born. The old Queen leaves with about half of the Worker bees to form a new colony elsewhere. Before leaving, the Worker bees gorge themselves with honey, so that they can quickly produce wax for building the comb. Her daughter Queen inherits the nest vacated by her and takes over the role of egg layer. Migratory swarming occurs when the colony comes under stress and the bees abandon their hive. Bees abscond from their hive for the following reasons:
  • Scacity of food supply.

  • Infestation by parasitic Varroa and Tracheal mites, bacterial and virus infection.

  • Disturbance from humans, rats or ants.

  • Unfavourable weather conditions; such as persistent rain, prolonged heat waves and cold snap.

  • Persistent shortage of honey in the comb.

  • Poisoning caused by use of insectide on plants in the vicinity.

  • Robbery of honey by bees from other hives.

  • Unsuitable location of hives; such as location in windy area, exposure to rain, harsh sunshine, cold and humidity.

  • Frequent opening and prolonged inspection of hive, resulting in excessive disturbance of the bees.

  • Newly set up hive boxes. Hive set up at the wrong time; such as during rainy season, resulting in shortage of honey. Foul smell from woodwork of hive boxes. The wood for building hive boxes should be seasoned by washing and drying under the sun before use.

(from left) An empty Queen cell, after Queen lava is hatched. Queen bites and open a flap when emerging from a cell. Cell of Queen lava killed by Worker Bee, with opening at the side.
(from left) An empty Queen cell, after Queen lava is hatched. Queen bites and open a flap when emerging from a cell. Cell of Queen lava killed by Worker Bee, with opening at the side.
(left) Queen cell sticks out from the comb and hangs downwards- by Steph Elson. (right)  Dissected Queen cell, showing Queen Bee lava, with head at the bottom by Waugsberg
(left) Queen cell sticks out from the comb and hangs downwards- by Steph Elson. (right) Dissected Queen cell, showing Queen Bee lava, with head at the bottom by Waugsberg
Beekeeping in residential area.
Beekeeping in residential area. | Source

Life of a Honey Bee.

There are 3 castes of honey bees. A hive consists of 20,000 - 30,000 bees in the winter, and over 60,000 - 80,000 bees in the summer. In a hive, there is only one Queen bee, about 100-2000 Drones and the remaining majority are Worker bees.

Queen bee

Almost all the Worker bees in a hive are daughters of the Queen bee, if not all.The term Queen bee refers to an adult, mated female that lives in a honey bee colony or hive; she is usually the mother of most, if not all, the bees in the hive. The Queen is the only bee with fully developed ovaries. A Queen bee can live for 3-5 years. When a virgin Queen matures sexually, she flies out to a nearby Drone congregation area on a sunny day. Only the fastest Drones are able to catch up with a Queen bee and mate with her mid-air. This ensures that only the best genes get passed on to future generations. The Queen can mate with 12 to 15 Drones each day. Mating may last for several days, until she has collected enough sperm in her spermatheca. Mated Queen can remain fertile for her entile lifetime. A virgin Queen goes on mating flight on specific time period. If she is unable to mate due to several consecutive days of rain, the Queen will become sterile. A sterile Queen can only lay unfertilised eggs that hatch into Drones; eventually resulting in colony collapse.

Queen bees are no different from Worker bees during larva stage. After hatching, the larvae are fed nutrient rich royal jelly for 3 days. The few lucky larvae that are chosen for grooming into Queen bees are located in Queen cells and continue to be fed with royal jelly. There can only be one Queen bee in a hive. The first Queen that emerges quickly pass orders to theWorker bees to kill the other young Queen bees.Worker bees kill the other Queen bee by "balling". Clustering tightly around her until she dies from overheating. Balling is also used to kill large predatory wasps that attempt to enter the hive. She may also kill other young Queen bees by stinging them to death. Queen bees are fed royal jelly by Worker bee during their entire lifetime. Eggs are laid 2 to 3 days after mating. She lays up to 2,000 eggs per day; an output heavier than her body weight. Fertilized eggs become female Worker bees and unfertilized eggs become Drones.

Large scale commercial apiary (left). Apiary in an orchard, with hive boxes under the shade of trees (top). Beekeepers open out hive boxes to inspect honey bees (bottom).
Large scale commercial apiary (left). Apiary in an orchard, with hive boxes under the shade of trees (top). Beekeepers open out hive boxes to inspect honey bees (bottom).

Drone Bee

Drones or male bees are born from unfertilized eggs. The only purpose for the Drones to exist is to mate with the Queen bee to produce female bees. Specially built cells of up to a third larger arranged on the edge of the comb are used for rearing Drones. Young Drone mature 12 days after appearance of wings, when it is ready to mate with the Queen bee. The Drone does not have a stinger. Its sex organ is embedded inside its abdomen. This is expelled for the purpose mating with Queen bee, after which the Drone becomes paralyzed, falls off the Queen and die. Immediately the next Drone takes over. Drones are gradually denied food by Worker bees after a Queen has mated and starts laying eggs. They are driven out from the hive in autumn, before food becomes scarce in winter.

Mobile beekeepers in the grassland, with their movable tents and hive boxes. They move  around the country, to where ever flowering is in season.
Mobile beekeepers in the grassland, with their movable tents and hive boxes. They move around the country, to where ever flowering is in season. | Source

Colony Collapse Disorder CCD

Worker Bee

Worker bee is a female bee that lacks the full reproductive capacity of the Queen bee. Genetically, a Worker bee does not differ from a Queen bee. Whether a larva becomes a Worker or a Queen depends on the kind of food it is given after the first three days of its larval form. During the busy summer months, a Worker bee will live for 4 to 6 weeks. In colder climates and during prolonged winter, a Worker bee will rarely leave the hive; it can live for 4 weeks to 9 months.

Progression of tasks or roles performed by a Worker Bee during its entire lifetime:

  • Nursing bees feed the larvae royal jelly which is secreted from glands located at its head for 3 days.

  • Queen attendants groom and feed royal jelly to the Queen larva and Queen.

  • Feeding Drones with royal jelly for 3 days, after which they are fed on a diet of honey and pollen. Drones do not feed themselves.

  • Wax production and cell construction. Young Worker bee exude wax from the gland under their abdomen.

  • Construction bees take wax from wax producing Workers and build the cells with it.

  • Housekeeper bees clean cells and repair old cells for reuse.

  • Propolizing. Propolis is used to coat cell walls, seal up gaps and the entrance to deter intrusion by enemy.

  • Pollen packing and storage. Pollen brought into the hive for feeding the brood is also stored. It must be packed firmly into comb cells and mixed with a small amount of honey so that it will not spoil.

  • Honey sealing- mature honey, sufficiently dried, is sealed tightly with wax to prevent absorption of moisture from the air.

  • Mortuary bees remove dead bees and failed larvae from the hive to prevent spread of disease and allow cells to be reused. They will be carried some distance from the hive by mortuary bees.

  • Fanning bees cool the hive with evaporated water brought by water carriers. They direct airflow into the hive or out of the hive depending on need.

  • Entrance guard bees inspect incoming bees to ensure that they are bringing in food and have the correct hive odor. Other bees will be rejected or attacked by soldier bees.

  • Soldier bees guard the entrance and attack invaders. They work in concert with entrance guards.

  • Outside guard bees take short flights around the outside of the hive in response to disturbances.

  • Water carrier bees. When the hive is in danger of overheating, these bees will obtain water, usually from within a short distance from the hive and bring it back to spread on the backs of fanning bees.

  • Foraging bees travel (up to 1.5 miles) to a nectar source, pollen source or to collect propolis.

An apiary surrounded by a field of Brassica.
An apiary surrounded by a field of Brassica. | Source

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11 comments

brightforyou profile image

brightforyou 5 years ago from Florida

Fantastic hub, thorough and very informative, thank you! Voted up and useful.


sgphilgoh profile image

sgphilgoh 5 years ago from Singapore Author

Hi Helen,thank you for visiting my hub and also for the vote.


David Chen 5 years ago

thanks for posting so much information about honey bees, did not know so much about these little flying insects until I read this, very interesting hub.


sgphilgoh profile image

sgphilgoh 5 years ago from Singapore Author

David, welcome to Hubpages.


RussellLHuey profile image

RussellLHuey 5 years ago

I agree with this hub. Quiet interesting.


mepperly profile image

mepperly 5 years ago from Vancouver,WA

Beautiful, informative article. I learned alot about bees. My family loves honey so this is a great source of information.


sgphilgoh profile image

sgphilgoh 5 years ago from Singapore Author

RussellLHuey & mepperly, Thank you for visiting and for the compliments.


TandJ profile image

TandJ 4 years ago

What an impressive hub. I have considered building a hive for homesteading purposes, but never knew all of this. Thanks so much for compiling it.


whonunuwho profile image

whonunuwho 3 years ago from United States

A very good and informative article about the bees that mean so much to the world and its creatures. We would be lost without these wonderful little friends and we should do much more to preserve them for all of our futures. whonu


Marissa Daniels 3 years ago

I think this was a very educational article and very helpful for others. Thanks. You should really make more articles about Honey Bees.


mgeorge1050 profile image

mgeorge1050 2 years ago from West Georgia

Great article, I just installed my first two nucleus hives into my main hives. I will kept everyone posted on the results.

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