English for beekeepers

Does honey flow from flowers? Never.

A few months have passed since I last railed about English for beekeepers. But in a recent letter to the editor of the American Bee Journal, honey bee researcher Sue Cobey took up the cause. Briefly, she discussed the difference between queen rearing (queen propagation) and queen breeding (genetic evaluation and selection). She also mentioned hatching vs emerging (eggs hatch and adult bees emerge) and the misspelling of honey bee as one word. These are some of my favorite targets, too. Yay Sue.

What is a honey flow?

But then, a blog post by another beekeeper caught my eye: a discussion of the honey flow. Now I ask you, does honey flow from flowers? Of course not. What flows from flowers is nectar. Honey bees make honey from nectar by adding enzymes and dehydrating. So during the time of the year when the flowers are secreting and the bees are collecting like crazy, we are in the midst of a nectar flow. The honey will come later.

The term honey flow is confusing and short changes the massive amount of work—and perhaps a little magic—that the bees perform. It gives the impression that honey, fully formed, oozes out of flowers into the mouths of bees. What a silly idea.

We need to communicate

Language is a primary means of communication, but we are not communicating effectively when we use meaningless or misleading words and phrases. I’m fully aware that most beekeepers who use poor terminology do so because everyone else does. But still, it always puts a frisson of doubt in my mind. Do they know what they’re talking about?

But even if they and their beekeeping friends understand each other, will a non-beekeeper or even a new beekeeper understand the meaning? Maybe the public would be more impressed by honey bees if we didn’t make it sound like bees were collecting a pre-fab product.

What about the pollen flow?

Then there’s the term “pollen flow.” I am guilty of using this one, but I promise to switch as soon as I find a better alternative. However, after looking in the dictionary, I realize that “pollen flow” makes more sense than “honey flow.” The word “flow” can mean an outpouring or a copious supply of something. So, according to that definition, you really can have a pollen flow—a copious outpouring of pollen from flowers.

Using that definition, though, “honey flow” is even worse than I thought. You never, under any circumstances, have a copious outpouring of honey from flowers. Nectar? Yes. Honey? No. Flowers produce nectar and bees produce honey.

Some super terminology

The term “super” used to be the word that riled me the most, but it no longer has first place. More and more beekeepers understand the difference, and I can see the change in comments and emails. Some writers have gone through the effort of spelling things out, such as super(structure) and nuc(leus), and I think that has made a big difference in the proper use of those words. I cheer for those writers who are part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

So which word has moved into first place on the driving-me-nuts list? Well, it shouldn’t surprise you because it simply moved up from second place. Hive. OMG. Hive. Just yesterday someone said they installed a hive in their new hive. Huh?

While some of the folks at UC Davis have been chopping away at this one, no one seems to be getting anywhere. A hive is a man-made shelter for a colony of bees. It’s the box, not the bees, that have the name. An open-air colony can live its whole life without a hive. But I’m preaching to the choir, right? You already know that.

A few more months

Okay, that’s enough preaching for now. I’ll get down from my high horse and try to keep quiet for a few months (although it’s unbearably hard for me). Until then, read English for Beekeepers if you haven’t already. It’s one of my favorite posts.

Honey Bee Suite

This open-air colony does not live in a hive. © Naomi Price.


  • is it:
    “… it’s unbearably hard for me …”
    “… it’s unbearable hard for me …”
    just wondering,

  • How about ‘drawn out’!!! Wouldn’t it be better refer to this cell-building activity as ‘when honey bees build cell to a size and shape that the queen can lay either worker or drone eggs into’??!!

    Now I know that’s a mouth full but clearly it does not leave the novice trying to visualize worker bees with crayons, brushes and Scriptos ‘drawing out’ a cell!!

    • Skip,

      Yes, that is a good one. I’ve had many people ask what “drawn” comb is. I think “drawn out” is an old-timey phrase. I’ve heard it used in other, but similar ways, that I can’t recall at the moment.

  • This problem of ‘A’ proper definition is no better (possible no worse) around the academic community. Every profession has it own definition of terms. Us economist stole most of our better ideas from physics and then we twisted the definition slightly and typically never say a word that they are talking about molecule bouncing around a vacuum chamber and we are talking about human behavior. This disagreement in terms does creates a lot of confusion and some extensive hard feelings between professions, especially when one profession brings it own dictionary to critique another professions peer reviewed articles. For us common folks things like wikipedia have made things worse, since it seems any word can mean just about anything you wish it to mean. We have arrived at the modern day version of the Tower of Babble. Sadly it seem words now mean little but can be filled with a large quantity of emotion.

    Gene in Central Texas….

  • I’m completely with you Rusty. Incorrect terminology drives me to distraction and has actually driven me away from ‘social media’ (another ridiculous term!). I used to get shot down for correcting the hive/colony thing, so now just don’t bother visiting any more. My word of the day? Frisson. Lovely word!

  • I love this.

    Everybody has a pet peeve(s). Some of us have word-based pet peeves.
    And even though we try to correct our more intelligent friends of their most egregious errs, their will always be people who “could care less” about sounding like a goof. (ugh)

    Keep fighting the good fight!

  • Hi Rusty,

    Enjoy the articles! I’ll have to look that “frisson” word up. Seeing it in your sentence, I know, it’s not what I would have thought it was. I probably would have thought it was a misspelling of “frizzen”. That’s the steel plate, on a flintlock rifle, that the cock and flint strike, creating sparks, to ignite the priming powder, in the pan.

    I was a terrible English class student. I actually asked a teacher once, “Who, in their right mind, is ever going to use sentence diagramming?” He was not amused. But, I have quite a few trigger words. So, I understand the frustration.

    Right now, my trigger word is “empty”. As in, “My hive is empty”. I have an order in, to God, for some bees. And, have several traps set out. He usually provides. God Bless, Al

  • Hi Again Rusty,

    Ok, looked that up. Yes! I will be frissoned, when I see bees, flying merrily, in and out of my swarm box. ?

  • Thank you for your ability to be agitated by wrong terminology. I watch the English language change as the years go by but some things need to stay the same so that we are all talking about the same thing. I am thankful that I don’t have to deal with Latin as the medical and plant naming do, but I like it when we use the same words to describe the same things. I am not long in the beekeeping world, 4 years, but I am amazed at what people say to me and think what is happening. Go ahead and preach.

    Great picture of the open air colony. I have seen one only once and was utterly amazed.

    Thank you for the work you do for the bee world.

    Pat Van Ryn
    Lisle Ontario

  • Hi Rusty,

    Thanks for talking about my pet peeve! Beekeepers are amateur/citizen scientists. Scientists need to communicate clearly. It helps us all. One of the reasons I value your website and TRUST the information I read here, is that you are paying attention to these kinds of details. Thank you, and keep up the good work!

  • I was also pleased with your use of the word “frisson.” I could be wrong, but I always thought Kurt Vonnegut came up with that one.

    Someone recently sent me an article with a sentence that begins with: “It was reported that beehives are disappearing at an alarmingly fast rate…” The writer probably meant that honey bee colonies living in beehives are disappearing, but you know…

    I often get tangled up in terminology when I write about beekeeping. It seems many beekeepers gravitate towards terminology that works for them, though it’s not necessarily wrong because there are often four or five different words for the same thing. An eke, a shim and a rim, for instance, seem to be different words for the same thing (I choose “rim”). Hive box, hive body, brood chamber, deep super, and deep can all mean the same thing. The only time I say “super” is when I refer to a honey super, and for me a honey super is always a medium super. For deep supers, I always say deeps. I wouldn’t be surprised is half the words I use are inaccurate.

    • Phillip,

      I’m much more careful about it than I used to be, but I’ve been writing this blog for nearly ten years, and writing for printed bee publications for eight, so I began to consider every word. I try to minimize confusion, but it’s difficult. Not only are many terms used, but they are regional as well.

      I knew when I published this post that at least one person would point out “honey flow” in one of my previous posts, and someone did! Good to get it fixed, though.

  • The incorrect terms at the top of my list are queen cell vs. queen cup. When people call and ask what to do about all the queen cells in their colony, the answer will be very different from what to do about queen cups (nothing).

  • Rusty –

    These days I write most of my posts and notes as talk to text. It is often helpful and occasionally frustrating. But I’ve become more tolerant of other people who write honey bee as one word because that’s what the spell check programmers know and insist on using.

    Right now my writing is being made doubly complicated because Right now my writing is being made doubly complicated because for some reason everything I write is being duplicated for some reason everything I write is being duplicated.. Oy vey Oy vey


  • I’m absolutely one hundred percent with you on all your English For Beekeepers peeves.

    But (looking down and rubbing my toe in the carpet) it’s POSSIBLE I may occasionally say “hive” when I mean “colony”.

    • Roberta,

      Confession: Sometimes my husband catches me saying “hive” when I mean colony. I do it more in speech than in writing.

      • Oh thank you, I feel better now.

        And yes, I am definitely sloppier in speech than in writing. When I’m writing, I can always go look up “queen cell/cup”. Because I ABSOLUTELY know the difference; I just can’t remember which is which.

  • As honeybee vs honey bee…

    Some time ago I had a conversation with Dr John Thomas (his name is on the Texas A&M Bee Lab which also houses the Texas Apiary Inspection Service) and it seems he was present when the topic of the proper spelling came up and the decision was made as to ‘the proper spelling’. If memory serves??? one spelling was consider correct on this side of the pond (ie for academic publications) ant the other was consider correct on the other side of the pond. Perhaps someone from England can correct me on this if I am incorrect?

    If so then both spelling conform to standard English.

    We shall have Sue C. here early next month for a queen rearing work shop that the lab puts on.

    Gene in Central Texas…

  • I subscribe to daily feeds from The Old Farmer’s Almanac, and today’s had an installment of their “Beekeeping 101” series. Lo and behold, the diagram of a Langstroth hive has a large box on the bottom, labelled as a “Deep Super”. The accompanying text explains that hives may contain any combination of “super boxes” 🙂

    I have to say, though, that “drawn comb” wasn’t confusing to me. Time and long stories can all be drawn out after all, plus it’s a manufacturing term applied to stretched materials. So “extending out cells” was a fairly easy leap – that is, after I got past a few of the old-timers in my local club who seem to use the words “comb” and “foundation” interchangeably.

  • Great post Rusty. One teensy correction:
    I think you meant “Yay Sue!” rather than “yeah Sue”


  • Speaking of “hive.” A few years ago someone was asking for help in removing a beehive from their door …

  • Hello everyone,

    I have a question. What if I remove queen from the hive and after few days when they already started to raise new queen. Then I introduce the same queen.

    • Muzafar,

      The colony believes it is queenless, so you would have to use standard introduction techniques to introduce her. Then, if they accept her, she or the workers would destroy the queen cells. Alternatively, they may continue to raise the queens in order to supersede her.

  • Thank you for this. It’s so inefficient when beginners ask for help, and first we must decipher the terms they are using, or they do not understand the correct terms, or how to use them. I require them to read the Dummies or Idiots book before I agree to mentor them, some discount the importance of that important resource, saying, “I learn much better hands-on.” They don’t understand that it’s a time saver for both of us, because they are learning the basic language, basic equipment, etc; and I don’t have to explain as much. Thanks for letting me vent ;o) !!!

  • Yes, the “hive” vs “colony” terminology bugs me too. Possibly it’s just quicker to use the one-syllable slang “hive.” I used to think I knew that “supers” were the full-size Langstroth boxes, wherever they were placed on the hive. But I see multiple uses of the term so that I don’t know what it really is any more. Does it more appropriately describe any size box placed on top for honey storage or was I correct that it refers to the large box for large frames even if for brood?

    • Sam,

      If you go to the origin of the word, it makes more sense. Super is short/slang for “superstructure.” A superstructure a structure on top of another structure. So in this case, a super goes on top of the hive. The hive, consisting of brood boxes, is where the colony lives year round. Then, during honey season, you put supers or honey supers (superstructures) on top of the hive.

      So, it’s not the size of the box (not super big) but the purpose that counts. The superstructure is temporary; the hive lasts all year, regardless of the size of the box.

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