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The fear of bees

Yes, this is a rant. I’ve been putting if off because it made me so angry I had to distance myself in order to write coherently.

My daughter’s two-year-old recently came home from daycare and announced, “Bees will hurt you.” Not only that, she began stomping on any insect she saw, particularly ants. My daughter was appalled by this behavior. So on a recent visit, I took the little girl out to the garden, found a couple of bees on flowers, and nudged them with my finger. They promptly flew away.

Apparently, this little exercise had amazing results and the fear of bees seemed to vanish. I’m told she now tries to pursue them on her own, but bees being bees, they simply fly away.

So my daughter and her husband switched from using a daycare to a “science-based” preschool. Ostensibly this preschool puts an emphasis on the natural sciences in their day-to-day teaching. The school claims their curriculum fosters curiosity, independence, self-reliance, and emotional maturity.

One day while picking up the child, my daughter exclaimed, “Look, a bee!”

Her daughter answered, “It’s a fly.”

My daughter looked to the teacher for an explanation and was told, “There are a few kids who are extremely afraid of bees so it’s better for everyone if we just call them flies.”

You’ve got to be kidding! A science-based learning center where they lie to the children about what is and what isn’t? Absolutely unconscionable.

What are the possible consequences of such nonsense? The child afraid of bees remains afraid. Perhaps a child not afraid of flies gets stung by this “fly” and now fears both bees and flies. Or later, the child is ridiculed by friends for thinking a fly is a bee. Or perhaps the child believes (rightfully so in this case) that teachers are liars. It goes on and on. No good can come of it.

Apart from the honesty piece, I think that parents who perpetuate the fear of stinging insects increase the probability of their children getting stung. Children who are fearful flail, scream, and run. All this commotion makes it easier for the insects to spot them. Bees detect moving objects more readily than stationary ones, so once you start flailing, you’re toast. But I think it’s more than that.

Most animals sense fear. Many mammals are able to detect fear and take advantage of it. Now, I honestly don’t know if bees can detect fear in mammals, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. Beekeepers who have mastered the art of moving slowly and deliberately, who don’t break a sweat or flail about, are perfectly capable of tending enormous hives without protective gear. I believe these people become part of the non-threatening environment of the bee, not an intruder into it.

More importantly, I don’t know why a parent would deliberately instill fear of the natural world into a child. Fear is not a good feeling. It presses on your chest, stifles your freedom, breeds distrust, and destroys self-confidence. In our modern world there are many things for a child to fear, including predators, drunk drivers, and perverts with box cutters—all viable reasons to be wary.

But why give a bee or wasp—an animal going about business as usual—equal weight with an kidnapper, a criminal, or a molester? It doesn’t make sense. One should be avoided, the other embraced.

I get many letters from people complaining about their neighbor’s bees, and every one of them—every last one—begins by explaining how their children are fearful and must be protected. Bull. It is not the children; it is the parents projecting their own fears onto their children. It is cruel, I think, to place such a burden on a child—a burden that could last a lifetime and, in most cases, a burden that is completely unnecessary.


Logic-based beekeeping

So what is “the better way to bee?” I now think of it as logic-based beekeeping—beekeeping built on science, experimentation, and reasoning—not on myth, wives’ tales, or hyperbole. Where I was raised in rural Pennsylvania, a high value was placed on “horse sense.” Also known as common sense, horse sense is the talent to apply what you already know to a different situation. General knowledge of how the natural world works provides an open window to understanding new things.

For example, we all know that a glass of water will drip with condensation on a hot and humid day. We’ve all seen our breath condense into a cloud on a frosty morning, or noticed water collect on the ceiling above a hot shower. Therefore, we should not be surprised when a colony of bees gets soaked from its own respiration. In fact, we should expect it.

I’ve always tried to cultivate my horse sense, and to this day, I try to understand things relative to what I already know. And when I don’t know the answer, it usually can be found in the elementary precepts of biology, physics, chemistry, or math.

Logic-based beekeeping is the opposite of rule-based beekeeping. I like to avoid rules because you can’t keep bees like you would bake a cake. Few things work that way. If I gave you ten rules for painting a portrait, could you do it? How about ten rules for flying a plane? Walking a tight rope?

Beekeeping is both an art and a science. The science you can learn; the art comes from experience, practice, and good judgment. And the very best beekeepers have an unfettered respect for the bees themselves.

Every year at this time, I write about mountain melancholy. It is the feeling that comes over me when the cool winds of autumn filter down from the hills, when the trees display their bones, and the honey bees retreat to their hives. It always makes be a bit sad, a bit lonely for my bees.

Inevitably, I also think about my website and try to decide on its future and direction. The phrase “logic-based beekeeping” came to me last week while I was in a tent in Chilliwack Provincial Park (BC), contemplating the stars through the mesh (or maybe it was all those fresh-caught mushrooms I sautéed for dinner). Anyway, it suddenly became obvious that logic in beekeeping—deductive reasoning—would be the cornerstone of the coming year.

So there you have it. I usually shed the melancholy after just one post so, phew, it’s over for another year.


Lindeman Lake, Chilliwack Provincial Park, Canada. © Rusty Burlew.
Lindeman Lake, Chilliwack Provincial Park, BC, Canada. © Rusty Burlew.

Hourglass bees

These bees have white hourglasses stenciled on their thoraces. Public domain photo.

What looks like an hourglass-shaped paint splotch on the thorax of some bees is actually pollen. In the past I often saw these stripes—usually in yellow—and wondered what they were. The bees look like they squeezed through someone’s freshly painted woodenware.

But according to Rosanna Mattingly in her fascinating book, Honey-Maker, the design occurs when pollen-covered bees groom. The honey bee uses her two midlegs to clean pollen from her forelegs and the back of her thorax. However, there’s a place she can’t quite reach, right down the middle of her back.

She swipes each side of her thorax and the pollen is removed in an arc, much like the sweep of a wiper blade on a car. The hourglass design remains after she’s reached as far as she can on each side.