The other day, I opened my hive to discover my bees clinging together like a cluster of grapes, “festooning,” the fancy word for bees making wax. In the hot months I like to put an empty box on top of the hive to help with circulation, but the bees decided they wanted to fill it with honeycomb.
“Usually only young bees are capable of making wax, but, when necessary, older bees can turn the trick, in the same way a retired craftsman can, in an emergency, recapture a former skill. After eighteen to twenty-four hours of clinging together, the temperature climbs to about eighty degrees Fahrenheit and a strange thing happens — tiny wax flakes appear on eight small, pocket-like glands on the abdomens of young bees.
The bee scrapes off the wax with her forelegs and kneads and chews the secretion in powerful jaws until it is a soft, pliable ball.
She frees herself from the clinging mass and deposits the wax at the base of the sheet of wax foundation with its hexagon imprints. Quickly she moves away, and another bee takes over, perhaps a celebrated architect or artist, who pushes and tugs at the soft wax, drawing it out into the hexagon shape.
Then she, in turn, steps aside and still another craftswoman comes along to draw the cell out farther, each a specialist, it seems, in a different phase of cell building.”
Curious what the inside of the hive looks like from a bee’s POV, I put my iPhone at the entrance with the lens facing inward, and pressed video slomo.
What I captured was pure comedy, and another life lesson: When you lose your footing and fall down, inspecially in front of a crowd, there’s nothing you can do but dust yourself off and take another step forward. Like it never even happened.
Bees are more afraid of you than you are of them. A bee does not want to sting you – because it knows it will die if it does. When a bee plunges its barbed stinger into your skin, it rips from her abdomen, disemboweling her.
Working with bees all my life, I’ve discovered that these fearsome creatures are actually gentle, only stinging when I am clumsy and accidently step on them or squish them with my finger. In fact, bees will head butt my veil, warning me to back away from the hive when they are ready for me to close the hive back up – typically they lose their patience after about 90 minutes.
I can put my bare hand into a hive of bees and scoop up a handful without getting stung, if I do it slowly, gently and with good intentions. It actually tickles.
Another important bee lesson: do the thing that scares you because that is the only way to dislodge your fears.
Another big life lesson the hive taught me is that SEX KILLS. Totally kidding. Got your attention. But, while male bees do die by genital explosion during intercourse (see above), the lesson behind this is about the importance of living for others’ needs in addition to your own.
Selfishness is a Sin
Male bees unfortunately never learn this. While they do have a vital function – impregnating the queen – very few of them actually get the chance. Like men waiting for a pretty woman to walk into the bar, the drones congregate in a cloud in the sky, hoping a virgin queen will fly through them. She will make just one mating flight in her life, copulating with up to 20 drones on the wing, and store their sperm in her body to last her entire egg-laying days (1-3 years).
Drones spend their whole lives in search of their own pleasure, while their sisters scurry around them, storing honey, building wax and feeding the young. There are just a few hundred males in the hive, compared to tens of thousands of females.
Every bee you see on a flower is a girl – they are the nurses, maids, grocery shoppers, construction workers, air circulators and guards of the hive, while their brothers wander the hive demanding to be fed.
Therefore, the layabout drones are pushed out of the hive every winter by their sisters because they are a drain on honey resources needed during the cold months. The poor fellows are victims of their own narcissism, and perish because the colony knows the queen will simply make more studs-in-waiting the following spring when the hive needs them.
In the weeks since my grandfather died, I’ve been thinking a lot about what he and his bees taught me about life. A hive is a social community with rules of behavior and cooperation and love, which becomes more visible the longer you share your life with bees.
Everything I know about being a good person comes from Grandpa Frank Peace and his bees. For the next five Mondays, I will share a bee lesson, to get the week off to a good start.
LESSON ONE – Family First
The hive is a matriarchy, with a queen mother and tens of thousands of daughters. They can’t exist apart, because the queen is the only bee in the hive that lays eggs, yet the queen can not feed herself and stay warm if not for the comfort and care of her daughters, who bring her nectar and water droplets and gather round her to keep her warm at night. The queen’s signature pheromone is what helps the daughters navigate home from their foraging trips of up to five miles in search of flowers. Mothers and daughters must live in harmony for the whole family to thrive.