Now that September looms and you’ve completed your crucial August mite management, I want you to take a breather. Relax for a moment and reflect on where you find beekeeping information and how you might deepen your knowledge.
I’ve studied honey bees a long time, taking courses, attending lectures, reading, listening, and completing a master beekeeper program. But none of those pursuits gave me the deep understanding I was searching for. I found that most sources simply echo others without adding anything new nor providing additional explanations. Worse, a lot of the rhetoric is not even true.
If enough people repeat a fallacy, it soon becomes “fact.” This is dangerous. I believe that if everyone is saying the same thing, no one is thinking. I would rather people question conventional wisdom than fall in line behind the last sheep. Try putting your faith in the best line from the X-Files: Trust No One.
Honey bees are not alone
Most of the beekeeping literature treats honey bees as if they evolved in a vacuum. The writers often assume that honey bees are one-of-a-kind insects, unique among the many species. To a certain extent, that’s true. But to really understand them, you need to study honey bees in the context of other insects. To me, the most fascinating things about honey bees are not their differences from other bees, but their similarities.
How many times have you heard that honey bee drones are unique because they have a grandfather but no father? Like about a million? The trouble with that statement is that haplodiploidy—the thing that causes the generational glitch—is pervasive. It’s found throughout the order Hymenoptera, which includes all the bees, wasps, ants, and sawflies. It also occurs throughout the order Thysanoptera (thrips) and sporadically in other orders as well. In other words, one s-load of bugs has that same familial pattern.
Similarly, you will hear that honey bees are special because only females can sting. Okay, but it just so happens that no male Hymenoptera can sting. No modified ovipositor means no stinger, and males are famously short on ovipositors (the parts that lay eggs.)
Discovering what you don’t know
Although these sayings are nonsensical, they don’t affect your ability to keep bees. What I find more frustrating is the lack of information about basic bee biology—knowledge that could directly affect your ability to make sound beekeeping decisions.
Nearly all the available information focuses on honey bees in particular, which makes it hard to understand the big picture. But when you find information on bees in general, you can then compare honey bees to other bees to see which things make them different and which things are common. Those tidbits can help you understand the niche honey bees fill.
Honey bees are unique, sort of
The basic structure of bees is remarkably uniform. They differ in things like size, floral preferences, and nesting behavior. But when it comes to flying, breathing, eating, defecating, reproducing, defense, diet, nutrition, disease, predators, and hazards, they are peas in a pod. Bee species remind me of dog breeds: Although they are all slightly different, they are recognizable based on morphology and behavior. Regardless of a dog’s size, color, or demeanor, you’re unlikely to confuse it with something else. Bees are the same.
I didn’t understand honey bees well until I started learning about bees in general. I used to believe that secreting protective coatings (think beeswax) was unique to honey bees, but it’s not. I thought collecting plant resins (think propolis) was unique, but it’s not. I thought aggressive behavior (robbing and fighting) was specific to honey bees, but it’s not.
Worse, I didn’t understand things like larval waste management until I saw it in other types of bees—then it all became clear. Beginner books never explain where all that feces goes, so newbies always ask why their brood combs turn black. Why do we feel the need to skip the icky parts? It is what it is.
A bee’s place in the animal kingdom
Here’s another fallacy that’s worth a look. People like to say that bees descended from wasps, or they say that bees and wasps have a common ancestor. But ask a taxonomist and they will tell you the truth of it: Bees are not related to wasps, bees are wasps. This is easy to see when you look at a taxonomic tree.
For example, Apis mellifera (a species) is in the family Apidae (which includes honey bees, bumble bees, orchid bees, and others), which is in the epifamily Anthophila (all bees), which is in the superfamily Apoidea (bees and Apoid wasps). That means that things begin getting confusing at the superfamily level—not very far up the chain.
The Apoidea is in the infraorder Aculeata (ants, bees, and stinging wasps), which is in the Hymenoptera. The only thing that distinguishes bees and wasps is their diet and the structures they evolved to collect the food. To make it even more confusing, some bees eat meat and some wasps eat pollen.
The first time I dissected an aerial yellowjacket nest, I was transfixed. The combs inside the nest—composed of hexagonal cells—are frequently confused with honey bee combs and it’s easy to see why. The visual similarity is striking and dispenses with another of those irritating snatches of honey bee lore, the one that says that only honey bees build hexagonal cells.
Expand your horizons
A few years ago, I suggested to my readers that they try to learn at least one bee or wasp species every year. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you become familiar with just one additional species and learn something about it, you will likely become a better beekeeper. Yes, that sounds like a stretch, but I know it’s true.
I know it’s true because I’ve seen it happen over and over. I know many native bee enthusiasts, and many of them are also beekeepers. Each of them has a deeper, more nuanced understanding of bee life than those who have limited their focus to honey bees alone. They are fun to be with because they see possibilities, similarities, and differences where others do not.
Just do it
Many readers of this site have written to me expressing wonder at all they’ve learned since embracing the other bees in their gardens and apiaries. I cherish these mentions and hope I’ve had a small part to play in their bee journeys.
So once again, I suggest going out and learning a new bee or wasp. It doesn’t need to be identified to species, genus is good enough. Is it a bumble bee? A leafcutter? A sweat bee? If you have detailed photos, I or someone else may be able to name the species. Perhaps it’s a golden northern bumble bee, a broad-handed leafcutter, or a ligated furrow bee. Learn to recognize it. Find out where it nests, when it is active, and what plants it prefers.
Now is a great time to go outside with a camera and take a look. The fall species are becoming active right now, the bees that specialize on fall blooms like asters, goldenrod, sedum, and joe-pye weed. Go out and find one. Tell me about it, if you want, and don’t be surprised if you become hooked. Learning the bees is the most captivating thing I’ve ever done and many of my long-time readers agree.
It’s never too late to learn a new bee.
Honey Bee Suite
Featured image: The cover photo, taken in my driveway, shows a mating stack of three Heriades (Neotrypetes) in a composite flower. These trysts are momentary, so you need to move fast to capture them. Photo by Rusty Burlew.