Honeybee Biology

A Bee’s Eye View

Pre-dawn. The dark lump at the bottom of the bed that is Wally and the red LED on the face of the clock announcing it is 5:27 am are about all I can see. Light is a relative thing. Though scientists, who measure light in precise angstroms and lumens, would argue this. Today is the Winter Solstice. The earth, tilted askew, is moving paradoxically closer to the sun even as longer nights are at their peak. An owl calls, breaking the silence, followed by another in the same cadence but a higher pitch. Sliding silently out from under the covers, feet finding slippers, I see the moon hanging in the sky, casting shadows of tree trunks and limbs across the grass.

Nothing is stirring.

At the bathroom sink, I turn on the tiny night light to brush my teeth, then pad softly to my desk to retrieve my notebook. My dog is at the top of the stairs by now, luxuriating in a down-dog stretch. I push my big toe forward until I find the top step then start down in near-darkness. The light on the coffee maker shines bright blue; I open the refrigerator to retrieve my coffee and a white light glares at me. Squinting, I know how bees must feel when I open their hive on a bright sunny day.

There’s a time when it seems to get darker before it gets lighter as the moon sinks below the tree line. This fringe of darkness lingers in the woods beyond the yard. Then, shades of rose and peach color the sky over the pond, and the sun winks above the horizon.

I think about how much light is a part of my life and how much light is not a part of a honey bee’s life. It’s dark inside the hive and it stays that way 24 hours a day. Though bees venture out daily in search of food and water most of the year, using the sun as their compass for foraging and finding home again and again, colder temperatures keep them clustered in darkness for weeks at a time. Under normal circumstances, the queen is destined to darkness always, traveling the honeycomb by feel and pheromone, as she deposits eggs and accepts the solicitations of her workers. Imagine living in darkness like this. Many years ago, I visited some old caverns. Deep down inside, the guide shut off his flashlight for a moment, sending us all into a velvety dark blackness. Zero angstroms, zero lumens. He told us that humans go blind in darkness like this in as little as 7 days, and most certainly would go mad as well. Since I have yet to see any blind, deranged bees stumbling around, I’m certain that their physiology is different from ours.

Humans see light within a specific spectrum, which is called the visible spectrum, measured in nanometers (nm). This is a misnomer, or at least rather humancentric, because the visible spectrum is different for many animals. Humans see in the range of about 700 nm to 400 nm. If you visualize the colors of the rainbow, red is at the 700 nm end and violet is at the 400 nm end. These numbers represent the length of a light wave. Red light has a longer wavelength; violet has a shorter wavelength. Remember the old fashioned phone cords? Picture one stretched out, its spirals elongated. That’s red. Now picture the cord dangling loosely from a phone on its cradle, a tight spiral. That’s violet.

There are longer and shorter wavelengths of light beyond each end of this human visible spectrum. Beyond the red end lie the longer wavelengths of infrared, microwave, and radio waves. Beyond the violet lie ultraviolet, x-ray and gamma rays, in even tighter curls of that phone cord. Bees don’t have x-ray vision, but they can see ultraviolet rays, so their visible spectrum lies in a different range than ours does. Everything is shifted towards the violet end of the spectrum and beyond into the ultraviolet. Bees actually have the hardest time seeing red, especially if it blends into the background. The blossoms of a Rudbeckia, what many of us know as a Brown-eyed Susan, with its happy yellow petals and suede-brown centers, are often visited by pollinators, honeybees included. But though we see yellow and brown, a honeybee sees them quite differently. To a honeybee the flower petals are a deep magenta at the edges with darker purple streaks leading into the center, almost like a runway. And if you’re a bee coming in for a landing, you’ll follow this runway to the center of the flower where the nectar and pollen are. Flower petals, for all their beauty, are merely directional signals.

Bees see ultraviolet as a separate color, something we cannot do without sophisticated instruments, and even then, it is only something we can approximate. But ultraviolet light is as important to them as being able to distinguish a red light from a green light on a traffic signal is to us. On overcast days, if you notice a decrease in foraging, chalk it up to the lack of ultraviolet light.

As humans, we depend on our sense of sight probably more than any of our other senses. We are the exception to the animal rule, along with most birds. Many other animals depend more on their sense of smell, hearing and touch. There are days when I let my dog have it his way on our walks and this means that he meanders in a serpentine, in fits and starts. He reads the ground and the air with his nose, and learns what animals have traversed our route the night before. Unless it is very strong, like skunk musk or a pile of fresh coyote scat, I am oblivious to these smells. Dogs can also sense emotions and a number of health conditions in the pheromones released by other animals, including humans. There have been accounts of dogs predicting an epileptic seizure or detecting a cancerous lump in a human and these have been attributed to specific pheromones released under those conditions.

Bees also depend on pheromones to guide them, especially inside the hive. The queen releases pheromones to establish her reign and health status. Worker bees release pheromones to coordinate activities at certain times of the year. Workers that have found a particularly abundant supply of pollen and nectar will enter the hive and perform a waggle dance, emitting pheromones as to where this place is. Touch is important in this dance too, since other foraging workers will touch the dancing bees to “get directions.” It’s dark in there; they certainly can’t see. It’s no wonder they’re agitated when I open the hive, especially when I dig down deep. Light floods the honeycomb, scents from outside waft in and around the frames, diluting the pheromones circulating in the hive that make it smell like home. They become disoriented, especially the queen, by this flood of light.

But even though light isn’t the primary sense they use, it is still important to them. They respond to the change of seasons as measured by the amount of daylight more than by temperatures. In these days of shorter daylight, today being the shortest of them all, honey bee colonies look quiet from the outside. There is activity inside, wings beating in that cluster to generate warmth, the queen cozy in the center. Pheromones, if not light, circulate, saying all is well.

Honeybee Biology

Partying, Naturally

“Did you hear there’s a new vaccination for foulbrood?” my husband called from his perch in the den, gaze fixed on his computer. “How do you vaccinate a bee?” I wondered. But I was almost out the door, a tote bag dangling off my left arm, its contents clanging together as it bumped my knee with each step. Thick mittens and a mug of tea in my right hand, I finagled the garage door knob open without spilling. “Bookmark it,” I called as the garage door closed behind me.

I was heading out to Connecticut College and in the tote bag were supplies for the Sprout Garden’s year-end meeting, held in December in the interlude between the end of classes and the beginning of finals. Part of the college’s Sustainability program, the Sprout Garden is a student-managed organic garden providing hands-on experience in small-scale sustainable farming techniques. Fruits and vegetables grow from raised beds while chickens mill about eating the insect pests that these plants attract. This is where they hope to have an apiary come April. They’d been learning beekeeping essentials all semester and preparing for their new colonies. A bee-based product was on the list of natural body products and snacks that was the focus of this meeting . . . pure fun and relaxation, celebrating gardens and pollinators. My bag was packed with supplies to make beeswax lip balms.

I found my way to the Steel House, once faculty housing with a small kitchen, where core Sprout Garden members Eric, Hannah and Margaret, were busy. Eric was peeling mangoes, a blender at the ready to render Orange-Mango smoothies. Margaret was whipping up guacamole with fresh avocados and tomatoes, rummaging in the cupboards for the odd salt and pepper shakers hidden there. Hannah was writing product instructions on the whiteboard at one end of the room. A card table held the ingredients she listed: coffee grounds, raw sugar, honey, essential oils, and Castile soap, alongside the guacamole and a mighty bowl of corn chips for dipping. The blender whirred. A jar of coconut oil was softening in simmering water on the stove. I set up the beeswax as its twin on the burner to the right and added shea butter, Vitamin E oil and lip balm containers to the cluster of supplies. Students arrived and searched the cupboards for mixing bowls and measuring cups. They concocted body washes and facial scrubs, ate guacamole and drank smoothies, and made a happy mess.

Also tucked inside my bag was an article by Evan Bush, a Seattle Times staff reporter that highlighted Paul Stamets and his work with mushrooms and bees. Mushrooms and bees? It seems that scientists are trying all angles to help them thrive and survive, from vaccines to mushrooms. A number of years ago, this mushroom farmer, beekeeper, and astute observer noticed that bees were attracted to mushroom mycelia, the branching fibers that look like a lacey cross between root hairs and cobwebs. Facing the near-epidemic virus attacks of many beekeepers, he wondered if there was something about mushroom mycelia that was beneficial. In controlled experiments, it was shown that bees fed sugar water and mycelia extract were more resistant to the viruses carried by mites than those fed sugar water alone. This mycelia extract with its antiviral properties could easily be added to food supplements and work is underway to make this type of antiviral therapy available to beekeepers. I’ll be keeping my eye out for this new product.

Esteban, one of the Sprout Garden managers had described this to me briefly at our last meeting so I wanted to share the article with him. And just as bees might benefit from mushrooms, it turns out that mushrooms can benefit from bees. I had brought beeswax not only to make lip balms but also for Esteban’s mushroom inoculation experiment. Esteban’s eyes widened at the chunk of beeswax I handed him. “Whoa, this is awesome,” he said, reaching for it. I showed him a bucket of raw beeswax too, the mixture of older brown beeswax and newer blond wax I had scraped from some frames, brimming with bug parts and sticky with nectar. Looking between the two, I could see he appreciated what he was holding.

“So tell me about this inoculation process,” I said.

His plan was to inoculate logs with the spores of different species of mushrooms, using the wax as protection for the growing fungus. He told me that beeswax is breathable, allowing gas exchange with the environment, yet is also a natural barrier to water and contaminants. He hopes to add mushrooms to the Sprout Garden’s bounty next season.

In the end, each student had created jars of body products, to give away as gifts or use themselves, working with natural products to make things we use every day without any additives or unpronounceable names in them. Esteban had his beeswax to naturally coat spores that would grow to mushrooms. I don’t know what scientists are using for foulbrood vaccinations (I haven’t gotten back to that bookmark yet), but finding ways to work with natural products seems like a good idea. Observing and experimenting, we just might find a way to help the bees, and people, and other organisms. I’d like to see the feathered mycelia protected under that coat of beeswax sprout tiny mushrooms in the spring, right alongside the new honey bee colonies.

Honeybee Biology

Pollinator Partnerships

“Now the first of December was covered in snow,
So was the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston . . .”

There is only the spin of my tires on the road, an occasional squeak of wiper blades, and the whoosh of cars passing as I drive along the Mass Pike. Insistent flakes announce winter and these lyrics fill my head in the absence of any music, connecting moment to memory, even if it is a day shy of December 1st. Exiting south toward I-395 and through The Quiet Corner of northeastern Connecticut, the traffic dwindles and I let the song unwind in my brain, taking in the landscape that rolls by.

Two hawks pose on leafless branches, sitting tall and regal. I imagine them dressed in the saffron robes of Buddhist monks, meditative awareness turned inward, when in fact they are acutely aware of their surroundings and the possibility of a hapless rodent that might venture within striking distance.

In the tunnels created by the woods along the highway, it seems there is nothing for miles, just a ribbon of blacktop connecting one place to another. But at the crests of these undulating hills, I can look out past the highway signs and over the young trees to see the work of human hands on the land. Peering down exit ramps, there were convenience stores and gas stations; I imagine towns nestled further down the road, and sprawling commercial areas. Looking further out into the distant hills, the evidence of this fragmentation is softened by the veil of snow. Mostly leafless, the hardwoods stretch their limbs upward, golden spires of birch trees with leaves still hanging on reach through the gray. Evergreens lend a sense of life, though everything about these hills breathes at the slower pace of approaching winter.

In the same way that time expands and contracts on a long drive, I watch the road cuts rise up and fall away, playing with geologic time in my mind. Parts of the highway are carved into the earth, exposing the millennia in one sweep of the eye. The deep, deep past is at eye level and lifting my gaze to the top of the rock face, the present looms 60 feet up. This is topped by brave saplings, the dormant buds on the tips of their branches representing the future, when they will leaf out next spring. These rock layers are pages of geologic and biological history, to be read in order, bottom to top. When did the insects appear in these pages? Is there a glassine wing or a tiny fragment of an exoskeleton pressed between these layers of rock laid down in the Mesozoic Era?

Though insects first evolved 479 million years ago, along with the first land plants in the Paleozoic Era, most modern insect species originated about 345 million years ago. It wasn’t until the evolution of flowering plants 146 million years ago that plants and many insects, honeybees among them, formed a partnership that benefits both to this day. Flowers provide nectar and pollen for insects. In turn, insects help to ensure the next generation of so many of the flowering plants we know today by transferring pollen among flowers, allowing fertilization. That’s the simple story; interactions in the natural world are so much more intricately woven, with exceptions and variations galore. But the bottom line is we wouldn’t enjoy the diversity of plants we do today if it weren’t for pollinating insects.


Their visual world is full of runways, bulls-eyes, and landing strips, the intricate patterns of flower petals leading the way to the nectar and pollen. Since plants generally can’t move to find other plants when the call to make more of themselves arises, this is a definite advantage. They need pollinators.

A bee that lands and taxis down the runway to the nectar source brushes up against pollen-laden anthers, the male parts of the flower. Pollen is flower sperm, just sticky enough to cling to the legs of a roving insect. Once this insect has sipped its fill of nectar, it flies off in search of another flower which is more than likely the same species, given they are in the same area and that many flowers have specific bloom times. Taxiing down the runway again, it brushes up against more pollen and against the stigma, the female part of the flower. The stigma is sticky, grabbing pollen, which makes its way down through the stamen to the ovaries lying at its base.

The beauty of a flower gives way to the bounty of fruit, with seeds at its core to produce a new generation of plants. Going to seed, a term used by gardeners, is a direct result of pollination. Often a term associated with being spent, done, it is not at all. Plants that lie dormant this time of year, leafless and forlorn, are snapshots of the next generation. There is new life and energy in every seed. Not every plant is pollinated by insects; wind, water and other animals have their own plant partners. But some of our most beloved fruits, nuts and vegetables – almonds, apples, oranges, tomatoes, to name a few – are pollinated by honey bees and their relations. All these pollinators ask of a plant is a bit of nectar and pollen in return.

A gray pickup rumbles by, a Pest Control logo sprawled across its tailgate, with a bumblebee for embellishment. “Bees are not pests, they’re pollinators!” I grumble at its receding tailgate. “If anything, put a termite on your logo.” To be fair, even termites have their place in the grand scheme of things but it annoys me that so many people might get the wrong impression. Of course, wasps are also considered pests, but they’re pollinators as well. It’s all a matter of time and place. Out in an orchard, certain species of wasps work beside honey bees and bumblebees to move pollen from flower to flower so that the plant will bear the fruit that we eat. So do flesh flies. And butterflies. Even mosquitoes, beetles and hoverflies practice pollination. Some pollinators are more honored or at least better tolerated than others.

There are many accounts of how humans would be hard pressed to eat if it weren’t for pollinators. Mark L. Winston, author of Bee Time, points out that 65% of plant species currently inhabiting this planet require or benefit from bee pollination. “A world without bees would be almost impossible to contemplate and likely one in which we would never have evolved in the first place.” Imagine going back hundreds of millions of years to pre-flowering plant days – how dismal. No apples, no almonds, no blueberries, no zucchini. No tomatoes or basil to drizzle with olive oil; indeed, no olives. Not even leafy plants like lettuce which, if it has ever bolted in your garden patch, sends up flowers that seem especially attractive to bees. No clover, ryegrass, or fescue for beef or dairy cattle and therefore, no beef or dairy cattle. Oh, we could probably come up with a high-tech way to pollinate these plants but the cost of bringing fruits like avocados, apples and cherries to market would skyrocket. So would beef and dairy products.

Scientists are discovering that the decline in bee populations, both managed honeybees and wild bees, is due to many interacting causes and they’re pouring their efforts into these problems, on a grass-roots level and a national level. On this deserted stretch of highway when I look out into the stillness of snow falling on so many trees, it’s hard to believe that the earth is in such dire straits. But I don’t live in Beijing, or Antarctica, or amidst the wildfires of the west coast. One can’t get too cozy in one’s cocoon.

Turning into my driveway at the end of my trip, my apiary stands empty. The sad news is that I lost my last hive recently, the rain-soaked fall and probably other factors proving too much for the colony. An empty apiary looks disheartening. But it also begs to be filled come spring, so I’ll do my research and order 2 more hives. For starts.

As a hobby beekeeper, I know that even two small hives can make a difference. And that’s the unique thing about beekeepers. The vast majority of us think this way, whether we manage 2 hives or 200. We’re not willing to let pollinators languish. It’s not just for selfish reasons, because we like almonds or avocados. Or honey. It’s because these tiny creatures have found their way into our hearts and scientific minds, and they challenge us to help them overcome the diseases that plague them, and to be their advocate in finding ways to thrive on this human-dominated Earth.

By the way, I just read a very comprehensive article on beekeeping duties for the month of December posted by Beekeeping 365. https://sassafrasbeefarm.wordpress.com/2018/12/01/midlands-beekeeping-calendar-for-the-month-of-december-2
I especially like #10 and #14. Oh, and Happy Birthday, Lorenzo Langstroth!