The Pittsburgh summer was buzzing along steadily. Every day was warm and sunny, and the forests had exploded with the familiar menagerie of wildlife, lush vegetation, and floral fragrances that never fail to make my head spin. But pollen wasn’t the only thing floating on the breeze. Love was in the air, too. This newly minted beekeeper had a date.
After a late breakfast at a charming little bakery, my companion asked me the one question every man wants to hear: “Can I see your bees?” The answer, of course, was a resounding ‘yes.’ For some unknown reason, at this point I decided that I would not need to wear the bulky beekeeping suit and veil in order to give a small presentation and short glimpse into the inner workings of the colony. After all, I would only be opening the smaller of my two hives. And what would impress a lady more than stalwart bravery in the face of tens of thousands of stinging insects? Nothing, that’s what. So I took a deep breath and removed the lid, fully committed to the task before me. I pointed out a bulky drone and the queen with her dot of green nail polish and listed a few facts, emboldened by her interest. Everything was going much better than I ever could have hoped. But just as I was about to close everything up and leave the bees to their business, a lone worker on the top of the bar I was holding stopped what it was doing and angled its head toward me. I stared right back, and I could see the cold gleam of maniacal purpose in its many faceted compound eye.
No, I pleaded inside my head. I’ve given you a nice, safe, secure home. I’ve donated as much sugar water as you wanted. All I’m asking is to be able to impress one girl with my semi- domestic insects. Just this once.
Did the bee receive my silent, impassioned plea? I’m going to have to go with ‘no,’ because in that moment the worker sped directly into my face like an arrow launched from a bow. I felt the six legs alight delicately on my eyelid, ticklish for the ghost of a moment. It was as if time itself had slowed to a thick, syrupy consistency. I vividly felt the muscles around the eye begin to contract, and as the lid started to scrunch, a single thought burst with clarity onto the blank screen of my mind.
This is going to hurt. A lot.
And it did. Oh, it really, truly did. But, as I am proud to report, I put on a brave face. Hastily, I wrapped up what I was saying, reassembled the hive, pressed on the lid, and began to walk the girl back to her car. Halfway there, I think she may have figured out what had happened. As I attempted to make small talk with her, searching for interesting conversation starters through pulses of burning pain, the left side of my face was swelling up pretty considerably. Unfortunately, this was a fact that I did not realize until after she was gone and I looked in the mirror. Oh well. Another one bites the proverbial dust. It could have been a lot worse, I suppose. Before getting the hive, I had never been stung before, so I could have just flat out gone into anaphylactic shock. Dying might be the only thing more embarrassing that could have happened in that situation. Although after death I wouldn’t really care about impressing anyone, so it does have that upside. In the end, my heart was left hurting much more than my eye, as I never heard from her again.
Ah, the honeybee. This incredible insect never ceases to amaze, defying entomological conventions and driving us to romantic self-destruction at every turn (at least in my own personal experience). But sometimes, it seems as if every time Apis mellifera comes to our attention, it is all bad news. Stories crying out about how colony collapse disorder and our mistreatment of the environment are leading to troubled times for these beloved pollinators abound.
The honeybee has shared a long and storied history with the human species, starting with our appearance as honey-robbing primates and culminating in the bees’ semi-domestication, a symbiotic feat unmatched by any invertebrate other than the silkworm (and perhaps the medicinal leech). The histories of such great civilizations as the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman are littered with references to apiculture. And this wasn’t just a classical fad either - when Europeans came to the “New World,” they brought honeybees with them across the Atlantic and promptly introduced the species to the continent. In fact, Native Americans knew them by a name that roughly translates to “white man’s fly.” But regardless of any initial disdain they may have harbored, soon even the Native Americans had come around to embrace the species. There are few things more powerful than the allure of sweet, sweet sugar - in this case, honey. Before long, everyone was in agreement about what a fine fly it is.1
As the centuries passed, the humble bee has risen from a mere source of sweetener to become of utmost importance to our global food security. A full one third of the crops that we consume are pollinated by these busy colonies of organisms. Without them, we wouldn’t have the relatively inexpensive quantities of broccoli, almonds, apples, and hundreds of other fresh fruits and vegetables that grace our grocery stores.
This impossible to understate importance has not gone overlooked. In the twenty-first century, bees adorn everything from children’s books and hospital waiting rooms to clothing brands and tubes of lip balm. Why has this insect generated such cosmopolitan appeal? A few possible reasons come to mind. For one, bees are not ugly insects by any stretch of the imagination. They are fuzzy and pleasantly colored and perform a vital service to all of us. Furthermore, this valuable service is very visible - you can walk outside anywhere and see a honeybee buzzing a bit clumsily from flower to flower and say, “There goes a busy little bee, feeding the world and making some delicious honey! What a wonderful creature!” They are easy to love. Much more so than, for instance, bristly haired, eight eyed spiders that hunt in the dead of night, even though these are also very valuable to the ecosystems they inhabit. Because of this visibility and cultural portrayal, bees are viewed as a creature inherently tied to the integrated function of the natural world. An almost holy air has been imparted to the honeybee, also feeding into the idea that the ‘naturalness’ associated with them is tied to health. This positive perception is undoubtedly real, evidenced by the wild commercial success of companies like Burt’s Bees2 and a growing market for pollen and royal jelly as pseudoscientific health supplements.
My own history with the humble honeybee began quite unremarkably two years ago on an otherwise undistinguished blustery November’s evening. I happened to stumble upon an article about colony collapse disorder that contained a brief interview with a dejected beekeeper from the great state of California. “A beekeeper!” I thought to myself. “Now there’s a self-explanatory job title if I’ve ever seen one!” Then, I finished the article, moved on to read something else and mostly forgot about the piece. But the next day, as I was suffering through a particularly awful chemistry class, I found myself thinking about that unfortunate California beekeeper again. So I opened my laptop and began to surf around to see what I could learn about the profession.
I’ve always been something of an entomology geek, so it is obvious, in hindsight, that I would disappear down the rabbit hole that is our impressive body of knowledge of the honeybee. Did you know that as many as 60,000 individuals make up a single hive at the height of summer? Workers live for about six weeks and are only able to make about one-twelfth of a teaspoon of honey in their entire lifetime. To make one pound of the syrupy confection, the bees must visit over two million flowers and fly a total of 50,000 miles, the equivalent of making a little over two complete circumnavigations of the globe. That familiar buzz? It comes from wings that can beat up to two hundred times a second. Further, people had been keeping these phenomenally astounding insects for millennia to exploit the honey they produce by dehydrating nectar gathered from flowers into a saturated solution of sugar. Within the hour, I realized that beekeeping was something at which I could at least make a reasonable attempt.
Eager for a challenge, I snapped up all the apiculture books I could find at my local library. My father is a phenomenal carpenter, so I enlisted his help to construct, after some deliberation, what is known as a top-bar hive. I found a great blueprint online for a top bar using materials already languishing in my garage. So instead of dishing out three hundred or so dollars for a commercially available Langstroth, we spent nothing but a little quality father-son time (and a few nails) on the experiment.
And that was a good thing, too, because I almost passed out on my desk when I found out how much it was to actually buy the little creatures! Bees are typically measured in pounds, for the simple reason that nobody has the time to count them all individually. So, in mid-January I dished out one hundred and twenty dollars to a friendly local apiarist in exchange for three pounds of the buzzing beauties complete with one queen. When late April rolled around, I went to pick them up with my friend in her Volkswagen ‘Bug’ (the irony of the situation was not lost on either of us). When we arrived, they were housed in a small screened-in box with wood framing. The mass of displaced insects were milling about impatiently inside, steadily humming in a mildly irritated tone. Their queen was at the center of this cluster, hanging inside the box in an even smaller box of her own. The air around the pickup zone was full of bees as well - workers who had been accidentally and unavoidably left out of the packages.
When the poundage of bees gets scooped by the beekeepers from their old hives and into the holding containers, a few furry little ladies get excluded by pure chance. But not to be discouraged, they still hang around their hive mates and cling tenaciously onto the outside of the mesh, gravitating to a set of pheromones emitted by the queen and transmitted outward through the workers as they exchange food and rub against one another. This makes it a bit tricky to carry the thing without dropping it in unadulterated terror as bees crawl over your hands and get stuck in your hair (remember, I was still a rank amateur at this point, being ignorant of the lack of aggression bees exhibit when their hive is not being threatened). But we made it eventually, and after buckling the bulk of them into the backseat, we headed for home. Have you ever bumped up onto an asphalt road from a dirt driveway? Have you ever done it with three pounds of marginally upset bees? Well, no need to try it out on your own. Spoiler: It sounds like there’s an angry chainsaw starting up in the backseat.
So, after sipping a little bit of sugar water, the colony set about making their new home inside the top bar hive with the communist gusto that can only be seen in Red Army propaganda pieces and eusocial insect colonies. Once the period of running down to my little bee yard every fifteen minutes to assure myself that my precious bugs hadn’t flown the coop had passed, I was able to relax. They seemed content to stay. As the spring wore on, the number of bees flooding in and out of the hive grew in volume until dozens upon dozens were using the entrance slot at all hours of the day, bumping into each other recklessly and crashing onto the landing board with what seemed to be giddy, nectar-fueled abandon. Small, colorful beads of protein-rich pollen adorned the legs of returning workers like jewelry, ready to be fed to the ravenous larvae that were growing in the brood comb. Their population boomed, and as the weeks slipped by, it seemed as if the exploding numbers had no intention of slowing down. I couldn’t wait until the end of the week when I finally got to zip into my big white suit, light my smoker,3 and finally get a look at their elegant handiwork.
Their architectural prowess is unmatched by any other insect. The creamy white of young wax being drawn into new hexagonal cells with paper thin walls, the deep brown of old brood comb, darkened with the cocoons of dozens of generations, the buttery yellow wax cappings that hide a treasure of sugar beneath, delicious enough to tempt prehistoric man and the biggest grizzly bears of today even in the face of a thousand stings. Eyes squinted against the summer sun, I would hunt for the queen, looking for the spot of green nail polish on her thorax against the backdrop of yellows and oranges and browns. In the end, I always found her, surrounded by an attentive royal court that tended to her every need as she pumped out the next generational wave of bees from her long, cylindrical abdomen. Occasionally, I would spot a drone, its big compound eyes and thick body particularly conspicuous among the more petite workers. Even the faint smell of a hive is soothing, like the forest floor on a hot dry day in August with an extra little note of sweetness. As a side note, this attests to the fact that bees are particularly clean animals. They coat the inside of their hive with propolis, a substance made from resin that they collect from trees. It discourages the growth of microorganisms, and when coupled with their prompt removal of all refuse from the hive as it accumulates and their habit of never defecating inside (what polite invertebrates!) makes a beehive one of the cleanest (by our standards, anyway) places in nature.
There is nothing, and I do mean nothing, more relaxing than sitting next to a beehive on a warm June afternoon with a good book. There is something about the soothing hum that they emit as they circulate air through their hive with a steady vanguard of wing-beaters at the entrance that just relaxes you instantly. With the warm wind in your face, the soft grass beneath you and the occasional sound of a page turning punctuating the soft melody of bee climate control, the world is your oyster. On particularly hot, humid evenings, a bunch of them would head outside and hang together in a lumpy mass on the front of the hive, sometimes even drooping like a noisily humming fruit from the bottom of the landing board.4 Life was good. The bees seemed happy, and by extension, I was happy as well. But then a vexing problem became apparent. The number of those bulky drones I was seeing spiked pretty dramatically, corresponding with the amount of “drone comb” (so named because the larger cells of this type of brood comb allow the drone pupae enough room to grow) within the hive. Doing my best to channel my inner apiarist version of Sherlock Holmes, I deduced that the hive was getting ready to swarm.
Honeybees are unique in almost every facet of their natural history due to their status as eusocial creatures. The great entomologist, ecologist, and writer, E.O. Wilson, classifies them as a superorganism - imagining the entire colony as one organism rather than each individual bee. In terms of reproduction, this makes a lot of sense. If you were to take some workers and seal them off from the rest of the colony, they would not be able to survive independently, much like individual cells in our body. They certainly wouldn’t be able to reproduce and spawn their own colony of successors. This job falls to the queen and the queen alone, who pumps out over two thousand eggs a day, as reliable as clockwork. So, in order to make another superorganism, the currently reigning queen grabs more than half of the worker bees from the hive and takes off in a massive flying swarm. The chunk of workers that are left behind do exactly what their name suggests and get right to work on creating a replacement queen. How? The key is contained within the diet they feed the young bees. If a larva is fed a special blend of proteins, sugars, and minerals secreted from glands on the head of nurse bees throughout their development, gene expression shifts, and it turns into a queen. If the feeding of this awesome substance (known colloquially as royal jelly) stops a few days after hatching, they remain destined to become workers. In the end, both groups of bees end up with a functioning set of ovaries in the form of a queen and a support system to take care of those ovaries and make sure that they are producing well.5 In essence, you end up with two (super) organisms at the tail end of the process. My deduction was predicated on the fact that the new queen would need drones with which to breed - an infertile queen isn’t much use to anyone. One mating episode is all that she needs, and she will have enough sperm stored to last a lifetime. Soon after I made this informed prediction, queen cups appeared and proved me right. These roughly peanut-shaped cells are unmistakable to the eye, and always contain a growing queen bee.
So, the next step was to try to do something about either containing or averting the situation. There are a few options, like trimming the queen’s wings so that she will not be able to take the swarm very far away from the entrance so that you can recapture it right away or rearranging frames within the original hive to fool the bees into “thinking” that their population is not as large as it actually is, postponing the event. But I found another method is used by beekeepers time and time again that seemed to be recommended no matter where I turned - splitting the colony. Swiftly, my dad and I began work on a makeshift hive, designing a kind of cross between a Langstroth-style super and a top bar. When it was finished, we took the old queen along with roughly half of the frames of brood and honey and neatly transplanted them into the new box. To our great joy, it seemed that everything went wonderfully, and both colonies began to build up again. It was at this point in late June when that first excruciating romantic calamity detailed at the beginning of this piece befell me.
At the end of fall, both colonies headed into the winter looking fairly healthy, with the old queen in a newly built and well insulated hive and the new queen in the old (but also well insulated) one. Both had plenty of honey reserves to keep them supplied with enough calories to warm the hive during the blustery, frigid Pittsburgh months. I thought they were ready. And so we closed them up for the final time on a mellow October afternoon and let them finish getting ready to weather the snow.
On a cold December Saturday I headed down to the hives after lunch, armed with a genuine stethoscope that I had used as part of a Halloween costume when I was in sixth grade. Heart beating anxiously, I pressed the steel diaphragm against the wall of the original top bar, moving it slowly down the side while straining to hear the buzz of the winter cluster. They were alive and humming gently. My pulse slowly returned to normal as I pulled the cold rubber nodules out of my ears. As I crunched through a freshly fallen crust of snow on the way back to the house, I was sure that they would pull through. But in the end, things took an abrupt and wholly unexpected turn.
By the spring, both superorganisms were dead.
Upon a bit of forensic investigation, I discovered an alarming truth. They had been defeated by a dirty, no good, rotten, invasive species. Intermingled with their bodies, some still clinging tenaciously to the abdomens of their hosts, I found hundreds of varroa mites. Their Latin name surfaced through a fog of grief. It is particularly apt. Varroa destructor.
The varroa mite is a well-known, and thus widely despised, parasite of honeybees that feeds on their hemolymph (and, as recent research suggests, fat reserves) while slowly but surely infesting entire apiaries. And while not themselves deadly, an infection of these sneaky arachnids can weaken a hive to the point of collapse by both direct individual attrition and by acting as vectors of disease, as observed within my own precious colonies. In the end, they simply couldn’t stay warm after an undetected buildup of parasite load in the late fall. They had plenty of honey stored, but the cluster must have been too small. It was a sad fate, undeserving of such a (mostly) loyal bunch. Undeterred, I did some more research and formulated a treatment plan based upon the high toxicity of oxalic acid to the mites relative to the harm it does to the honeybee. Amazon swiftly delivered three pounds of the crystallized stuff to my door, and I was ready to wage chemical warfare against any mite dumb enough to show its arachnoid face in my bee yard ever again.
The next spring came, and with it another chance. I ordered more bees from another apiary and installed them carefully, determined to get it right this time. Within a week they had all disappeared. I was pretty upset, understandably. But at least they weren’t dead. They simply “absconded,” which is a technical way of saying that they didn’t like the digs I had provided for them and were off to find a much nicer tree hollow (or a hole in someone's siding). It’s a risk you have to take with beekeeping. I guess it was just one of those things that you never think will happen to you. Wherever they find themselves now, I wish them all the best and hope that they have more honey than they know what to do with.
The depressing end of my first hives are indicative of just one of the many problems bees face out there in the world of today. Pesticides and herbicides interfere with their microbiomes and affect their fertility, parasites like Varroa destructor and Nosema drain their resources, and the increasing practice of planting massive monocultures of one crop homogenizes their diet, impairing their nutritional uptake. I’ve experienced first hand just how tough they have it. However, being a “newbee” to the practice, I’m cannot blame potential mistakes that I made on an impending ecological disaster.
But during the course of my research, I came across some very old books, some of them written as far back as the 1800s. From what I could glean from the writings, it seems as if back then beekeeping was relatively easy. Not only did hives survive winter after winter without significant intervention, they prospered, producing enough honey to easily make their owners a little extra dough. The same cannot be said with as much certainty today. The aforementioned invasive parasites, overuse of pesticides, and agricultural practices have combined to create a perfect storm of damage to the apiculture industry, giving rise to rashes of incompletely understood colony collapses. You would be hard pressed in the spring to find any apiarist who has not lost at least one colony over the course of the preceding winter.
I do not want to be overly pessimistic about the situation, as it is still entirely possible to be a successful beekeeper, but you certainly have to jump through a few more hoops. This trend over time (corroborated by additional sources - I’m not going to base an argument on one beekeeper’s 19th century boasts) contains an important message that we all should listen to very closely. Because bees have attained their global distribution only with our help and encouragement and have become of paramount importance to our food supply because of their function as efficient pollinators, they have become one of the most well studied insects in terms of ecology. So although we played a role in shaping bees into what they are today, they still can serve as a “canary in the coal mine,” so to speak, warning us of increasing ecological problems. The constant struggles that they experience even when provided with our assistance can go a long way to show how much the rate at which we are blindly altering our environment can affect the organisms that make up the ecosystems we depend on. One can only imagine the toll that invasive parasites and pesticides and ecologically unsustainable farming practices have on species that do not produce anything as sweet as honey.
The question now becomes one of moving forward. Will we pay attention to the warning billboards and take action to mitigate our impact? Or will we ride it out until something really terrible happens? I’d put my money on the latter - stop signs never get added to intersections until a car accident occurs. What we are doing to our planet is akin to firing bullets through the hood of an idling car. At first, nothing might happen. But eventually you’ll get spraying steam, gouts of black smoke, and puddles of motor oil and brake fluid. Eventually, the car simply won’t be able to ever start again. Will we listen to the drop of antifreeze that is the predicament of the honeybee?
As far as my own situation, I am not inclined to give up quite so easily. Just as gold fever strikes prospectors, honeybee fever has stung me with its alluring venom. This coming spring, I’m going to give it another try. The good ol’ college try, now, I suppose, as it is my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. Armed with oxalic acid, sugar water, and a great deal of hope for the future, I’m going to do my best to make it a good one.
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1 Honeybees are not flies at all, and are actually a member of the Order Hymenoptera as opposed to Diptera, but as an ode to history, I’ll let it slide.
2 In 2007, the company was sold to Clorox for 925 million US dollars. Estimates of their lip balm sale frequency range as high as one unit per second, globally.
3 The prevailing theory is that the smoke simulates a forest fire, leading the colony to jump into action stuffing as much honey as they can into their crops for storage. This act of instinctual salvage keeps the bees busy while the beekeeper carries out the inspection.
4 This is called bearding, an easily observable method of thermoregulation.
5 Often, multiple queens are reared as an insurance policy in this situation. The first to emerge takes care of the others via assassination as soon as it emerges from its cocoon. As freshly hatched royalty, their first monarchical act is often murder.