I find myself spending my recess breaks sitting in the grass of an apple orchard, surrounded by 10,000 of my newest friends. They pay me no mind- they have better things to do. There’s food to collect and process. There’s cleaning to do, eggs to be laid and attended to, babies to raise, and even dead to be swept out. There’s the Queen to groom and protect, dancing to be done, and oh yeah, those hungry men to feed. My 10,000 newest friends look a little different from me. They’re each only a few centimeters long, but their powerful wings allow them to fly 15 mph to find food. They’re usually dressed in a black and gold, fuzzy attire. But unfortunately, they could care less about me. Ah well.
If you haven’t guessed already, my new friends are known by the name of Apis mellifera, or the Western honey bee. For thousands of years, they’ve captivated people- both in fear and in wonder- with their ability to create on of the sweetest and most delicious substances in the world paired with a sometimes deadly stinging back end.
I stumbled into my recent fascination with bees when the garden coordinator at the school I work at asked if any of us wanted to take a beekeeping class with him. He was looking into buying a hive for our campus, as there hadn’t been one looked after by faculty or staff in many years. Needless to say, I jumped headfirst into the deep end of the beekeeping world with its strange terminologies of nucs and supers and brood cells and smokers and hive tools and endless fascinating facts about my newest favorite creatures. Beekeeping is less of a stewarding act than it is an activity of great humility. Each time I’ve put my hands on a living, buzzing, teeming hive, I’ve been taken aback by how complex, how precise, how self-sufficient, how efficient, and how hard working these tiny societies are.
To give you a little perspective, there are anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 bees in an active hive. I’ve never been good at estimating but even if I was, both of those numbers and any in between are so large that I can’t even begin to conceptualize the vastness. Each of these thousands of bees has a job and each contribute to the health of the hive in some way. There’s the queen, of course, who spends her waking hours laying up to 2,000 eggs in a single day, all in the dark. The rest of the bees in the hive would die to protect her, and indeed, a lot of the jobs within the hive involve attending to her- grooming her, feeding her, cleaning the comb that she will fill with eggs precisely and exactly. Other worker bees even collect and dispose of her waste!
The other classification of bee in the hive with only one specific role is the drone bee. They are the males of the hive and they are few, characterized by semi-laziness and macho muscle-building. Drones, with their fat bodies and huge, bulging eyes (perfect for seeing a queen, my dear), have only one goal in life- to mate with a queen. When they’ve amply bulked up (which involves gorging themselves on honey), they fly out of the hive looking for a queen to mate with. Unfortunately, they will eventually fall to their deaths afterwards when their back ends are ripped out during the act. Brutal work.
And then there are the worker bees, the essence of the hive. They are smaller, more compact, multi-talented, and tireless. When they’re young, they’ll stick to in-hive tasks, which include cleaning of vacated honeycomb to be used later for storing honey and pollen or rearing young bees from egg to adult. There are nurse bees, who feed the young and rear them from stage to stage in their metamorphosis. There’s food to be cured, dead bees to be extracted, and higher up in the roles, the queen to be pampered. Only when a worker bee is established and proven herself worthy of leaving the hive, she will be allowed to exercise skill in navigation and endurance by foraging for food and communicating the best food sources to her sisters.
I’ve been fascinated by this intricate society. Even standing in front of a hive all closed up, you can see bees flying in and out, occupying almost the same precise flight pattern (beeline, anyone?) in and out, coming back with their back legs heavy with pollen. You can see guard bees walking back and forth, carefully assessing for intruders. You can see undertaker bees grasping a deadweight sister in her claws and hauling her out of the hive, dropping her on the ground outside to be absorbed back into the earth.
But when you open the hive up and take off the cover of the box, a whole new world opens itself up- a treasure chest teeming, buzzing, and vibrating audibly. Thousands and thousands of bodies are busy at work. As a beekeeper, you have to take a step back, brace yourself, and handle the smoker well when you first open up the hive. Every piece of skin is covered up, just in case, and with that deep breath, you enter into a meditative space of calm and indifference, of extreme vigilance, of awe, and of respect. The bees buzz insistently around your head as you work, landing all over your clothes, vibrating indignantly on your thumb, but you barely notice. You’re too busy looking at the comb they have built from scratch, the preciseness of each hexagon with its six sides all the same length, fitting perfectly together in harmony and mathematics. You slowly move your hand to your fact to look closely in wonder at that vibrating worker bee that has landed on your gloves, with its translucent, shiny wings at rest, the pulsating abdomen indicating breath, the complex face, twitching antennae, legs maybe heavy and fuzzy with bright yellow (sometimes red! sometimes orange!) pollen- a small body with so much power. You look at her closely, putting your finger right up to your eye. and look at her face to face.