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? Yes.
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.
Bees are super cool! Madison just passed an ordinance that allows for small-scale beekeeping inside city limits (we recently got backyard chickens, too, because that’s just the kind of city we are).
The whole “hive collapse” syndrome thing has me good and nervous, though. We’d be totally screwed without bees to pollinate our food crops (not to mention all that delicious honey we’d lose)!
this is awesome, laura! thanks for teaching us so much about bees!
I love bees! did you know the queen can choose to have a male or female baby bee. There so coool!
Two amazing things have happened to me today. 1) the library FINALLY got in my copy of Catching Fire and 2) THIS post.
I’ve loved bees ever since I saw The Vanishing of the Bees, but really I’ll watch anything that Ellen Page tells me to.
Also, I think “where they’re smoke, there’s fire” should be “where there’s smoke, there’s fire”. ;)
That was interesting Laura. I have always been a bit afraid of bees, wasps, hornets, bumble bees and the like and that for someone whose Dutch family name translates as beekeeper. Silly really.
Maybe. one day, when I live in a village, I will honour the family name….
Matriarchy is the greatest thing ever
Honey bees and elephants are doing it right.
Honey Bees are getting lost! Last years production was drastically low. It really is quite scarey!
Yes they are honey, I mean, Digger, and I carry bee guilt forever. When I lived in Traverse City the bee line they followed to return to their nest/water place passed through my deck, every time I stepped out on the deck they boinked me in the head to the point where it was impossible to go on the deck. It was non stop boinking of a not good kind. I was told the water source/nest could be miles away and impossible to find to move the nest.
Soooo some bee killer guy said the only way to solve it was to spray something as they flew (he said it would stop it, it didn’t make sense to me but it worked). I knew it was wrong and actually illegal as these particular bees were protected by law re: killing them. But we did. I still feel like crap about the whole thing.
I’ve missed you..And I forgive you
Thanks Digger, and if you are missing me just drop me a line. I was busy as a bee changing my avatar just for you!
I noticed..It’s like a beacon of light..Beckoning ;)
I don’t even know if these were the bees this article is referring to, it just reminded me of that time and I had to process blabber on so carry on y’all.
This is pretty timely. I just bought honey from some people who were sitting outside a pharmacy I was walking by because the little girl sitting with them was quite possibly the second most adorable kid on earth and she wasn’t quite five and could subtract without using her fingers. I can barely do that, myself. As I continued walking with my new mason jar full of honey I thought to myself that I should learn more about this deliciousness. However, like I sometimes do, I quickly distracted myself with other things and without this article it was probable that I would never have learned anything more.
I plan to remain terrified of bees for sure, but I appreciate the deliciousness waaay more now, so thank you!
BEES COME IN THE MAIL?!
RIGHT?! apparently it was a normal occurrence in Molly’s childhood house to be warned not to use the bathroom because the bees had come in the mail that day and were hanging out until her dad got home.
So do baby chicks..frighteningly enough..”farm living” has been quite an education!
oh man, i want those too!
I want to get chicks in the mail. Where do I sign up?!
Oh you can get those too..My friend wrote an article on lesbian mail order bride services.
Yes! I once picked up a box of 80 fuzzy little chicks at the post office. I could hear them chirping as soon as I walked into the post building
i’ve been trying to explain honey bees to the 4 year old for the last 2 days. she’ll probably be much more interested in the royal jelly and the waggle dance and whatnot than anything i’ve informed her of so far.
Might I suggest you demo the “waggle dance”..It was a hit with my 6 yr old godson!
I once had a 4 year old ask me if I liked honey bees because they take the pollen from the flowers….maybe the cutesy thing anyone’s ever asked me! He then proceeded to point out every bee that was “eating pollen” in every flower of the yard. :)
I like my women like I like my coffee…COVERED IN BEES!
Did you scream “HELP I’M COVERED IN BEES, AHHH BEES!”?
I love Eddie Izzard…covered in bees! Okay I’ll stop.
Aw you evil giraffe you
“My father was a bee keeper before me. His father was a bee keeper before him. I want to walk in their footsteps and their footsteps were like this… AHHH!! AHHH!!! I’M COVERED IN BEES!”
You’ll find out more if you keep bees. We’ve had our hives since 2008, and we haven’t looked back since.
Honey is so good that can heal. My mom always put some honey on the scars I got while playing when I was a kid, and I didnt had any trace of them in a couple of days. I always laughed at it, and she even gave me a spoon full of honey so I could stop crying.
I love honey and I love my mom :3
also burns. it works like magic.
It’s a natural antiseptic! You had a smart mom :)
Anyone else read the caption to the first photo as ‘butch baby pancake’?
awww. that is also a pancake i would enjoy.
Me and bees don’t get along, I freak out anytime there’s a bee near me. I even freak out when flies are near me in the off chance they might be a bee.
Ah! If only this had been here two weeks ago! This was a category at my weekly trivia outing…
If you’re interested in awesome women who do awesome work with bees, check out http://www.thepromisedland.org/episode/15-marla-spivak and http://www.thepromisedland.org/episode/7-brenda-palms-barber.
Also the rest of “The Promised Land”. It’s an amazing show.
Studying engineering seems so much more worthwhile because it means I know what vector calculus and bees use vector calculus so…
(Also, bees are really cool)
this may be a first for me on Autostraddle: I’m gonna use some of this information in a nature-themed lesson plan for the elementary school kids I work with!
probs not the part about the queen bees killing their sisters, though. that’s a little too Hunger Games for 1st grade.
When I was in 1st grade, I would have thought that was the coolest part! But then again..Judging by my Avatar..Perhaps you should leave it out after all
Dip me in honey and throw me to the lesbians!
I’m a beekeeper and I love how the colonies form their separate personalities. And also scooping honey right off the comb is delicious! I got an antique honey extractor last summer and made a little party out of removing cappings and extracting honey. Thanks for a honeybee post!
If you’re looking for an easy, inexpensive way to keep your own bees, look into top bar hives. They’re easy to build and easier to take honey from.
Honey right off the comb..Heaven
i really like this article!!
my dad has bees. they do come in the mail, and you feed the box of bees by painting the side of the screened in box with a paintbrush soaked in sugar water.
this article was interesting.
My parents had bees… then a virus came… and now they have no more bees… :(
I think bees are so cute and I love their buzzzzing.
This is one of my favorite articles ever!! I love bees :) Since my girlfriends name, Melissa, means “honey bee” I got a tattoo last year of a lady bee on a honeycomb because I love her and I love bees. If I didnt live in such a close proximity to neighbors I would definitely have a beehive so I could watch all of the magical things they do to make delicious honey!
I feel like I should go watch “Bee Movie” now, lol.
everything about that is nice
i love this post so much!