The first experience I remember having with any sort of violent, flying, chitin-armored insect with a stinger was when a bumblebee stung my thumb. I was young enough that it made me angry at and afraid of everything that flew for a few days, and it took a long time and much convincing for my dad to get me anywhere near the two five-foot-tall structures in our backyard, each with a thin rectangular opening out of which those little bastards crept, full of poison and hatred, flexing their wings and rocketing up into the sky.
That was my understanding anyway, and it was based completely on an over-active imagination.
Early on I learned a vital piece of information about bees, a piece of information that often eludes many people: Honeybees are probably the nicest flying needle you can ever come across. People often confuse them with hornets and wasps, which are more aggressive and combative. For instance, bees are only likely to sting you if you squish them, or if you stand really close to their hive and wear dark colors
Their genes dictate that the only time they need to sting is in outright defense. The evolutionary quirk that drives their hesitation to sting is that they will die when they sting you. Their stingers are barbed and once used, their venom sack distends from the abdomen or completely breaks free, creating a massive fatal wound in the bee. And only the female workers have stingers. The drones and the queen do not.
Female honeybees also do all the work. They are fuzzy up close, particularly on a set of their thighs, so to speak (actually called a pollen basket or sack). This area dusts pollen from flowers as the bees suck out nectar. The combination of the two harvests goes into making most of what honeybees are known for, honey, propolis, which is a resin collected from buds to use as mortar in the hive, and, of course, wax.
Early on I learned a vital piece of information about bees, a piece of information that often eludes many people: Honeybees are probably the nicest flying needle you can ever come across.
The male bees in a hive, accurately called drones, contribute in no major way to the hive. In short, the only day that a drone actually does anything other than eat or take up space is the day that a princess bee matures and leaves the hive to mate–which they do in the air–and the drone chases after her and catches up to the princess and then–and this is not a joke–explodes bee semen into the bee princess and then falls pathetically dead to the ground where presumably some bored ants will reluctantly eat the dead drone.
This is in fact the truth. And explode is the correct verb. Check it out online. In one action the drone convulses and audibly breaks apart in order to inseminate the princess. It’s as hilarious to watch as terrifying.
The truth in remembering bees, to me, is the essential decency of their presence. When I hit puberty and the rage of hormones struck like a baseball bat rearranging the anatomy of a tomato, I would sometimes quietly sneak out of the house and wander out to the hives.
Even in those hectic moments, when hearing the bees’ hum, which vibrated through the hive at all hours like an old air conditioning unit, I found some hint of calm and would sit for long periods of time and think nothing at all.
I have good memories of bees because it usually felt like a reprieve to be around them and their noise. Whether working in their hive, or just watching them do their repetitious activities according to the queen’s hauteur.
There has been a lot trouble with honeybees in recent years, and no clear answer as to why. Honeybee colonies have been dying over winters that they used to be able to survive, or the colonies have been leaving their hives altogether. Many speculate that pesticides are to blame. I think that makes the most sense, since many pesticides are effective neurological toxins that kill insects of all kinds, and honeybees are insects.
And since large scale farming companies have bred pesticides into their plants, there is a serious need to study and evaluate just how destructive the unnatural act of genetically modifying the food we eat is to bee populations.
There was another rumor from a few years back that cell phone towers were messing with the bees ability to navigate and find their way back to the hive—bees can roam for more than a mile from their hive—but that idea has received a lot of scrutiny and seems largely disproven.
The honeybee happens to be the primary reason much of the food we eat grows. They pollinate plants that would otherwise not turn their flowers into fruit or vegetable. There’s that famous Einstein quip that says without bees we’ll all die.
Honeybees are resilient, at least for right now. But they are crucial to our food growth and are enduring some kind of stress, a stress that could easily turn into our own.