What do I know about bees? Nothing that would make it to the American Bee Journal. I’ve taken a class and attended beekeeping meetings. I read books and blogs. Mostly I pay attention to my own bees. And four months into it, I realize that I know next to nothing about the science involved—I’m like a first-time parent who’s brought the baby home, fed her, put her to bed, and now waits to see if she’ll be able to manage whatever happens next. And anything could happen next!
I was not prepared for the amount of work involved: “I grew up around bees,” I remember telling the master beekeeper who sold us our first hive. But I didn’t bother to remember that I never saw the owners of those bees doing anything with them other than cut out the honeycombs in the late summer and set them in pretty dishes on the breakfast table. Except when they didn’t, because wax moths had destroyed the comb or because the bees starved over a particularly long, cold winter or died from an intestinal disorder that could have been cured by a quarter teaspoon of bleach in their sugar water.
But like that brand new parent, I’m finding the work well worth it. Because of course, my bees are smart and industrious and downright adorable.
When I talk about bees, please note that I generally am talking about the females. In the summer, a beehive is home to about 50,000 bees, most of them workers and thus most of them female. The queen may live for three years or so, yet once she mates, she never leaves the hive—she just lays eggs, as many as 2500 a day. The male honey bees, aptly called drones, are good for nothing but mating, and they are the unfortunate possessors of barbed penises that break off once they mate—in the air—plunging them into a death spiral. Since they have no duties and thus no usefulness in a healthy hive, the worker bees often drive them out before winter begins: There is no point in sharing precious food with bees who play no role in producing it.
So, as long as the queen is doing her job, it is the female worker bees who make the hives thrive. They live for six weeks during the summer, including three weeks which they spend indoors, cleaning the hive, feeding the brood, and guarding the entrance against intruders. They are genetically programmed to care for the queen’s babies, their sisters, with whom they share 75% of their DNA—more than they would with their own children. If they had any, which they do not, since the queen’s pheromones suppress their ability to reproduce. After a while, they begin orienting themselves to their next job, foraging for nectar, pollen, water, and propolis, a combination of tree resin and beeswax they use to cement the hive together. On these “play” flights, the young bees fly straight out of the hive, turn around, and hover back and forth in arcs outside the entrance. Once they graduate, they will visit thousands of flowers but produce only 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey over the course of their short lives. Not surprisingly, worker bees live much longer in cold weather, since they do not have to work themselves to death.
A bee will travel up to five miles to find pollen and nectar, much farther in the desert, but generally only about a mile or so. Mine are spoiled on this farm full of wildflowers, weeds, clover, fruit trees, vegetables, and herbs. They are particularly fond of borage, a prickly leaved herb with star-shaped blue flowers. Bees leave a tale tell oily footprint on the plants they visit, which other bees can smell. That’s why you’ll see one land on a flower and immediately fly away: It can tell that the nectar already has been harvested and the flower isn’t worth their effort—yet. But the flowers refill, borage particularly quickly, and the bees know when the time is right to return.
On hot evenings, they will “beard up” in clumps around the entrance to the hive, trying to cool down. They don’t mind me standing by, upwind and out of their flyway, as long as I’m not wearing black. When I am—as on some mornings when I check on them on my way to work—two guards will fly over and escort me back toward the pond dam. The story is that bees are wary of black because they are wary of bears. But I like to think they are telling me to not go to work!
Tidy souls, bees fly outside of the hive to poop, and yes, we have been pooped on, as my white beekeeper’s jacket and Keith’s hat attest. They cannot swim, though they seem to fail to recognize this, and I have rescued dozens of them from the birdbath in the garden, even though I lined it with rocks, especially for them. “Don’t go out in water over your heads!” I tell them again and again. But do they listen? No.
One or two of the bees usually accompany me when I am out in the open at the farm, pulling weeds, picking vegetables, or sitting on the garden patio writing. They climb on my shoes, sit on my clothes or skin, and try to slip into my pockets. Most of the time I think it’s sweet—they are curious little bits, and they are interested in exploring, not stinging. At other times, I find it annoying, since if I am focused on my work, I might slap at them absent-mindedly. But when a couple weeks passes and I have had no bee visitors at all, I worry.
As I should.
This spring, we fed the honeybees sugar water to help get them established. Consequently, they came to know my scent and to associate me with dinnertime. In fact, when the quart jar was empty, one or two would come to find me, bobbing around in front of me whining, “Where’s our dinner?” Once they had plenty to feast on—an orchard full of fruit blossoms, bee balm, lemon balm, coneflowers, white clover—we let them fend for themselves. And then late this summer, they started visiting me even more frequently, as if they were trying to nudge me toward the hive (or perhaps figure out whether I might taste good myself!).
I didn’t understand that they were trying to tell me they were hungry. How could they be, when I was standing in a garden full of sunflowers and zinnias and blooming herbs?
The answer is that the many other plants they depended on were no longer blooming. Those tiny purple soybean flowers were long gone. In the dry weather, the white clover flowers were few and far between, and the neighbor had recently baled the alfalfa. The goldenrod had just started to bloom, and the bees were returning to the hive carrying yellow-orange saddlebags of pollen. But we were in the midst of a nectar dearth, and I hadn’t even noticed.
So I started feeding them again.
Last weekend, I was working in the wildflower meadow, pulling out some of the mare’s tail that is overpowering the asters and boneset and partridge peas, and I noticed an unfamiliar plant. There were dozens of them, some as tall as four feet, with prickly, fleshy leaves and clusters of tiny unopened flowers at the top. I should have known not to pull them out until some bloomed and I was certain the bees did not care for them. But the ground was soft and I was in weed-pulling mode, so I just kept pulling–until two honeybees came over to “encourage” me to stop. And wouldn’t you know it, this weekend, these plants (which I still have not identified) are blooming and full of honeybees.
I didn’t expect beekeeping to be so personal. Bees aren’t tame or cuddly, after all, and I couldn’t tell one worker bee from any of her 50,000 sisters if I tried. But we are learning to communicate.
See this bee sucking the sweat from my water bottle? I know better than to assume that this is a random act.
I’ll bet you a jar of honey that the garden birdbath is empty.