Actually, I lied. I just said Birds and Bees to get your attention. This post has nothing to do with birds. My husband and I are attending Bee School. It has always been a vision of mine to raise bees. Actually, that’s not strictly true. It’s always been a dream to have my own honey. The fact that bees make it and one has to keep bees in order to make that happen has always been something of a show stopper.
Bees and I are not typically on speaking terms. Given that they are all ‘packing heat’ as it were, I tend to keep my distance. But knowing that I had to get past dealing with the manufacturer to get my hands on the product, I decided that this was the year.
This is a very informative class. We are learning a lot about these fascinating creatures, myths and facts. We have a diverse class – there is at least one urban farmer, a representative of a hotel who plans to keep hives in the hotel’s rooftop garden as well as a host of experienced beekeepers, some of them at it for forty plus years.
Here then are some of the more fascinating bee facts and myths:
The Bee Dance
Bees forage for nectar and pollen. In nice weather, they fly out mid-morning and return mid-afternoon laden with the stuff. Here is the amazing thing. Once inside the hive, where, mind you it is PITCH DARK, they do a series of dances to communicate the specific location of the flowers from where they have just returned. In this way, other bees who have not been there are able to return to the same location the very next day.
You will not be shocked to hear that all of the foraging bees are female. This is probably because the bees learned early on that while the returning bees were in GPS dance mode, all of the male bees were looking over their shoulders at BSPN or whatever was on at the time. As a result, none of the male bees had the remotest CLUE the next day as to where it was they were supposed to be going. Naturally, and since they were too proud to admit this, they just took off with the rest, made a wrong turn and spent the rest of the day not asking for directions. Eventually there was a gigantic all-male hive full of empty honey cans and a bunch of confused bees wandering around scratching themselves at which point the females just put their collective feet down and told them to just go back to the hive and they “would take care of it”.
Actually, the males do leave the hive once when the queen makes her one ‘mating flight.’ This is when the new queen leaves the hive and tens of thousands of male bees follow her to impregnate her. Surprising, not a single male bee gets lost on the way there. I can’t vouch for what happens on the way back to the hive.
Bees and Color
When working with bees, wear white or other light colors. Do not for example, go out to the bees in full Goth rig. Apparently black clothing gets on their last nerve. When I heard this, my mind mentally rewound to the prospect of the hives in that rooftop hotel garden. Where they hold weddings. What could possibly go wrong with THAT scenario? Let’s see, the bride, all in white. . .
“Installing” the Bees
When I saw this on the syllabus I could not even begin to imagine what this meant but here’s what happens. New hives need new bees. So you order them. About THIRTY THOUSAND of them per hive. Then they arrive and here’s where the ‘fun’ starts. (Actually, the head of the Bee School used the word ‘fun’, not me.) You have to pick them up. THEN you get to drive home with a box full of THIRTY THOUSAND bees in your car. If THAT doesn’t sound like the beginning of your very own horror movie starring YOU, I don’t know what does. So you get them home safely without making the 5 o’clock news and you have to put them in the hive or ‘install’ them. And by ‘install’, I don’t mean to imply that this is something as benign as say, installing a fridge or a new dishwasher. Unless of course your new dishwasher has THIRTY THOUSAND angry little parts bent on exacting revenge for boxing them up, sticking them in your car and driving them around like a crazy person for an hour and a half.
This process involves you suiting up in full bee regalia – you’ve seen the hats, you get the picture – and I’m not making this up – opening a little cage-full of a gazillion bees, banging it on the ground and dumping it into an open hive. Hey – that would piss ME off. It was at this juncture that reality set in like a cold Gatorade bucket over the head. Up to this point in my life, I can honestly say that I have never, and I repeat NEVER made any plans which involved me and THIRTY THOUSAND bees.
So that we can have a leg up on the installation process, the bee school teachers have arranged for us to practice with little pieces of Styrofoam. This is EXCELLENT because as it turns out, I have NO FEAR WHATEVER of little pieces of Styrofoam. In fact, if it wasn’t for their somewhat dubious ability to produce honey, I probably would have a hive full of THEM.
The Business End
Most of the teachers talk about working with the bees and sprinkle their lectures liberally with the phrase “when you get stung.” So let’s stop right there. I have bought every possible piece of bee clothing from the beekeepers catalog. I have a hat, a veil, a complete suit and long gloves. I am shooting for zero exposed flesh here. My target number of bee stings is, well, ZERO. I am generally not averse to “taking one for the team” but I like at least to know I won’t be outnumbered several zillion to one.
When bees sting, they leave their stinger inside the sting-ee. Along with some major organs, without which apparently, bee life is just not worth living and so after stinging, the bees die. I can’t help thinking that this is a design flaw. Picture what would happen if every time you slammed the car door, the handle fell off and the car was totaled. Just sayin.
Smoking the Bees
In order to facilitate working with the hive – read: not getting stung like a zillion times – you employ a smoker which wafts smoke into the hive. I am told that you don’t always have to smoke the hive and that bees are pretty docile. Here is where I’m pretty sure the Bee School teachers are just playing us. It must be some bizarre rite of bee-passage. I have at my disposal a simple, harmless mechanism for getting all of the bees to go grab their most precious belongings before the hive burns down instead of going after me and I’m not going to use it? Trust me. I will be smoking the bees every time I work with the bees. Possibly even when I am thinking of working the bees. Maybe the smoke will calm me down. Possibly. Guess it depends what you’re burning. It’s a thought.
So that’s where we are so far. I will keep you updated on our progress. According to National Geographic, bees have been around as many as 15 million years. Hopefully, and despite my momentary interference, they will go another 15 million more.