The language of Bees

Bees have neither vocal chords nor lungs, so they do not speak in words which ears can hear.  Their behavior is often mysterious, sometimes inexplicable, and occasionally bizarre.  This does not mean that their actions are without meaning.  The hive does speak for those who take the time to listen.  Allow me, if you will, to serve as an interpreter where I may, to speak through these stories as the voice of the hive.

The Box in the Yard

In my backyard there is a wooden box.  Fourteen inches wide, twenty inches deep and ten inches high.  If you were to approach it you would hear a low hum like the sound of a distant fan.  This box is home to thousands of stinging insects.  It is a hive, and in it lives a colony of honeybees. I have been fascinated with bees for as long as I can recall.  At the zoo I stood at the observation hives for as long as my family could stand to stay.  There is elegance to the organization of the hive, an organized chaos that drives it.  I could sense this but there was never enough time to learn the patterns.

Twenty years later, one September at the fall fair I saw the beekeeper's booth.  The small cloth covered table contained a few stacked jars of honey and a couple of observation hives.  Again I stood transfixed, desperately trying to find the queen as the sign suggested.  That is when the woman at the table offered me a sheet of information on bees and beekeeping.  I stuffed it in my bag and continued my search.  We came back by the booth three more times that day.  By the last time I could spot the queen on approach.  My wife joked that I should ask to take those bees home.  I asked about getting bees of my own. 

I spent the next few months studying about bees.  In January I began gathering equipment.  The average hive in the united states is what is known as a Langstroth hive, and its dimensions utilize a concept called "bee space".  Reverend Langstroth observed his bees to learn, and what he learned was that an empty space over a certain size would be filled with bur comb.  A space smaller than one fourth of an inch would be glued together with propolis, but in between ¼ and ½ lay Bee Space.  Bee Space is a gap sized so that the bees will not glue it together or comb it over.  The pieces of equipment in a hive align to maintain bee space across the top of the hive, between the frames, and across the bottom.  The box in my yard is a Langstroth hive.

The social organism

A single bee is alive, that is true, but bees are not like you and I.  Though a single bee can fly and move, gather and perform many tasks, no bee lives for itself.  It is not quite a cell either.  It is a member of a society that forms the larger organism, the colony.  It is the colony of honeybees which inhabits the box in the yard.  Single bees do not make decisions.  Single bees do not determine if the colony leaves or stays.  No single bee raises another bee.  The only bee capable of performing her function alone, the queen, is in fact the product of the collaboration of many bees together.  Honeybees exist in colonies and it is the colony that lives or dies. The colony grows strong and the colony weakens.  They will live together in the warm summer.  If they starve in the winter, they do so as one.  The story of each bee is really the story of all.  Together they form the story of the colony, and it is the voice of the colony we choose to listen to.

One box of bees, Please.

If you purchase bees you must order them long before you receive them in most cases.  A group of bees you purchase is called a package, and it consists of two to four pounds of worker bees and one queen.  While the actual number of bees in a pound varies wildly, the point is that a package comes with a workforce and a queen – just the basics for establishing a new colony.  If you strip away all the details, then to install a package of honeybees you dump them out of the box they are in and into the box where you want them.  While it might be literally accurate that description ignores the experience. To truly appreciate it you have to consider what goes on in the mind of the colony during the _birth of a package_.  First though we need to take a slight detour.  The language of beekeeping will grace and litter the pages that follow without apology or explanation.  It will all make a lot more sense if we take some time to study _Rosetta’s Guide to Beehives_, where you can learn to translate the glyphs that follow.