I love bees. For over a decade I have been a hobby beekeeper, tending to my hives, catching swarms, and following the news about my flying friends. There is a lot to like about bees, from their biology and behavior to the geometric beauty of their hives. And of course, the delicious boldness and subtleties of the sweet honey that they produce. I picked up the hobby from my late grandfather, who always talked about them. I love to talk about bees as well, and I’m also always willing to open up the hives and show what goes on inside. This week, for National Pollinators Week, I’m going to talk – and show – a lot about bees and where they intersect biotechnology, pesticides, politics, and of course, HONEY!
In general, people love bees. They are symbols of both a natural force, and yet also of industriousness and ingenuity. (Rather like ourselves.) As a semi-domesticated species, honeybees may live in large insect high-rise buildings and function collectively, they also have a wild streak and can break free from human control at times. The benefits of bees to human society go beyond the mere production of honey, or even the billions of dollars worth of fruits, nuts, and other produce pollinated by them every year. The benefits are also cultural, artistic, and even sometimes political. As honeybees have been in trouble for years, it allows us to question our own role in the course of life on this planet, and our own future as well.
However, there are also people who do not love bees, at least as I see it. While many people are discovering the wonders and joys of keeping bees, basic human fear sometimes works against this trend. Fears of allergic reactions send some citizens into irrational hysterics, and political causes manipulatively exploit the plight of bees for their own purposes – even to the point of lying. There are even some beekeepers who don’t seem to love bees – and will abuse and misuse them sometimes for personal profit, sometimes for political gain. Sometimes both. Neither is good for the bees.
There are also people who genuinely love bees, and are concerned about them as I am. However, compassion is not always accompanied by education and reliable information. You may want the best for the bees, but through ignorance that rightly-placed compassion can have results that are little different from not caring at all. It also makes you prey to the manipulations of others. While I work to help my own bees, rescue others from houses and yards, and educate people about bees, it really stings when I see things like this.
I will have a series of posts about bees this week, and beyond if I can keep up my momentum. Two weeks ago my lab had a field season preparation meeting, and after my turn in our round of introductions my adviser said to the new hourly workers, “Don’t ask him about bees!” I’ve got a lot of things to say. Needless to say I took that opportunity to talk some more about my bees.
For National Pollinators Week, I’m going to talk about what I love about bees, and show you just how much I love them.
Putting the You In Eusocial
The first thing I love about bees are their complex societies. At an early age, one of the manifestations of my interests in biology was an interest in social insects such as ants. From ant farms to fish tanks full of dirt, I tried it all to watch and understand what they were all about. I mentioned that I got the interest in bees from my grandfather, Emil Mogel Sr. – the “bee man” of Petaluma for those who called him to remove swarms or bought mason jars of honey from his house or car. Hearing my grandfather talk at length about bees was enough to convince me to try a social insect that flies and produces food that we can eat as well. But it wasn’t until I went to college that I actually got a hive of my own.
While I studied at UC Davis, I took several courses in entomology and bee biology. I even considered becoming an entomologist, possibly a bee researcher. (This was before I decided to literally fill the role of a bee and study plant breeding and genetics!) Essentially, I had an undeclared minor in Apiculture and Bee Biology, which was then an official minor. I learned a great deal about bees, and that there was a lot more to them than most realize – or any of us even yet know. Our knowledge is always expanding.
Everyone knows that bee hives have a queen, and thousands of workers. Many know that there are also males called drones. But how do these three types of honeybee fit together to make the complex societies that we find in nature, and in my backyard? While most people focus on the “queen” as the center of the hive, she is actually inaptly named. The Queen bee is a reproductive female whose role is not to control and run the operations of a hive as human royalty might, but is instead an egg factory capable of laying around two thousand eggs per day. The only hierarchy she dominates is reproduction. The queen produces pheromones, or smells, that attract the workers to her to feed, clean, and protect her while she crawls throughout the hive laying eggs cell-by-cell. The workers are sensitive to this pheromone, which suppresses their own reproduction, and when she loses her strength they will respond by raising a new queen to supersede her. If a queen has a rival, they will fight to the death, but other than that the hive is really ruled by the workers and not by the timid queen.
Worker bees are sterile, female bees that lack the ability to mate with males. Raised on a diet of pollen, they develop differently from the queen, and are built to nurse and care for the young, forage for pollen, nectar, water, and plant resins, and defend the hive with their lives. Collectively, the workers make all the decisions in the hive. They decide how many bees to send out foraging and where. They decide when it is time to expand the hive with new hexagonal combs for storing honey and raising brood – and when it is time to raise new queens for the purpose of leaving and establishing new nests in the spring. They regulate the temperature of the hive with fanning, and can fill themselves up with honey to evacuate the nest if necessary.
Workers, like queens, have stingers armed with potent venom that they use to defend the hive when it is in danger. Only the females have stingers because the stinger evolved from an ovipositor – an organ used to lay eggs inside prey. They can sting the exoskeletons of other insects with little problem, but when this barbed stinger is inserted into the fleshy skin of an animal like a cat, dog, or beekeeper, it tears out of the bee and remains in the skin pumping venom. In this way, worker bees who defend the hive sacrifice themselves to protect the colony. It could take only a sting or two to teach an animal not to disturb a hive ever again. (I seem to have a difficult time learning this lesson.) The stinger also gives off an alarm pheromone that helps other worker bees home in on a successful spot to sting again. Stingers are very ‘smart’ weapons.
Since workers are sterile they are working to raise, promote, and defend their sisters and half-sisters – a key hallmark of “Eusociality”. Research has even been done on their collective behavior and has found that they reach decisions democratically – often better than we do ourselves. Perhaps it is their selfless nature that makes it work better for them?
Finally, the drones are the males, which number much fewer than the female workers in the hive. This is because they are raised from unfertilized eggs laid in larger cells in the comb. The worker bees actually decide how much drone comb to build in a natural hive based on how often they encounter large-celled comb as they travel around in the hive. When the queen is laying eggs and senses the larger cell, she lays an egg without fertilizing it with the sperm that she has stored up from when she mated. (Again, the workers are in control here!) Having only half the normal number of chromosomes causes the egg to develop into a male.
The sole function of the drones is to mate with the queen during mating flights, and all the female offspring of this mating will inherit 100% of the DNA of the drone. If the queen mates only once, this will make her daughters 75% similar on a DNA level, rather than the normal 50%. Some think that this relatedness makes it more advantageous from a genetic standpoint for workers to raise their sisters than have any offspring of their own, but not every bee species with this pattern lives in complex societies like honeybees – some are solitary. But in the right conditions, it could promote the evolution of this behavior.
Once the job of the drone is done, in an act that is described as “explosive” in the literature, his life is quickly over. Drones who don’t mate with queens don’t escape this fate, however, as the stinger-less males are useless over the winter and a drain on the hive, so they are literally dragged out to die in the cold.
No matter which member of the bee caste you are, life is certainly not easy business. Yet out of the individual mundane lives of each of thousands of bees, a veritable super-organism emerges capable of so much more. I was drawn to understand how they communicate and come together to produce insect skyscrapers, pounds of delicious honey, and darken the sky with swarms.
I always try to keep a few hives at my home, and I have also made pollination-for-veggies arrangements with a local farmer – at least until they got bees of their own. But I’m not your average beekeeper. I may keep bees in my back yard, I may have honey, make candles and other hive products like any other, but bees reach a little deeper into the lives of my wife Ariela and I. When I proposed to her, I did it with a bee suit in hand, and when we got married almost four years ago now, we passed out small jars of honey as wedding favors to our guests. Bees are even on our wedding rings. That’s right – our wedding rings! It is an original design that I drew and was turned into metallic reality by Hiroko Yamada, who still accepts honey from us in exchange for jewelry repairs. A local beekeeping store asked us to make a poster of the rings, too – which you can see here.
The officiant at our wedding, a friend of mine from my newspaper days, said “Like a bee hive, marriage is not to be entered lightly.” Stepping into our home is much the same. Last summer, we redid the bathroom in our fixer-upper house. The new theme of the bathroom was bees, and I daresay we may have gone a little too far. (No we didn’t.) The walls are a honey-yellow, and feature honeycomb shelves. With flowers for lights, a large bee guards the sink.
But the most special part of this bathroom is the tile, with a hive of bees penciled, painted, and baked onto the tile. To represent the super-organism of a bee hive, the bees are themselves arranged in the shape of a giant bee, each performing hive tasks, from nursing larvae to feeding each other, protecting the queen, reading a book, and drinking a martini. Ok, so maybe a few bees are not performing normal hive duties, but it gives our guests something to contemplate. There are even dark drones making the eyes, foragers with pollen, and one angry bee looking straight at you!
It is my dream someday to have a living “observation hive” inside my house, so I can watch them as they work undisturbed. In the meantime, I surround myself with the products of bees and the designs they produce. Just last weekend, we decorated our hallway with a honeycomb of tinted hexagonal mirrors. Breakfast on the weekends is spent overlooking the hives in our back yard. I also rescue established bee hives from people’s houses, including bumblebees. I live and breathe bees.
Now that I’ve built up sufficient “bee cred” (you could also say “bee crazy”), let’s talk about bees this week. Feel free to ask me questions about them, and I will do my best to answer as I roll out the different topics. I’ll leave you now with something that a random citizen of Davis, CA once wrote about me.
Karl is an elemental sorcerer who specializes in the dark arts of Apiarimancy. In his traditional white robes, he summons and dispatches the hive with deft control over the natural world. Do not cross him, or you may feel the sting of his anger.
For National Pollinators Week, I’ve got a lot of sweet things to say about bees and issues related to them, and some pointed stings to deliver as well. All for the love of bees.