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Bees Make the Best Pets
All the Buzz about Being Resilient, Collaborative, Inndustrious, Generous, and Sweet--Straight from the Hive
By JACK MINGO
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2013 Jack Mingo
All rights reserved.
The Key of Bee Natural
Adult bees, when they're inside the hive, make the sound of 190 vibrations per second, or a note halfway between the F# and G below middle C on the piano. That's not so interesting. What is fascinating, though, is this: when they fly, the tone bees make is—as it should be—B (248 vibrations per second).
More Bee Sounds (Last Word, I Promise)
Oddly, winter is the time when a beehive is most in tune. Most of the bees that winter over are fully grown female workers bunched together for warmth. During that time relatively few new bees are hatched. In the warmer parts of the year, a hive is made up of not just adult females, but also male drones, young females, and bees of all ages doing different jobs; each of those jobs create different sounds. Newly hatched females are full-sized, but their wings do not become fully hardened into flight-worthy tools until the age of nine days. When they fan their floppy new wings for warmth and ventilation, the lack of wind resistance means their wings fan faster than the adults' wings, making a higher tone. Meanwhile, the oversized drones have bigger wings that flap more slowly, creating a lower tone. The guard bees, protecting the hive from bears and beekeepers, fly fast in a beeline buzz bomb, in order to have the most impact when they give a warning thump and then a sting; this creates a higher, more insistent tone. Perhaps the time to imagine you can hear Christmas carols is in the summer, when there are more notes to choose from.
Keeps the Elephants Away
Why keep bees? Because it keeps the elephants away. Okay, it's an old joke, but just in case you haven't heard it:
A man in a restaurant is perturbed by the odd behavior of a woman at the next table. He asks: "Why do you keep snapping your fingers and tossing your napkin in the air?"
She answers: "Because it keeps the elephants away."
"But that's ridiculous," says the man. "There's not a wild elephant for thousands of miles!"
She gives him a triumphant look, and responds: "See how well it works?"
It turns out that bees really can keep the elephants away. In 2011, the BBC reported that Kenya had successfully reversed a serious decline in the elephant population, bringing their numbers up to 7,500. The problem was that pillaging pachyderms began raiding subsistence farmers' fields for tomatoes, potatoes, and corn. The destruction, as you can imagine, of having a bull elephant in your garden can be pretty extreme, and farmers began fighting back with guns and poisons.
The elephants easily knocked down fences and barriers, but in 2009 researchers at the University of Oxford and Save the Elephants discovered a method that was 97 percent effective in repelling elephants: beehives. A group of 17 farms was surrounded by a border of 170 beehives, placed 10 meters (33 feet) apart.
Elephants may be thick-skinned, but they don't like bees for a very good reason. The bees are very good at targeting the vulnerable parts of even thick-skinned animals, around the eyes, mouth, and nose. Elephant trunks are especially sensitive, and the aggressive African bees will fly right up inside them to sting if necessary.
The bottom line is that elephants attempted 32 raids over a three-year period. Only one got through the beeline; the rest were quickly convinced to pack up their trunks and go.
Last news was that conservationists intended to use the idea in other communities as well. Meanwhile, the farmers were trained to harvest honey and wax from their garden guardians, providing additional income and extra motivation for keeping the hives in good shape.
I don't often have road-to-Damascus, struck-by-lighting, instant-enlightenment, come-to-Jesus, scales-falling-from-the-eyes moments. However, my conversion to the Church of the Living Bees was one of those moments. (Say hallelujah, somebody!)
Friends, I had always been apathetic to bees at my strongest moments, slightly scared of them at my weakest. That all changed on a visit to an environmental awareness house in Berkeley, California in the summer of 1978, when I was a young man. It was there that I saw an observation hive.
Previously, I'd seen a few of these beehives with Plexiglas on the sides so you can see inside but had always been indifferent to them.
I loved ant farms, despite their mournful quality, because you could actually see the ants doing something recognizably antlike: digging freeform tunnels, eating, drinking, and carrying the bodies of their constantly expiring farm mates for burial. But beehives? There was no concrete activity I could really figure out. It just looked like modestly repugnant bugs running around randomly, like a lot of cockroaches scurrying around in a box.
Little did I know. I was a fool. Once lost, now found. Blind, but now can see.
What did it take? Somebody with a little knowledge and about two minutes. He pointed out a soccer ball-sized ring of yellows, oranges, and reds in the beeswax cells. This was the pollen that the bees had collected. The bright ring was a line of demarcation. Outside of it, the bees filled the comb cells with nectar; inside it was the nursery, containing eggs and larvae.
The outside of the circle was suddenly understandable. Field bees arrived from outside, carrying either nectar or pollen. Just inside, they transferred their cargo to warehouse workers who put it where it belonged. It was no less (and, frankly, no more) interesting than watching the loading docks of a warehouse.
The inside of the pollen circle, however, made up for it. The placement of the pollen is convenient because pollen is what the nursemaid bees feed bee larvae—little white grub-like things, each inside its own cell. (Adult bees eat only honey.)
Then I saw the queen. She was surrounded by a small circle of worker bees. Each was facing her, looking like petals on a daisy. The queen was sticking her long, pointy ass into an empty cell, laying an egg. I waited and when she finished, she was pushed and pulled by her attendants to the next empty cell. I looked closely at the cell she had just left and, sure enough, there it was, the egg, white and smaller than a grain of fine sand.
I watched the nursery for quite a while. It was abuzz with activity: Eggs being laid, larvae squirming, and the bigger ones were being sealed into cells with a pollen/wax mix, to make the final transition to full-fledged bee.
It was so cool. I wanted my own observation hive. It would be a few years, but I eventually would get one of my own. But more about this later.
Bee Team #1: The Sex Workers
There are only two categories of bees that have the same job their entire life, and for both of them, that job is reproduction.
The Queen: The queen lays eggs. She's the only one that does, and she does it nearly constantly during honey season—from 1,000 to 1,500 eggs a day. She's not really the leader of the hive; more like its ovaries. Still, she's very important to the continuing existence of the hive so she is well protected, pretty much to the point of house arrest. When she's doing well, she communicates it through cues of scent and behavior; if she's not doing well, that news gets quickly disseminated through the hive as well. The workers show who's really boss at that time: They immediately begin planning to depose her, creating special, extra large queen cells that look like peanuts sticking out from the other cells. They grab a healthy-looking larva for each and drench it in an extra dollop of royal jelly that makes it grow faster, bigger, and with fully developed sex organs. The first queen that emerges kills off her rivals, and goes on a mating flight to meet some cute drones and make sweet but fatal love to them. She comes back with enough sperm to last a lifetime of egg-laying.
Now this part is kind of cool: The sperm stays in a special repository from which she can at will decide whether to fertilize an egg or not. Why the choice? Weirdly, it's for gender selection. If she chooses to fertilize an egg, it hatches a female worker bee. If she chooses to not fertilize an egg, it hatches a drone.
The queen lays eggs. She's the only one that does, and she does it nearly constantly during honey season.
Drones: Drones are the few males in a hive, and they play up the role like the pampered gigolos they are, hanging around, doing no work, living off the work of their sisters. Each hive in an area provides drones that head to a designated drone area, waiting for any virgin queen to fly by looking for a good time. The variety of drones hanging around somewhat minimizes the chance of in-breeding with their queenly sisters, but these things happen even in the best of hives. Still, there are some interesting varieties of sexual experience among bees that you won't read about in the Kama Sutra. Mating in midair, for example, swooping and diving toward the ground. Unfortunately, the drones' pleasure is even more short-lived than most males. As they withdraw, they discover that their penises are still inextricably stuck inside the queen. When they tear away from their lover, they really tear away from her, crumpling to the ground in a painful death. Any drones that manage to survive into the fall are given the boot to die in the cold as winter approaches. Cruel, but understandable.
Bee Team #2: Hive Got a Job for You
Not every bee can hang around laying eggs or anticipating sex. In fact, worker bees normally don't have the opportunity to do either one. The workers, all female, live a life of celibacy and constant work, literally from the moment they're born until the moment they're thrown out of the hive. It's almost an extreme prototype for the modern corporation.
But it's not as if there are no promotion possibilities in the HiveCo Corporation. Every worker bee goes through a gamut of jobs in its short life:
Custodian: As soon as a worker bee eats her way out of her brood cell, she has a job: cleaning out the cell she just came out of, making it ready for the next egg.
Nursemaid: Next job is taking care of the grubby little babies, the larvae: feeding them, keeping them the right temperature, dosing them with royal jelly, and sealing them up into their cells with a mix of wax and pollen.
Warehouse worker: Receiving, moving around, and storing the honey and pollen is a full-time job.
Heating, cooling, and ventilation: Bees flapping their wings as they work creates a constant stream of fresh air circulating through the hives. On hot days, lines of bees wind throughout the hive, all facing the same direction, holding tight and buzzing their wings as if flying, creating a small wind that blows in through the entrance, around the hive, and out again. Some bees hold small drops of water to cool the air further. On cold days, bees crowd close in the nursery, flexing their wing muscles to generate heat, keeping themselves, the queen, and the babies warm.
Guards: Standing just inside the entrances of a hive, the guards act like bouncers in a club, keeping out unauthorized bugs. When threatened by something bigger, they fearlessly fly forth to defend the hive from birds and animals of all kinds, including people, bears, elephants, and pretty much anything else that gets too close.
Builders: By the twelfth day of its life, a bee's wax glands begin working, dropping little fish-scale-looking flakes of wax all over the hive, like oversized dandruff. The builders collect the flakes, crawl into unfinished honeycomb cells and shape the wax into cell walls.
Field bees: In what will likely be its last job, the fully mature bee begins going out into the world to collect needed supplies. Most notably nectar and pollen from flowers, of course, but also water for cooling and sticky sap from plants and trees. The latter is the major ingredient of propolis, a sticky filler material bees use to seal up unwanted gaps and holes.
There Are Always Exceptions
Remember that I said worker bees don't "normally" lay eggs? That's because the queen's pheromones suppress the reproductive systems of the workers. However, if the queen dies and there are no larvae that can be groomed to replace her, that can change. Unless a beekeeper intervenes with a new queen, the hive is doomed. In that case, a terminally queenless colony will try to spread its genes before it dwindles away, using an unexpected tactic: some of the workers will start laying eggs. However, since they haven't mated, their unfertilized eggs will yield only drones (as mentioned above). Maybe some of them will get lucky and find a willing queen, passing the hive's genes along in its dying days.
When older bees begin collecting nectar and pollen from outside the hive, their brains change, and not really for the better. For example, after they memorize the surroundings of the hive, they lose the ability to learn new things. Normally, they stay that way until they die. However, sometimes "normal" gets disrupted; for example, if a hive has to grow a new queen, there can be a month-long gap before any new bees hatch. Normally, that would mean the larvae from the new queen wouldn't have young nursery workers available to take care of them, and they'd die. In that case, some of the field bees return to the nursery worker job. Here's where it gets interesting: researchers from Arizona State University discovered that going back to larvae-rearing makes their old brains work again like young brains, restoring their mental agility and ability to learn. (Interestingly, many human grandparents have discovered that keeping up with their fleet-footed, quick-witted grandkids has a similar effect.)
Deconstructing Bee Construction
Who knows for whom the doorbell tolls? Actually, a brown-uniformed guy with heavy boxes knows: it tolls for me.
The boxes on my front porch have come from a beekeeping supply house, Dadant, the country's biggest and oldest. As I move them into the house, they make the sounds of wood rattling together like the top notes of a marimba. I'm expanding my bee yard, adding another hive, and adding some honey supers to the others. But first there's a lot of pounding and painting to do.
Opening the cardboard boxes, I'm greeted by the sweet smells of pinewood and fresh beeswax. Even devoid of mental associations, they smell wonderful, but throw in a few weeks of anticipation and a few years of memories and I'm nearly knocked over as I begin the process of nailing together the hive boxes, then the ten frames that go inside each one. Those frames each consist of four pieces of pre-cut wood that need to be nailed together into a rectangle. Into that frame, I need to coax a sheet of fragile, thinly pressed beeswax and nail a long narrow strip that theoretically holds the wax in place. Most of the job is not hard, but it is repetitious. It is hard to mess up the frame too badly, but it is easy to wreck the wax sheet. Barely thicker than construction paper, it can crack by accidentally flexing it a little too far while laying it into the frame, or clumsily punching a hole through it with the hammer while pounding in the tiny nails, poking out just a millimeter or two from the wax, that barely hold the thin strip of wood that barely holds the wax in place, hopefully long enough that the bees will cement it into place before it falls out.
When I mention my beekeeping, people sometimes ask "how did you get started?" (and sometimes "In the name of God, why?!?"). I wish I had a story that shows that I'd had noble environmental intentions and coherent motivation. But honestly, I got into beekeeping in the same way I've made a lot of big decisions of life, love, career, and philosophy—by stumbling into them in an unfocused, whimsical, and alarmingly superficial manner.
When I think about it, most of those decisions turned out all right. Either there's method in my madness, or I've been pretty damned lucky. As a case study, here's how I stumbled into beekeeping.
Excerpted from Bees Make the Best Pets by JACK MINGO. Copyright © 2013 Jack Mingo. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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