More than just a dog person…

I have been an unabashed dog person for most of my life. The sloppy kisses, keen intelligence, and bold demand for belly rubs: they have long been thought to be the perfect companion, filling a human need for love.

Bee approaching flower

But in between vacuuming dog drool out of carpets, throwing bacteria-laden Frisbees, and stocking an ever-disappearing supply of squeaky dog toys, I’ve started to learn about a new furry friend that actually cares for man, by producing tasty treats and nutrient-rich products.

What creature would dutifully manufacture goods for our consumption, all while being swatted away and sometimes even squashed?

That’s right: Bees. These little hustlers are the catalysts of a growing movement that centers on environmental awareness, astounding science, and delectable DIY honey.

The more I learn about bees, the more entranced I become. Also, it gets harder and harder to curb the guilt of that one time I flattened a bee in my cup-holder with a travel coffee mug.

Here are a few of the reasons why I find bees so fascinating.

1. Bees know how to boogie (…to the most delicious food).

Bees have developed a language of wiggles and waggles to communicate with each other. Kind of like Yelp for pollen, bees let each other know where to fly for the best food. And these waggles are more sophisticated than your average tap and snap. Bees use the direction and duration of their dance moves to confidently direct their hive-mates. A longer waggle means that the pollen is further away, while the direction of the dance lets fellow bees know which path to take. They’ve even developed a star-rating system: the more excited the bees are about the pollen, the more rapidly they will dance, in an effort to convince their fellow foragers to follow them. It’s like Doughnut Day at the office, and you noticed Larry from Accounting hoarding all the bacon-maple long johns. Of course you would excitedly rally your desk-mates for a “friendly visit” to the third floor.

2. Bees know how to divide and conquer.

Working together for a common purpose, bees create a fascinating model of a harmonious society. Each bee has a specialized role, decided by its sex and stage of life. Drones, guard bees, cleaning bees, mortician bees, nurse bees, building bees, temperature-control bees, foraging bees, and the queen bee each have their own unique role within the hive. How can thousands of separate units work together, peacefully and agreeably? That’s a question that world leaders have been trying to crack for centuries. Bees understand it implicitly.

3. Bees are adaptable: but they have their boundaries.

In April 1984, the Challenger Flight brought along 3,300 bees to outer space, to test their flexibility in a zero-gravity environment. The bees happily produced a geometrically flawless honeycomb in their special, confined box. But there was one major problem: without the ability to “use the restroom” outside of their hive (as they have adapted to do on “cleansing flights”), they just held it. For seven days, until they were safely transported back to earth and into the wild. Remember that on your next long road trip.

4Long Live the Queen (Bee)!

Unlike the fickle subjects of historical human queens, devoted bees take care of their queens. As a new, younger queen is being groomed for her royal reign with nutrient-rich Royal Jelly, bees starve the old queen to decrease her weight. If all goes well, she will be able to fly with the older bees outside of the hive as the young queen takes over. The old queen, surrounded by her trusty bee guardians, will then lead her dutiful followers to a new home, to begin the hive building process again.

5. Bees turn gender roles upside down.

The wage gap doesn’t exist in the beehive, because female bees don’t even give their male counterparts a chance to compete. Male bees are actually called “drones,” because they rarely participate in honey-producing work of the beehive. Instead, they rest slothfully at home, existing solely for breeding purposes. Female worker bees promptly evict them in the winter, when there is a food shortage.

6Bees give us a great excuse to host a tasting party.

Get out your flavor notebooks and practice your tasting vocabulary: honey tasting is the latest way to discern flavor from region, earth, and air. From the Northeast (where bees collect nectar from white clover, basswood, black locust, berries, and wildflowers), to the Southeast (which produces a white, pricey honey from sourwood trees), unique flavors abound from each region. Experienced beekeepers even experiment with unusual flavor combinations by planting lavender plants, orange trees, or avocado trees near their beehives. Grab some baguette and some goat cheese: it’s time for a honey tasting.

7. Smell is key for healthy, happy bees.

Bees rely heavily on pheromones (special bee perfumes) to communicate, and know how to behave. A Queen Bee emits pheromones that affect the mood of the hive. Like your feeling of repulsion when walking past the cologne-drenched stores at your local shopping mall, bees too may become more aggressive if they are introduced to a queen with new and strange pheromones. Typically, bees are relaxed by the pheromones of their queen. Kind of like bread baking in the kitchen, or fresh laundry: the smells of home signal that all is well in the hive. Bees also use smells to call to each other. They propel pheromones through the air with their wings, helping lost bees to catch the scent, and return home. Even threats are communicated through smell. Beekeepers sometimes use smoke to create a false feeling of danger within the hive. Fearing that their hive will be destroyed by fire, and they’ll be soon forced to face the elements, bees stuff themselves with a feast of honey and pollen. This creates drowsy, complacent bees, and gives the beekeepers a chance to perform maintenance or extract honey from the hives.

The efficacy of beehives is an impressive result of evolution. Learning about these intriguing creatures makes me want to don a beekeeper suit, and see their efforts firsthand.

At the very least, I will appreciate the incredible effort it took for that splash of honey that I enjoy in my tea.

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