Listening to Bees

A frame of capped honey

The smallest livestock on our farm are also the most fascinating to observe, from their daily diligence and complexity of social organization to the extraordinary “waggle dance” they use to communicate the location of nectar and new homes. Today, as we prepare to harvest the last of this year’s honey, I’m reminded that the bees have a lot to teach us. We only have to listen.

  • Work together today to provide for tomorrow. Winter is coming and those food stores don’t harvest themselves.
  • Expect your responsibilities to grow as you mature. Clean your room as a kid; be prepared to run the farm as an adult.
  • Be vigilant. A weak line of defense invites invasion, disease, and death.
  • Communicate. Use your best waggle dance to share critical information with those you care about.
  • Socialize. Nothing beats hanging out on the porch with your neighbors at the end of a busy summer’s day.
  • Don’t sting unless it’s absolutely necessary. Fight when the future depends on it, then fight with selfless fury.
  • Remember that you’re a member of the community. No matter how self-sufficient you imagine yourself, you can’t make all of the honey.
  • Don’t move into a mansion when a cottage will do. Live within your means, and learn to recognize, and heed, when enough is enough. A too-big house is harder to heat and cool, harder to clean, and much harder to protect.
  • Build a strong foundation. Be it bridges or buildings or banking systems, a shaky infrastructure puts the whole community at peril.
  • Render unto Caesar. Be prepared to yield an appropriate honey tax. And, be prepared for a revolution if the powers demand too much.

And one final lesson:

The canary in the coal mine. Tennessee bee losses last year were estimated to be as high as 80 percent, attributable only in part to the extreme drought. This catastrophic statistic is set against the background of increasing colony losses across the globe in recent decades. If we listen, the message these tiny, exquisite social creatures are sending us will be clear: the mine has become dangerous. And the fault — and the solution — lies at yours and my collective doorstep.

12 thoughts on “Listening to Bees

  1. Are bees animals you worry a lot about, disproportunately perhaps?
    We have a beekeeper in her third year in the family who’s almost dreading having them, because of the constant worries (practical, not environmental).

    • Michael, Cindy here. Yep, there are a lot of ongoing bee-related tasks to be done: building frames/foundations and boxes; keeping tabs on the strength of each colony; making sure that each hive is queen-right, that is, has a healthy, laying queen; checking on feed stores, then feeding when necessary; testing for varroa mites and treating for them; adding/removing supers and hive bodies, entrance reducers, etc., at appropriate times; and the list goes on. I just happen to love being involved in the inner workings of such an amazing insect community. Also, I want to do what I can, even in a small capacity, to help the bee population continue to survive, and I enjoy being around other beekeepers who feel the same.

      • Hi Cindy,
        thank you for taking the time to answer!
        Yes, those tasks sound very familiar, but I think it’s your last two sentences that make all the difference.

        Beekeeping is considered serious business here, whether you’re an amateur or a professional. The community is mainly one of irascible old men, striking fear into the heart of every newcomer. Even asking about black bees is considered to be an attempt at sabotage because racial purity is at stake.
        The few beekeepers who try not to participate in this madness are mostly urban folks, yet even they pay their membership fees to the old men’s clubs because members get insured.

        I’ve always stayed away from beekeeping because I never saw a way into this sad, overcomplicated little universe.
        Bees are en vogue here, yet the state of things mirrors what goes on in agriculture in general: Whatever your goid intentions – once you’re in, the handcuffs bite.
        It’s nice to hear that you can perform all those tasks in a very different spirit!

        • We have some great bee groups in Melbourne ranging from groups containing semi-commercial/fully commercial members to other groups comprising recently enthused newcomers with a leaning towards what are sometimes called natural beekeeping methods. Some of the more established groups are very welcoming of non-commercial keepers with small number of hives. One group Maree attends has a question and answer forum hosted by experienced beekeepers designed to help new beekeepers get going and deal with issues that arise.

          Because we don’t have some of the northern hemisphere bee ailments and pests there’s a focus here on biosecurity. So all beekeepers are required to be registered. Being a member of an organised group can help with recognising problems and how to deal with them.

          We use Langstroth hives currently. I’d love to have a crack at a log hive as I can see some potential benefits for the bees. And a use for windfall trees that aren’t big enough for milling as recently discussed on your blog. And we’re just about to build a horizontal hive using a kit made by a local beekeeper who is a retired engineer.

          Fascinating creatures and a nice example of what might be called scalable and decentralised sustainability. There’s an estimated 4000+ hives in Melbourne (population nearly 4million) from the CBD through the suburbs.

          • I’m sure you will, but, do write about the log hive if you get around to it.

            Our local bee club is very inclusive, as well, Each new member is assigned an experienced member as a mentor. This mentoring program fosters education and sustains a large healthy club structure.

  2. Nicely put! They provide many useful examples to us all. Not much of a superannuation/retirement program, however 🙂 Makes me sad to see the old ones forlornly moving around near the entrance when they’ve been booted out and before they cark it.

    • Well, that doesn’t seem too awfully different than our set-up for old folks. Except that the hive let’s them putz around the home. We shuffle ours off to a place out of sight. 🙂

      It has been an interesting year. Only one hive made it through last winter. This year we’ve captured two swarms, both doing quite well. And, we established two packages, both struggling. So, we head into the winter with five hives. Hopefully we do better than the 75% loss last year.

      • We thought we might have lost the hive we set up down the block a few months ago:

        Melbourne is maritime climate at 38S so generally moderate winters. However, we’ve had highs sitting south of the bottom bit of Australia over much of the last few months which have reduced winter rainfall drastically and led to cloudless, cold nights. (Predicted by various climate change models, I understand.) So Melbourne has been cool but at weather stations (further inland) near the block temperatures have been down to -5C on a number of occasions. Probably still seems mild to northern hemisphere readers but this is cold for that part of the world. We couldn’t see any bees on a sunny cool morning a few weeks ago or dead ones near the hive entrance so thought we might have lost the hive. However, later that day as it warmed up a bit we saw live bees so there’s definitely some that have so far survived our cold winter. Apis melliferra is a European species evolved to overwinter in cold conditions but I guess there is a possibility of a landrace situation where the hives that thrive here might lose some cold tolerance as they don’t usually need it.

        Here’s hoping for a nice, mild spring with abundant blossom and nectar here and also for you in 6 months, Brian.

        • Interesting, I hadn’t given any thought to the landrace issue. We routinely drop to 0 F here in Tennessee. Our hives from captured swarms typically fare better in the winter and overall when compared to the package bees. Not sure of the reason.

          • The packages we get in East Tennessee often come from South Georgia, which being just across the border from Florida is much warmer than here. David and Michael, it sure does make all the difference when you have a supportive beekeeping network that includes experienced beekeepers. Sorry to hear that’s not the case in your area, Michael.

Any thoughts or questions?