This may be the last ABJ article I ever write. Why? I have a premonition that an article about English in a beekeeping journal won’t go over well with the readership. It might be a fireable offense, like writing about cupcakes in a wrestling rag. Nevertheless, I’m not easily deterred.
Humans communicate through language. We learn, discuss, and teach by using words we understand, words with meanings we agree on. Every hobby, trade, and field of inquiry has its own vocabulary that allows the participants to discuss the minutiae of their interest.
Beekeepers should be no different. We have dictionary-length lists of specialty words that allow us to communicate with each other. But far too often, we use the same words for multiple things and wonder why newbies are slow to catch on. A case in point is the word hive.
A hive in a hive
If you research the history of the word hive, you can find it defined as “a man-made housing for a colony of bees.” That’s a straightforward, easy-to-understand definition with no confusion. If you use that definition, you will never have a hive in a hive unless, for some obscure reason, you put a small bee house inside a larger one.
Beekeepers today call everything a hive. The box, the colony, a swarm in a tree — all of these are hives. Longtime beekeepers will tell you clarification is unnecessary, that the meaning is clear. Sure, I get that. But when we’re teaching, mentoring, lecturing, or answering questions — when we’re attempting to impart any kind of knowledge — we owe it to our audience to use words they can understand without confusion.
Hives don’t die
Students live in dorms, soldiers live in barracks, and families live in houses, apartments, or tents. Unless it’s a rental property, we seldom ask if the house for sale down the street includes the family. When your pig dies, you don’t say your pigpen died. When your rabbit dies, you don’t say your hutch died. So when your colony dies, why do you say your hive died? Most likely, that wooden box is doing fine.
I have an internal battle with sarcasm every time someone tells me their hive died. I want to ask how they knew, what the symptoms were, and how they disposed of it. The same is true for hives that swarm. Swarming hives make me think of the Wizard of Oz, and I imagine wooden Langstroths swirling in the winds of a tornado, heading for the nearest wicked witch.
Keep it clear with unique words
Just like everyone else, I began beekeeping thinking hive was the word. It wasn’t until I began writing and mentoring that I realized how confusing it could be. Of all my own bad beekeeping habits, the sloppy use of hive has been the hardest to break. I answer beekeeping questions every day, yet I always need to edit my work and delete inept uses of that word. Although I’m getting better, it’s ingrained and nearly impossible to break. The reward is in responses from others, things like “Oh! Now I understand!”
I’m not the arbiter of bee terminology, so I can understand anyone using definitions that are different. That’s fine. But if you’re going to use the word hive for most things bee, at least give your newbie friends a heads-up. Explain that when you say hive, you may mean the box, the colony, the box-colony combination, a swarm, the act of putting bees in a box, or the red welt on your arm. In other words, be crystal clear.
A nuc for a nuc
The word nuc suffers from exactly the same problem as the word hive. We can buy a box for a nuc, which we call a nuc, and then we put the nascent colony inside, also called a nuc, and then together they make a third thing — bees and box combined — also known as a nuc. If we could only conserve species with the same zeal we conserve words.
Inexplicably, the thing inside the nuc becomes a hive once you put it into a hive. So when we take a nuc from a nuc and hive it, it becomes a hive in a hive.
But I have other issues with the word nuc. Not surprisingly, the word is shorthand for nucleus. When I google nucleus, I see that a nucleus is “the central and most important part of an object, movement, or group, forming the basis for its activity and growth.” That definition works perfectly for beekeepers because a nucleus contains the heart of a bee colony: a brood nest, nurse bees, and a queen. Simple and clear.
But every single day I see this word spelled NUC as if it were an acronym or Nuke as if it might explode. I often wonder what people think the acronym represents or how one might detonate the thing. I got an email recently asking about a N.U.C. It reminded me of that old television show, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” Imagine, “The Drone from N.U.C.”
Does it hatch or emerge?
American Bee Journal clarifies the use of some beekeeping terms. If you go to their website, click on Contact, and scroll down to Writer’s Guidelines, you will find a section called, “Language use relevant to writing about bees.” Although the list doesn’t mention hives, it clarifies hatch vs. emerge: “Eggs hatch, adult bees emerge.”
You may wonder if that’s important, but as I’ve tried to illustrate, it’s messy to use the same word for multiple things. Hatching occurs when an egg releases the young larva, but emergence occurs at the end of the pupal stage when the cocoon releases an adult bee. If you use these words correctly, you don’t need to explain further. If the bee hatched, you know it went from egg to larva; if it emerged, it went from pupa to adult. No clarification is necessary.
Nevertheless, if you feel strongly about using the same word for both, try switching to eclose. Conveniently, eclose describes either of those situations, or it can describe an egg releasing a nymph — the thing varroa mites do so well.
Technically, eclose means to come out of the egg or the pupa case. So when using eclose, you need some context to know exactly what’s happening, and it sounds pretentious. But some like it. Eclose is one of those words that reminds me of a specific beekeeper — the only one I know who uses it.
Respect your audience
Beekeepers aside, the proper use of words is generally respected in society. It shows regard for the listener, the one who is spending his time — and maybe his money — listening to you.
I’ll never forget interviewing for a job I really needed. During the interview, I used the word criteria incorrectly. I hesitated a moment and then said, “I meant criterion.” About a week into the job, the boss called me into his office and said, “Do you know why I hired you?” I had no clue and said so. “It’s because you corrected your own English,” he said. “It shows respect for your audience.”
I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. Sometimes we think we’re smart or cool or popular, but that’s not why newbies come to us. They come because they want clear and uncluttered explanations using words they can understand. At the very least, we as mentors, teachers, or lecturers owe concise language to the people who depend on us.
Learning the lexicon
Throughout my formal education, I always noticed that once you mastered the vocabulary of a subject, the rest was easy. When you can define the words and know how they relate to others, you’re very close to grasping the entire subject.
The same is true for sports, art, trades, and hobbies. In beekeeping, if you can explain the meaning of spiracle, trachea, tracheole, and hemolymph, you are close to having a functional understanding of the bee respiratory system. You can also see why tracheal mites are a problem and how they enter a bee. A world of knowledge is yours once you absorb just a few essential words. It seems like magic.
Beginners are often brutalized by imprecise vocabulary. Flexible definitions lead to mushy, unclear thinking, and unclear thinking leads to miscommunication. I always remember a new beekeeper I met during a field day. She was upset because all her bees were bearding on the front of her hive and refused to go inside. She said they’d been behaving badly all weekend, ever since she reversed her brood boxes, something her mentor advised.
After asking some questions, I discovered she had reversed her boxes by turning the entire hive 180 degrees, making the front the back and the back the front. The poor bees were having a hard time finding the new front door, which was now just inches from the back of her house.
Another beekeeper I know misinterpreted the same advice. This guy reversed his boxes by putting the honey supers under the brood nest, confusing the bees no end. I can’t blame the newbies. Mentors should not give instructions without explaining the terminology. Even simple words like “reversing” can be interpreted in multiple troublesome ways.
How to bug me
Since I’m on the subject of beekeeping words that mess with my blood pressure, I’ll mention some others that trip the sarcasm in me.
As much as we might wish it, honey does not flow from flowers. The stuff that flows from flowers is nectar. Honey bees turn nectar into honey by doing things to it, things like spitting and mixing and drying. The term honey flow trivializes the role of the honey bee, making it sound like the honey is out there, fully formed, just waiting to be collected. I much prefer nectar flow.
Africanized is not a synonym for ill-tempered. A honey bee can have a nasty temperament with no African genetics whatsoever. If a bee colony possesses genes that make it truly Africanized, the word is fine, but calling any hot hive Africanized isn’t helpful and it may scare people unnecessarily. If you don’t know for sure, don’t call it.
I can understand Europeans capitalizing the word queen out of habit. But here in the US where we rebelled from the monarchy quite a while back, why do we think the word should be capitalized? In a beehive, a queen is not a title, but a job description like lawyer, janitor, or carpenter. You can also think of it as a relationship like mother, sister, or aunt, none of which are capitalized.
Now, if you name your queen, say Queen Melissa, the word is governed by a different rule, one that allows a capital letter. However, if you name your queen, you have an entirely different set of personal baggage, especially problematic at pinching time. Naming livestock reminds me of a neighbor who assigned sweet names to her beef cattle. Once slaughtered, her animals entered the freezer wrapped in white paper and labeled like this: DaisyBelle, Round Roast, October 2019. Sorry, but the thought of eating DaisyBelle does nothing for my appetite.
I understand that no one studies Latin these days, but learning a few Latin plurals won’t hurt you, especially when you use those words daily. For many common words, you simply add an e to the end of the word, the way you add an s in English.
One larva becomes two larvae and one pupa becomes two pupae. And don’t forget that one corbicula becomes two corbiculae and one antenna becomes two antennae. These plural words get a long e sound as in lar-vee, pyoo-pee, cor-bi-kyoo-lee, and an-teh-nee. You can spend decades struggling with these words or spend five minutes to learn them.
People use the terms queen cell, supersedure cell, and swarm cell interchangeably. Sometimes the purpose of these cells is obvious. For example, when dozens of them are lined up at the bottom of the brood frames in May, calling them swarm cells is a good bet. Several cells scattered on the face of the brood frames in August are likely supersedure cells.
But if you can’t determine the purpose, just call them queen cells. There’s no point in assigning a purpose to them if you don’t know what the purpose is. Using the wrong word just adds confusion to any discussion.
Be judicious with abbreviations, especially when you don’t know your audience. No one likes to struggle with a bunch of letters while the speaker rumbles on without you. It won’t diminish your authority to just say or write the words, especially the first few times.
My favorite abbreviation is SBB. I saw it used in a publication (not this one) where it referred to “screened bottom boards.” Two months later, the same publication ran an article where the writer used SBB to mean “solid bottom board.” Apparently, if you use an SBB instead of an SBB, you’ll be all set.
Of course, the all-time most irritating word in all of beedom is super. Super is short for superstructure. You can’t have a superstructure (which means “above the structure”) unless you first have a structure.
Brood boxes are the basic structure of the hive and contain the brood; supers go above the brood boxes and hold the honey. Supers are not integral to the structure of the hive, which means they can be added or removed without compromising either the hive or the colony that lives within.
The name super is determined by its function, not by its size or shape. When you call every bee box you own a super, you have limited ways to communicate what you really mean, and newbies have a hard time understanding. If you stop to think about what the word superstructure implies, you can’t possibly get it wrong.
Ask ten beekeepers
If you plan to keep bees in a vacuum, no one cares what you call anything. But if you plan to teach, mentor, present, or write to beekeepers, especially new ones, try to use language that is clear and concise.
I often hear newbies say, “Ask ten beekeepers and get twelve answers.” I don’t think that’s quite true. Instead, I think most of those ten beekeepers are saying the same thing, but they’re speaking in code. Since no one understands what they mean, it sounds like twelve different answers. Who wouldn’t be confused?
Honey Bee Suite