English for beekeepers

Have more than one bee? Add an s.

More than one bee

This is a rant about plurals and capital letters and how they apply to bees. Fascinating! But if you don’t care to read about English, please go no further.

More than one bee?

If you are writing about a single bee, the word “bee” works just fine. But if you happen to be writing about more than one bee, you need to stick an “s” onto the end of the word. This is how we make most plurals in English: simply add an “s.” Turns out that whether you are referring to two or two million, they are still just bees. Bees. Not bee’s. Not Bee’s. And no, not BEE’S.

I know, I know. This is my hangup, not yours. I get that, but I read comments, emails, and posts about BEE’S until I think I will go mad. What is it about bees that we have to make them so complicated?

“My bee’s swarmed.” “My Bee’s have mites.” “My BEE’S stored lots of honey.” Really? Otherwise literate, intelligent people are writing this stuff, people who would never write “Cow’s give milk” or “Dog’s bark or “My CAT’S are crazy.” What is it with bee’s…er, bees that we can’t write it right?

Now, you may have read the comments on this site and think these spellings rarely occur. But that’s because they drive me so incredibly insane that I correct them. Sometimes I try to leave them alone, but I can’t. It’s nerve jarring, like nails on a chalkboard. I can’t answer the question until I’ve translated it into English.

Please note that I’m not even worried about the possessive, bee’s, and the plural possessive, bees’. I would be elated if beekeepers understood the simple plural and skipped the gratuitous capitalization.

About those nuc(leus) hives

I also want to mention nucs. Not Nuc’s. Not NUCS. When people capitalize all the letters in NUC I always think they don’t know what it means. It’s not an acronym or initialism but a shortened form of a longer word. Think “Jo” for Josephine or “piano” for pianoforte.

Recently, I’ve noticed that some publications are writing “nuc(leus) colony” when they are using the term in a sentence, and I’m thinking of switching to this practice. At least it reminds people of what it means.

Nothing to do with writing, but I know a guy who makes nuc rhyme with duck. The first time he mentioned his nucks, I couldn’t understand what he was saying. I thought he had five hives and three ducks. A kind of non sequitur. Conversely, he couldn’t understand how I’d been a beekeeper for so long and never heard of a nuck…and he said as much. Communicating, we were not.

The queen is just another insect

As I wrote in English for beekeepers, the word “queen” describes a relationship like mother, father, sister, and brother, or a job description like lawyer, doctor, painter, and worker. I tolerate the incessant capitalization of “queen” a bit more from my British readers because they are used to seeing the word capitalized in the form of a title such as Queen Elizabeth. Still, even there, being a queen bee is a lower case position. Check out Bee Craft, the British beekeeping magazine: they wouldn’t think of capitalizing the word “queen” when referring to a “bug.”

The seasons upon us

And since I’m hot on gratuitous capitalization, I must mention the seasons. Beekeepers talk about seasons more than most people. But the fact remains that spring, summer, winter, and fall (or autumn) are not capitalized. Beekeepers get this wrong constantly and for some, I can understand why. There was a popular bee magazine, which shall remain nameless, that had an editorial policy of capitalizing the seasons.

The capitalized seasons leapt from the page of this magazine. They shouted and jumped. They reached out and grabbed me. The words were so totally distracting that I tended to forget what I was reading. Instead, I marveled over the fact that a word that should never be capitalized was inexplicably in print.

About ten years ago, when I couldn’t stand it anymore, I canceled my subscription, but not before I went to the library and consulted every resource I could find. I scoured style guides, dictionaries, encyclopedias, usage manuals, writers’ guidelines, textbooks, and grammar checkers. Simply put, I could not find one single resource supporting the capitalization of the seasons (unless one occurs in a proper name). Once again, I point you to Bee Craft—an example of an award-winning magazine where you will never see a capitalized season.

Am I being nit-picky?

Of course I am. But as I’ve said so many times before, beekeeping is a complex subject that is difficult to learn and often hard to understand. Anything that gets in the way of comprehension should be corrected so we can minimize confusion and maximize learning. Being distracted by non-standard English might be a small thing, but thrown together with everything else, it makes learning that much harder.

Not only that, but when a source is not particular about details, I wonder about its content. A rather wealthy gentleman I once knew was purchasing a house. He found one he really liked, but he was excessively worried that the knobs on the kitchen drawers didn’t match. A few were different.

At first I thought this was odd, after all he could take his millions and buy matching knobs. But he explained that when a small thing is so obviously wrong, you have to wonder about the important things you can’t see. In a house, for example, you have to wonder about the quality of the foundation, the electrical system, and the plumbing. If the stuff you can see is not well done, most likely the stuff you can’t see is even worse.

Likewise, if written material doesn’t follow simple and universal conventions that are designed to enhance meaning, you have to wonder if the material in the article holds value or not.

Honey Bee Suite

More than one bee

Bees. More than one bee calls for only an s. Pixabay photo.



  • Nuc rhyming with duck — I think I know that guy.

    What I hate is when I’ve written a comment on a website, read it back, hit “Send,” and then I spot the typo. Happens all the time.

    • Phillip,

      I do the same thing with posts. I re-read and edit about 25 times (it seems) but notice the error after I publish and after the 5000 emails go out. Hate that.

  • Love it! I’m probably guilty of capitalising the word queen too but when you see something spelt (or is that spelled in American English?) incorrectly all the time, you tend to pick up that bad trait!
    My pet hate is people using the ‘word’ bestest!
    Good, better, best for goodness sake!

    • Philippa,

      I don’t mind the differences in spelling among the nations. In fact, it helps me guess where people are writing from because email addresses are useless for that. “Capitalising” and “spelt” says UK to me. But “bestest”? That’s the worstest.

  • Enjoyed this piece very much – I also cringe just a tiny bit every time I see the misuse of English language and spelling. As long as we’re nitpicking, I thought it might be appropriate to point out though, that although in American English the word ‘bug’ is commonly used as a synonym for ‘insect’ – in entomology, a ‘bug’ is specifically used to describe a class of insects with mouthparts modified for piercing and sucking. So technically, your queen bee is not a bug.

    • Ralph,

      Yes, Hemiptera. I’ve been called on this before. Wait until Nancy at ShadyGroveFarm gets on here. She thought she had me cured.

    • Robert,

      I mentioned the possessives in the sixth paragraph. If it was one bee, it would be bee’s knees. If it was more than one bee it would be bees’ knees. But neither bee would be capitalized!

  • My wife and I call our operation Bill’s Beez. But than I do a lot of playing words. My background is in physics an I say “a person who can only think of 1 way to spell a word is kinda lost.” But I take this stuff lightly…Is that a dim bulb or a bright 1…… Bill

    • Bill,

      I say that making up new words is very different than screwing up the old ones. New words are an art form and I, for one, will latch onto any new word that does a better job than the existing ones. So, to answer your question, I think a new word is a bright bulb, but a screwed up old word is a dim one.

  • Wow. As a former magazine editor, I recommend you take a Xanax and try to relax about such things. You pass along a lot of great information. Being judgmental about typos, capitalization and grammatical errors made by other people doesn’t encourage communication, it makes you seem like a snob. That’s my opinion on the topic.

  • I was blessed with some wonderful English teachers throughout school, and I too cringe when I see grammatical and spelling errors. Over the years I have been shocked at the spelling and grammatical errors made by well-educated, well-placed professionals. And brace yourself, because I believe the aforementioned disciplines will become less and less as everyone comes to rely on their computers that constantly interfere with our written manuscripts.

    • Helen,

      I agree and it is sad. I have a special place in my heart for the teacher I had for ninth grade English composition. She changed my life, but she was a bear. I hated her at the time.

  • Loved this. While we’re at it, let’s tackle “they’re, their and there,” “then, than,” “it’s and its,” and “your, you’re.” AAAAHHHH!!!! Facebook questions and comments drive me batty. I liked your comment that you need to translate the question into English before you can answer it, I hear you. Wait, I forgot to mention “less and fewer!”

    • Anna,

      Of all those you mention, less and fewer get me the most. From a beekeeping perspective, super is the word that I believe confuses the most.

      • Rusty, there is also “nuke.” Whenever I see that I think: “No, don’t nuke your bees!”

        As for the comment made by the former editor above, I can see trying to cut the public some “slack” but attention to detail on the part of the writer is necessary to enhance communication and ensure everyone is on the same page; rules of grammar and spelling exist for that reason–clarity.

  • Rusty,
    I certainly agree with you on everything in your post except I think there is nothing wrong with capitalizing the seasons in a bee article or magazine because of the importance of the seasons to the science and art of the keeping of bees. Perhaps we could look at it as a point of emphasis.

  • I enjoyed your article. My gotcha moment that jumps off the page is the use of “had” before the past tense of the verb i.e.. had went , done did, done ate. I hear this more and more spoken by well known news reporters.

  • Very amusing in your apoplexy! Not to deride your irritation though; I share it deeply. My mother was a real stickler for spelling, pronunciation, and grammar when raising her children, and it stuck with me. Now that I’ve reached a certain age, when one’s memory might be thought a bit suspect at times, I find myself wondering whether it’s me or the media that doesn’t make sense. Phrases masquerading as sentences, incorrect homophone usage, misspellings, and frank grammatical error seem rampant to me. I also mourn the passing of the irregular past in American English, but that’s just a personal thing.

  • And you let “Its two words . . .” pass?! How about, “The bee flew out of it’s hive”! You probably taught more about plurals and apostrophes than most people learn in a lifetime! Keep it up! This is my favorite site!

  • While I tend to be fussy when it comes to proper use of grammar, I also keep reminding myself that a word is improperly spelled until enough people adopt a different spelling. Hooray for the unwashed rabble.

    My minimal German is not enough to communicate beyond the simplest of efforts, but trying to read it certainly loosened my brakes when it comes to capitalization. Winter, Spring, Summer, and Autumn will be unapologetically capitalized by me almost as often as the days of the weeks and the months of the year.

    Bee well

  • Finally, someone is bringing attention to what drives me batty!! I’m thrilled to know that I am not alone, & sad to see a former publisher be so aggressive. Proper grammar aids in clear communication, & I for one applaud you for bringing attention to this fact!

  • Hahaha Rusty, enjoyed your nitpicky article! When I can’t figure out why a hive is shrinking or has disappeared, I can appreciate something ordered and predictable like grammar, capitalization, punctuation, or spelling. Maybe it’s carefulness collapse disorder??? Ha.

  • Clearly I am also a snob and quite frankly I’m happy to be one. There’s nothing wrong with having basic standards in English. I wish more people would take pride in their written language whether you are a beekeeper or not.


  • Rusty,

    Well said! In future, I will do my best to follow your extremely good example. I must have capitalized H for hornet many times, and I am so sorry to have made you angry. One of the joys of reading your writings (apart from your knowledge of bees and beekeeping, of course) is the quality and clarity of your English.

    I will try to be good in the Future,

  • Bees are best when Bee’s bees are bees not Bees or bee’s, or Bee’s bee’s because Bee’s bees’ knees are best as knees, not knee’s, but Bee’s knees are full of spring in spring and march best in March and their hairs are there in layers (like hares), so put honey and bees (and fewer honey bees) in nucs not nukes and good Nuck with it all, cos (not ‘cos?) maybe (may bee, or even May bee) it’s possible to bee a good bee keeper (or beekeeper) without even knowing how to read. Best remember that too, oh Best Beloved.

  • Keep up the good work Rusty! I worked for a state prison system for 20+ years, the last 11 of which I had to communicate, in writing, to the convicts, criminals, inmates, clients. These are all names for the same people, just different administration’s terminology for them. I had to learn how to write as if I was writing to someone with a second grade education, and their relatives were no better. Now, I am no English major or English guru, but being forced to learn how to write to someone with a second grade level of knowledge of the English language, really changed my ability to properly communicate with people. I am working on correcting that, but it is hard.

  • I love your website and always learn so much about bees from it. Being an educator, this is by far my favorite post thus far! One thing I must mention is that my auto-correct insists on capitalizing queen and I only fight it so many times and then finally surrender to it.

  • Thank you! The same things make me nuts. Another popular misuse of the English language is: ‘people that’ … when it should be ‘people who’. Yeah, I was the girl they hated when learning punctuation and grammar.

    Nice to meet a kindred spirit. Love your site.

  • Thank you, Rusty, and thank you, Ralph, for the “bug” mention. Cured? No, no – I am guilty of nit-picking, and I will keep nit-picking and pleading guilty. Last week after nit-picking a Facebook post and being told, “Oh, you KNEW what I meant,” I got a nice comment from one of our club’s mentoring students. She said, “Keep nitpicking, Nancy. Beekeeping is confusing enough, without getting terms mixed up.” She added, in quotes, “Brood is sealed, honey is capped. Eggs hatch, adults emerge. Colonies swarm, hives just sit there.”

    And to April Hay – Your comment sounds a bit judgmental. Picky or not, Rusty’s light-hearted tone allows people to take her criticism in a good spirit. Xanax? No one who can sit on a warm late-October day and watch the foragers still bringing in golden pollen, needs tranquilizers.

    Take care, everyone. Wishing your colonies a safe secure Winter.

    Shady Grove Farm
    Corinth, Kentucky
    “The miracle is not walking on water. The miracle is walking on the green Earth.’ – Thich Nhat Hanh

  • I love this post! I’m as picky as you about those details. Apostrophe plurals, I call them. They have become ubiquitous in most writing, just like exclamation marks in Facebook. I think these points of grammar are no longer taught and if they are, no one takes them seriously.

  • I enjoyed this Rusty and agree with you. When I was at primary school in England nearly sixty years ago we were taught to capitalise seasons but obviously things have changed since then. It’s interesting that we still capitalise the names of days and months (at least we do over here).

  • Rusty

    I’m almost afraid to reply. That was great. I am only going into my 3rd year keeping bees and this is my go to forum.

    Thanks for all you do.

  • Given your displeasure with the spelling outlined in your blog I assume you do not frequent the world of Facebook beekeeping groups often? Otherwise you might be in the mad house as non-conventional spelling and grammar is the dominant kind there.

    • Aaron,

      You are right. The only Facebook sites I ever go to our my own, where posts and comments are unusually literate, and on a private page for U Montana master beekeepers, where people are excessively literate. Like minds tend to group together, so it is not surprising that sites have different characteristics.

      I truly believe that the purpose of these sites is to transmit ideas and information, but that communication is hindered by sloppy thinking, and imprecise language is a signal of sloppy thinking.

      Way back when I was having trouble in a high school biology class, it suddenly struck me that all the concepts were easy to understand once I learned the vocabulary. It was like “Oh! Why didn’t anybody ever tell me?” Ever since then I have been very mindful of the link between language and understanding. Just my two cents.

  • When I was trying to order my first package of bees, the beekeeper I was ordering from corrected my pronunciation of the word “nuc.” After reading this article, however, I find I was saying it correctly! I’ll never forget her interjecting a not-so-polite, “by the way, the word is nuck” into our conversation. As it turns out I never did end up ordering from her, and now I have a reason to be glad about it! Keep up the good work, Rusty. I love your site!

  • I’m also a grammar nitpicker (or should that have been hyphenated or split into 2 words?), but despite cringing at all the usual culprits, I’ve learned to lighten up a little. I try to save my scorn for those educated ones who STILL don’t know the difference between it’s and its. Where I live, there are people who have enormous stores of knowledge about the natural world who never had the opportunity to attend the schools I got to attend, or didn’t have the educated family I was lucky enough to have. I hate to squelch their participation in a topic as important as beekeeping just because they are too embarrassed by their lack of “booklearning” to open up. I know people who know 20 times more than I do about plants or animals or insects, but who can’t write a paragraph or spell common words to save their own lives.

  • I have a question. When and in what circumstances are honey bees and Honey bees proper nouns? Or are honey bees always nouns like queen is just a noun?

    Please let me know.

    • The only time “honey bee” would be a proper noun is if it was someone’s name. The phrase “honey bee” is no different than “dump truck,” “fir tree,” “service dog,” or “toilet paper.” It just an adjective and a noun. For some reason, people try to make it really complicated, but it’s not.

  • I know this article is quite old, but I’m new to beekeeping and doing lots of reading. I’m really enjoying all the great articles on your site – so much terrific info. But, I LOVE this one! Thank you!

  • I love it when fun articles like this bubble up to the recent comments! The best takedown reply I ever read about incorrect apostrophes was “S’teve wonder’s what Bob mean’t by those apostrophe’s.”

    We have a local gentleman who refers to “nucks”. He also talks about “forger bees” – you know, the ones that fly around looking for supplies? I took this as just a side effect of his accent until recently when he gave a presentation at our club, and that’s how it was spelled on the slide. Powerpoint didn’t mind, of course, since “forger” is itself a valid word. I guess those forger bees are the ones responsible for the adulterated honey we all hear about.

  • Brilliant!

    I would like to mention, however, that I am only 33, and I was taught (in England) as a child to use capital letters at the beginning of the names of the seasons. That’s only twenty or so years.

    It is true I don’t tend to do it now, following the convention that if there is reasonable doubt, don’t use a capital – I agree with that principle, too, in that I think sentences read more easily without too many extra capitals – but in the UK, that particular usage is at the worst a bit dated, and at best, still entirely correct.

    Further confusion may be caused by the fact that as far as I know, everyone still uses capitals for the months? Of course, I think they are mostly or all derived from proper names, and the names of the seasons probably aren’t?

    Not sure if I will ever break myself of saying “nuck” – alas, the perils of text-heavy learning – I can’t pronounce anything!

    • I have that problem, too. I learn from reading, so I pronounce everything wrong. I still can’t say Varroa because I don’t know if the accent is on the first or second syllable.

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