Bee Lesson Number Five

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.

Bee Lesson Number Four

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LESSON FOUR – Fear is 99% Wrong

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.

My Love Letter to the Bees – A Radio Interview

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The lovely doyenne of San Francisco radio, Janet Gallin, host of the Love Letters Live radio show, opened up her airwaves recently to chat with me about life lessons from the hive. Thanks my friend, as always, it was a blast.

Meredith May SF beekeeper grateful for being raised by the bees

Meredith May SF Beekeeper photo by Matt May

Meredith May, journalist, teacher, SF beekeeper and granddaughter of E. Franklin Peace the beekeeper of Big Sur, is back to talk some more about bees and just in time, too, since there is good news about the much discussed, troublesome and mysterious hive abandonment, more currently known as colony collapse disorder. Meredith is one of those people who can talk about the same subject time and again and always bring something new to the table. The hive, it turns out, is very much like some combination manufacturing factory and royal palace with guards, specific jobs, loyalty to hive, scent of the hive set by the queen and a willingness to sacrifice life for the good of the colony.

Meredith talks about the bees, her girlhood with them, being raised by her grandfather and their adventures in the honeybus, which was the honey factory and, in essence, their own personal hive where she and her grandfather would escape to share times. Interesting to note that it was not until her grandfather had to retire from formal bee-keeping that Meredith felt the urge to keep the bees herself. Because the bees helped her overcome childhood challenges that arose from the negative model of what family life should be, because how they lived their lives taught her what she wanted to be, her love letter is, yes, to the bees. You can read it here and know that her soon to be published book The Honeybus, a bee-keeping memoir beginning with a child’s point of view and extending past muddled personal times to her adulthood, will be the fuller expression of Meredith’s gratitude to her grandfather and to the bees.

A silver lining brightening the cloud of E Franklin Peace’s passing is, of course that Meredith was there with her heart and hand open to receive the baton he was passing to her.

Bee Lesson Number Two

Illustration by Noel Pugh, www.fullpollenbasket.com
Illustration by Noel Pugh, http://www.fullpollenbasket.com

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.

Bee Lesson Number One

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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.

Flight Plan

Every hive has a distinct flight plan – a certain place on on the landing board where the bees prefer to land and takeoff. One of my hives prefers the right corner. The other hive is less specific, with the bees landing and taking off anywhere near the entrance.

Today I took a seat on an old tire facing the right-dominant hive, and watched the bees to see if I could get a sense of which way they were going for nectar. They flew out, straight toward me, then rose up and over a fence several feet behind the hive, toward a basketball backboard. Then they banked left and flew toward a tree with white flowers and red berries. Returning, they made the same Blue Angels sudden turn, but in reverse. Show-offs.

Bee Cloud
Bee Cloud

I know this sounds strange, but the most soothing place for me is sitting in a cloud of bees. Their hum is like an “ohm,” and when I am alone with them, time slows down and I finally notice the pulsing microcosmos all around me. Today I saw that many of my foraging bees wipe their antennae clean just before they takeoff. Always important to look presentable before you leave the house, right?

The Queen Lays an Egg

The Queen and her retinue, photo by MaryEllen Kirkpatrick
The Queen and her retinue, photo by MaryEllen Kirkpatrick

It’s always fascinating to watch the Queen Bee at work, laying more than 1,000 eggs a day. She’s picky about her nursery, ambling along the honeycomb and inspecting each hexagon cell to make sure it’s clean, air-tight and worthy of her offspring.

She reminds me of a duck nibbling something underwater, sticking her head in the cell so just her butt remains visible. When she finds a space to her liking, she squats and puts her long abdomen inside, lays and egg, and then does a pushup with her long legs to exit.

Watch her lay an egg below. 

The Queen is an egg-laying machine, in constant motion. But I took the few seconds when she was still, laying her egg, to mark her with a small dot of blue paint. This helps me find her more easily during hive inspections, and also helps me know important things, such as whether she has been overthrown. Each year beekeepers use a different color for the Queen. In 2015, her heiness wears royal blue.