I am not a person who likes bugs. I refuse to go camping out of fear that I’ll wake up with a spider dangling half an inch above my face. Ants marching in a straight line make me want to pull out a magnifying glass and fry them one by one as they come towards me. I’ve been known to take showers in the middle of the night after waking up from nightmares involving cockroaches lying eggs in different crevices in my house and body.
But bees? Bees are fascinating! Cute, even. I recently went on a road trip with my friend, Molly, to visit her family — including her bee-keeping dad, Jack — in New England. After two days of eating honey on toast, on spoons, and on a giant pancake, we got to go out and play with the bees.
I spent the entire 30 minute ride out to the farm pestering Jack with questions like a kindergardener.
Where do you get bees?
They come in the mail.
How much honey do you get every year?
Two years ago we harvested 15 gallons but last year we only got 2.
Have you ever been stung?
We went to two of his hives, one where the bees had died from not having enough to make it through the winter (although, bafflingly, an entire lower drawer of honeycomb had been entirely ignored by the bees who ate from bottom to top and died in droves near the top) and another mean-ass colony who were still alive and kicking in 15 degree weather. After an afternoon spent poking around the hives, I went home with a plan for my retirement, a jar full of Jack’s Gold, and a head full of bee knowledge that I can’t wait to tell you about.
1. Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start. In this case, I feel like that would be at the notes I took for all you apiphobes (or melissophobes, although that one sounds a little more like someone afraid of people named Melissa than someone afraid of bees) out there: bees only sting when they’re threatened. And for good reason: honeybees have a barbed stinger that sticks in human skin, separating their abdomen from the rest of their body and killing them when they use it. Unless you’re an EpiPen-carrying member of the Allergic-To-Bees club, bees actually suffer more than you do from a sting.
2. Swarms of bees are also less terrifying than they initially seem. A swarm is more mass exodus than killing machine and is usually a fairly calm process. Swarming is how bee colonies grow and reproduce. Every spring, some colonies decide to split off when they get too big. Since the hive can only have one queen at a time, the queen prepares by laying eggs in special “queen cups” that will be fed royal jelly by the workers so they will become fertile. Then those ever-diligent workers stop feeding the queen so that she can lose enough weight to fly out with her swarm.
After they leave, the first queen who hatches will fly out with the drones and then come back and decide if she wants to stay in her new digs. If she leaves she’ll take more of the colony with her, but if she stays, she’ll kill all her sister queens by stinging them before they hatch. Which makes me reconsider calling swarms “less terrifying” because infanticide is not exactly the stuff of daydreams. Let’s go with “less threatening to you and yours.”
3. If that’s not enough to convince you, consider this: you can pretend to be a spaceman when you’re wearing a bee suit.
4. Something else about bee safety: smoking is good for you! Not smoking smoking, but bee smoking, the kind of thing you do when you want to go near a beehive but wish the bees would just calm their little selves down a little. Why? Well, bees kind of freak out when they smell smoke because they’re pretty sure that where there’s smoke, there’s fire. And you know that game: what would you take with your if your house was burning down? Bees know their answer by heart and it’s only one thing: honey. So when you smoke bees, they gorge themselves on honey so that they can fly far, far away without passing out. Unfortunately, all that eating means that flying and/or stinging is not really an option. It’s kind of like if a robber tried to steal your family’s television after Thanksgiving dinner. We’d like to think that we’d be poised and ready to strike, but in reality we’ll probably make a few feeble attempts at standing up before pathetically resigning ourselves to sitting on our couch and watching as a stranger hauls off with our TV.
5. Now on to the marvelous things bees do with their bodies. For example: secrete wax! All the cells that make up honeycomb are identical hexagons. They’re built to store honey and pollen and hold eggs and larvae (this word is the reason I could never study bugs). Bees have to eat more than 8 pounds of honey to make 1 pound of wax, so beekeepers usually keep the honeycomb and return it to the hive after harvesting the honey. Despite being ultrasensitive (they can tell when their queen dies because she stops giving off pheromones), bees don’t mind using honeycomb from another hive. It’s just like moving into a house instead of having to build a new one every time.
6. She works hard for the honey! The average bee produces around 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her lifetime. To look at it from another angle, it takes a hive of bees the equivalent of 1 and a half orbits around the earth to make 1 cup of honey.
7. Before we go any further, let’s let Isabella Rossellini give us a refresher on bee sex.
8. Aren’t you glad you’re not a bee? If you were, you’d be assigned a job based on how old you were. Baby bees spend their first two days cleaning out the honeycomb, starting with the cells they were born in, and keeping the unhatched larvae warm. They spend the next 9 days feeding the larvae, first the oldest and then the youngest. 12 to 17-day-old bees build the comb, carry food, and remove dead bees from the hive. They turn into guards for the next 4 days, protecting the hive from predators, and then spend the rest of their life — 6 weeks — collecting pollen, nectar, and water.
9. Since all the bees in a hive are related to the queen, the disposition of the colony depends on the queen. Some beekeepers who find themselves with a particularly nasty colony will remove the queen and replace her with a new one in hopes that she won’t be quite as mean. Since the lifecycle of a bee is only 6 weeks, it doesn’t take too long until a new temperament takes over.
10. Remember how I said they’re super sensitive? Bees can see color, but not the same way that we do. Their eyes can see a wider portion of the spectrum than ours can and so ultraviolet patterns on flowers that are invisible to us act as landing pads to guide bees to their centers.
11. Bees have a special dance that they do to tell their friends where the food is. This is amazing for a couple of reasons: a) The dance is called a “Waggle Dance,” which I’m going to assume was named by a scientist who harbored a secret desire to write for children’s shows. b) The bee is using vector calculus to explain to the other bees where the food is located. I don’t even know what vector calculus is. And c) Bees know that the earth is round. In fact, they’ve known that the earth is round since before Christopher Columbus accidentally landed in the Caribbean. I bet bees already know that gay marriage won’t destroy the human race.