Beekeepers develop their six senses

Time and again I’ve noticed that beekeepers develop a keen sense of their environment. They use all five senses—and maybe a sixth—to decide how to best manage their hives.

With their sense of sight beekeepers—some who’ve never cared much about plants—suddenly notice bees on a flower and want to know what flower it is. They start learning what blooms in their area and when. They learn how long a plant stays in flower and whether it provides nectar, pollen, both, or neither for their bees. They learn to recognize pollen by color. Gradually, too, they start to recognize other species of bees as well as other pollinators.

With their sense of touch they notice the weather—how long it’s been hot or cold, wet or dry, and if a storm is brewing. They lift one end of a brood box to determine the health of the hive, or heft a super to decide when to harvest.

With their sense of smell they perceive the health of a hive before they open it. Does it have that characteristic “busy” smell of wax, propolis, and nectar? Or does is have the unsettling smell of dysentery or, worse, foul brood?

With their sense of hearing the can tell if it’s a honey bee in the garden next to them or some other bee. They can determine population levels by putting an ear to the hive. They may hear the chirp of a new queen or the heartbreaking scritch-scritch of starving bees munching on the woodwork.

With their sense of taste, they know what nectar produced the honey that fills their combs.

But the most amazing is the sixth sense that tells a beekeeper his hive is going to swarm, or has gone queenless, or is short of provisions. He can “just tell” that a colony won’t make it through the winter, or that it’s going to explode with bees with the first breath of spring. He has good feelings about a hive—or bad. He predicts a bounty of nectar—or a dearth.

Beekeepers are nearly as fascinating as they bees they keep, and it’s no surprise that beekeeping attracts people from all walks of life into its folds. But as different as the individuals are, they each develop an almost mysterious connection with the cyclic forces of nature. Perhaps that’s the true gift of the bees.


Listening for the bees. Flickr photo by bwohack

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