The Allure of Bees, Part 2: Smitten

One wouldn’t think learning about trees, shrubs and other green living things would entail learning about insects too – but it does. When I went to college back in the eighties for Landscape Design and Nursery Management, one of the required classes to take for graduation was Entomology. The study of insects. Contained in that requirement was bees. Beekeeping. Why in the world would you need to have an entirely separate class just for bees? Yes, they were cool creatures, yes, I had fallen in love with them when I was a child, but … a separate class just for bees? Seemed like a rather preposterous thing at the time. Amazing how preconceived ideas can be so influential in your thought process.

     Mindsets in place, I went to my first class. From the moment I stepped into the room, my preconceived ideas were shattered. The room was permeated with a faint smell of wax, honey, and the smell that only bees can produce. On the walls were posters of bees, pictures of their anatomy blown up with lines drawn to bee body parts. There were honey combs on shelves, tables, and in jars. Bees in formaldehyde and on pins in boxes. Bee equipment consumed the room. Like the bee hat with a net over it, and a smoker and the white bee suit. I had just stepped into quasi-bee world residence.

All those things fascinated me and captured my attention, making me wonder if you had to look like an astronaut to work with bees. I quickly forgot that, however, when I met two of the biggest bee groupies that ever lived. I met Dr. James Tew, and his assistant Phil. These gentle men [who very much were gentlemen] were so intoxicated with bee love that it oozed out of them like too much honey on a peanut butter and honey sandwich.  Up until that point in my life I hadn’t realized overwhelming intoxicating love for something other than another human being could exist.

BAM! That noise was another preconceived idea being blown to smithereens.

Dr. Tew and Phil bordered on obsession with their all-consuming passion for these amazing creatures. You could not be a part of their class and not be affected by their overwhelming bee joy. I knew after a few classes I wanted to join the bee academy for a lifelong bee love affair. Just show me where to sign. During this time in my life and through this class I learned so many things that still come back to me when I just sit and remember.

We learned book work first, the ins and out of bee life, anatomy, bee language and hive procedure. Why life for bees is all about the queen and the honey. Worker bees, the drones, the pupa and the making of the honeycomb. The gathering of pollen for the conversion into honey. I was fascinated to see how the bees gathered the pollen then took it into their mouths and placed it into the comb. Suddenly it hit me… HONEY IS REGURGITATED BEE SPIT?!?  How cool was that? Man, I wished my spit could taste so amazing! Yes, I said that for shock value, no I didn’t mean to gross you out, but think about it! What is inside of the mouths of those bees that can make that kind of intoxicating nectar?

     I didn’t have time to dwell on that part too much, because we started to have outdoor practicums. We would all load up and go to the place where all the hives were kept. We were taught how to suit up and how to use the smoker to calm the bees. We learned that an active hive with honey and a producing, healthy queen is more aggressive than a hive that is young and does not have much stored honey.

     Personally, I learned one of the most valuable lessons that day, too. I learned that if you are afraid of bees your body gives off that pheromone I mentioned in my previous article. That pheromone sends a signal to the bee colony that there is a very real threat to all the honey and the queen. Then the defense and fight mechanism comes out in the bees and they are compelled to sting the intruder, thus giving up their lives for the defense of the hive.

      I can still remember observing the difference between those fellow classmates that were afraid of the bees and those that were not. Those that were afraid wore the full bee suit. Those that were not only put on the beekeepers hat with the net to protect the face, neck and head.

     Since I was one of the last students to interact with the bees I decided to see if I could keep myself calm, focus on our assignment and not wear any equipment. The suit, while white, was still warm and cumbersome and it was hot that day. The hat was not bad to wear but the bees didn’t seem to bother the heads of those interacting with them.  I had remembered not to put perfume on that morning or bathe with overly scented soap or lotion so I knew I was good there. This was in the days before highly scented laundry soap so that wasn’t a concern.

      The purpose of this exercise was just to walk into the bees’ “world” if you will. There is a flight pattern the bees use to go in and out if the hive. We were instructed to stay out of that path but to walk up close and observe their lives. So, I calmed my nerves and slowly walked into the hive domain. No hat, no suit, no smoke. I don’t really know if I was brave or foolish. I do know my curiosity in my lifetime has both gotten me in a lot of trouble and has taken me on some incredible adventures. 

     The bees didn’t care that I was there. Absolutely did not care. I squatted down on my haunches and watched them fly in and out of their hive. I watched, as it seemed like there was some internal air traffic controller directing them where to land, how to take off, what direction to go, what internal bee baggage and directions to take with them.

     Then BAM again… preconceived idea obliterated, bee love settled in so strong it started to bubble up and later ooze out of me like too much honey on an all honey sandwich.

      I don’t remember going back to the classroom. I don’t remember the other things I know we learned about during that class season. I vaguely remember tests and classes on physical hive construction. I remember learning about the honey extractor and other such important beekeeping knowledge.

      What I remember the most was looking in the base of the hive and watching those bees, looking into their eyes and wondering what I looked like in their perception. Watching those antennae move back and forth, dancing with their whole bodies and abdomens, the bees communicating to the other bees and to themselves.

       I remember at that moment feeling like a teenage girl that had discovered what tall, dark and handsome meant, only for me it was small, striped and fuzzy. Bee love. Now I understood the intoxication Dr. Tew and Phil loved and lived. I encourage you too, dear reader, look deep into those purposeful bee eyes. You will forever be smitten.