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.

Bees in the buckwheat

Here is something I would do if I could. Bees in a field of buckwheat seems too good to be true. The source of my all-time favorite honey, Fagopyrum esculentum, just doesn’t want to grow in my shady forest apiary. Believe me, I’ve tried. So I have to be content looking at a photo like this and dreaming about the molasses taste of buckwheat honey. Sigh.

Thank you, Wayne, for the photo, even if it makes me wistful.

Beehives in a flush of buckwheat flowers. Photo and hives © Wayne Gillispie.

Don’t roll your queens

Queens can get rolled when the beekeeper lifts a frame containing the queen or lifts a frame adjacent to one with the queen. In the tight space between frames, the bees become bunched together or pressed against the comb or frame. If a queen becomes caught in a tight space or within a mass of bees, round and round she goes as the frame is lifted. She may be damaged or killed outright.

A rolled queen is always a sad event, but it’s worse in late fall. In the fall, the frames are likely to be heavy with honey, and a thick layer of honeycomb is often built in an arc right above the brood. Adjacent frames may grow together along the top, or nearly so. If a beekeeper is not careful, he can roll the queen against these thick layers and destroy her.

Also, by fall, there is apt to be a build-up of burr comb and propolis inside the hive. It can be frustrating to loosen frames that are glued together and a beekeeper may impatiently make a wrong move. For new beekeepers, especially, this can be frustrating: the frames were easy to manipulate when they were new, now everything is stuck to everything else. How annoying.

Along with the increased likelihood of rolling a queen comes the decreased likelihood of finding a replacement. As each week gets colder, it gets harder to find queens, more difficult to ship them, and trickier to install them, so extra care should taken during every fall inspection.

The most common advice is also the best: remove an end frame first. The end frames are often the easiest to remove, frequently contain less honey, and are least likely to contain the queen. Once the first frame is removed, you can safely slide the next frame into the empty space and lift it without rubbing against the others.

Note that I said “least likely to contain the queen,” not “never contains the queen.” Queens are free spirits, and occasionally you will find her where you least expect her. So go easy and take your time, even on the very first frame.


Robber flies grab bees in flight

Both of these photos arrived this week with the same question, “What is eating my bees?” The top photo, taken by beekeeper Wayne Gillispie, came from northeastern Kentucky. The second, by beekeeper Roger Taylor, came from Gallatin, Tennessee. Each predator has a honey bee in its jaws.

These creepy-looking bugs are in the family Asilidae and are commonly known as robber flies or assassin flies. Based on the photos, it might seem like they have a predilection for honey bees but, actually, just about any insect will do for a midday snack.

The family is huge, comprising about 7000 species, and they all eat insects. Many of them enjoy meals that are large and feisty, so they will go after dragonflies, wasps, bees, grasshoppers, butterflies, moths, and beetles. Most have spiny legs that aid in capturing prey in the air and holding it still.

Once an insect is captured, the fly stabs it with its proboscis and injects paralyzing enzymes. In time, the enzymes digest the insides of the prey and the robber fly sucks it out, like coconut milk through a straw . . . or a protein-fortified smoothie.

Robber flies occur nearly everywhere, but more species are found in places that are open, warm, and sunny. They are only incidental predators on honey bees and nothing for a beekeeper to worry about. Just keep taking those cool photos.


A robber fly in northeastern Kentucky. Photo © Wayne Gillispie.
A robber fly in Gallatin, Tennessee. Photo © Roger Taylor.