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Notice Board . . .

No matter how many beekeeping books you've read, you need Rosanna Mattingly's Honey-Maker to bring it all together. Honey-Maker is a handbook about the worker bee herself—what she does, how she does it, and how all her little parts work together. For less than the price of one average queen bee, you can learn the secrets of the worker in minute detail. She—and the book—are nothing short of awesome.

For the love of bees

I used to be a respectable member of society, but now, not so much. For one thing, I carry test tubes in my pocketses (“What has it got in its pocketses?). And while some women keep little pots of makeup in their glove box, I keep little tins of dead bugs. Then too, my recent book purchase, The Natural History and Behavior of North American Beewolves, is annotated and dog-eared. Meanwhile, I keep buying bigger and bigger lenses so I can photograph smaller and smaller bees.

Although my fascination for all things bee began with honey bees, it expanded when I read papers by Cane, Morandin, O’Toole, Kearns, Greenleaf, and especially Kremen. In that way, my first love, honey bees, led to my true love, native bees. It was from these scientists that I learned the problem of pollination and food supply goes far beyond the reach of Apis mellifera.

We forget about native bees

We tend to forget that before the European honey bee came to the New World in 1622, all plants that needed bee pollination in the Americas were doing just fine—absolutely thriving. Yet these native bees are now in a world of hurt. They have many of the same problems as honey bees, but they also have a gigantic problem that honey bees don’t have: almost total neglect and disregard. People just don’t care.

We also forget that while honey bees pollinate lots of things, they don’t pollinate everything. Many plant species would disappear without their own special pollinators, and there is nothing an infinite supply of honey bees could do about it.

Beekeepers can help

Beekeepers are in a unique position to help educate others about native bees. Most importantly, they’ve lost the miasma of fear that surrounds the word “bee,” and they are willing to concede that an insect can have value. Then too, on some level they understand pollination and bee/plant interactions.

Still, most beekeepers don’t know much about other bees. For some obscure reason, it seems that the general population is more interested in wild bees than are beekeepers. I get most questions about native bees from non-beekeepers—and not, I think, because beekeepers have all the answers but because they are smitten with honey bees alone.

Recently I attended a bee event sponsored by the Olympia Beekeepers Association and The Evergreen State College. It was all about honey bees, and included displays, samples, and a screening of More than Honey. But nestled among all the honey bee tables was one about native pollinators hosted by Glen Buschmann of OlyPollinators. In my unofficial capacity as observer and question-answerer, I would say it was easily the most popular display. People were standing four and five deep to see masons, bumbles, and leafcutters and to collect pamphlets and ask questions about native bees. People loved it.

One good bee leads to another

For beekeepers, though, knowledge of native bees is useful for more than answering questions. I have found that the more I learn about native bees, the more I understand honey bees and vice versa. For example, learning about mating leks helped me to better understand drone congregation areas. Learning about larval defecation in an underground tunnel helped me understand larval defecation in a brood cell. It’s all related and it’s all the same—just different.

So once again I urge all beekeepers to look beyond your charges. It is incredibly satisfying to know a leafcutter when you see one, or a sweat bee, or even to know you’re looking at something new to you. Believe when I say that in some way you cannot predict, it will make you a better beekeeper.


You never know when that test tube may come in handy. © Rusty Burlew.
According to Bugguide.net this is an anthophora bee, a type of solitary digger bee. © Rusty Burlew.

I was so much smarter then

If you are prickly, easily offended, or a second- or third-year beekeeper, please do not read this. Hey, you! Yes, you, the second-year beekeeper out there who is trying to sneak a peek! Please go away!

Wow, that was close. Anyway, for the rest of you, I have completed a one-sided, unscientific, and misguided study on the knowledge base of beekeepers correlated with the length of time they’ve been keeping bees. And this is what I found:

The beekeepers who know the least are the first years. No surprise here. Many don’t know a mite from a mouse—after all, they both live in hives—but that’s okay because they are soaking up knowledge and learning fast. They read, attend classes, ask questions. They are grateful for any help they can get.

The beekeepers who know the most, those who actually know everything there is to know, are the second- and third-years. If there is a question, they have the answer. If you have an opinion, they will let you know what they think of it—and you. They don’t read, because they could write it better. They don’t listen, because they could say it better. Trust me, there is not one thing about bees that they don’t know. If you need a fast answer and confident opinion, they are the people to see. I am happy for them as they revel in their vast knowledge.

Then, long about the fourth year, something happens—their knowledge begins to erode. It’s not that they know less, it’s that they know so much that they begin to realize how much more there is to learn. It dawns on them they’ve seen but the tip of the iceberg. They begin to see issues as complex rather than simple. They begin to see answers as multi-faceted, not smooth and round. The amount they want to learn slowly grows until it becomes infinite.

You’ve heard of the “tree of knowledge?” Well, I think of it like this: The first years are on the ground, right where the tree breaks through the soil. The second- and third-years are on the trunk where everything is smooth, well-defined, and nothing is messy. Those who’ve been at it longer are up in the limbs, branches, and twigs where every question has more than one answer and all the pathways are obscured by leaves.

Knowledgeable beekeepers start sentences with indeterminate words like, “sometimes,” “often,” or “possibly.” They read, go to lectures, search the web, and experiment. Each year that passes, as their knowledge increases in multiples, they feel they know less . . . and they want to know more. They are awed by the bees, mesmerized, humbled. They never have fast answers, only well-considered opinions that are tempered with experience and the realization that there are no easy answers—not about bees.

But, yes, the exception makes the rule. Of course there are second- and third-years who are not know-it-alls and old-timers who are. Furthermore, I don’t really think the progression from knowing nothing, to knowing everything, to knowing just a portion is bad. It’s just the way it is.

I am speaking partially from experience gathered from my website, classes I’ve taught, and lectures I’ve given, and partially from being there. I used to know way more about bees than I do now. Actually, I used to know just about everything. But once I began studying bee nutrition, pathogens, pesticide interactions, reproduction, genetics, health, hygienic behavior, flower selection, pollen composition, communication, social interaction, nest-site selection, and environmental stressors . . . well, let’s just say I know less and less every day.

‘Nuf said. Now back to the books before I lose a few more percentage points.


Where on the tree are you?