Two years ago, I fell in love with honey bees. Crazy, huh? Who could love a flying, stinging insect, right? But I am hooked on them. And I found out this spring that there are lots of others who share this crazy-love with me. There were 100 of us who attended the first “Bee School” lecture series put on by the Orange County Beekeepers Association. We gathered on Thursday nights in the cold months to learn helpful facts (it takes 16 days for the colony to raise a new queen), and important how-to’s (like putting the bee hive together properly). Guest lecturers shared amazing photographs and interesting stories. We asked dumb (and smart) questions. We tasted honey and held damaged and diseased honey comb.
One of my favorite stories was told by Jack Tapp of Busy Bee Apiary in Chapel Hill. He had a bee keeper friend call to ask for advice because the friend’s bees were producing honey in crazy colors like bright red. Sure enough, when Jack went to look, the honey was as red as could be, but didn’t have much flavor. No flowers produce nectar that would lead to bright red honey. It was a mystery! Later the friend called back to say he had discovered the cause of the colored honey: his bees were gathering “nectar” (sugar syrup) from a nearby convenience store that was dumping their leftover snow cone machine liquids outside. Makes you wonder if the bees would have made blue honey or purple honey…
The last two weeks of Bee School were dedicated to learning about bee pests and diseases. Scary stuff for a beginning bee keeper. Video of Varroa mites crawling all over an emerging drone bee was like a horror movie! The Varroa mites are reddish brown and huge. Imagine this: if honey bees were the size of humans, the mites would be the size of mice. Yikes! These mites are doing terrible damage to honey bee colonies across the country, so we all should be very scared of them. Our food is in jeopardy if the honey bee is in peril, and I’m not just talking about no honey for our biscuits in the morning. Honey bees are responsible for the pollination of dozens of crops, so they are critical to our survival. This is certainly something to love about them.
It seems to be that honey bees lead lives that are both amazingly simple and amazingly complex at the same time. Worker bees, with such dedication and purpose, do just four jobs: caring for the young and the queen, cleaning the hive, gathering food, or defending the hive. The queen has only two: mate with drones once in her life, and lay eggs the rest of it. Yet their hive and their behaviors are rife with enough mathematical equations and enough mystery to keep scientists busy for years to come.
What is it that attracts me to beekeeping? Maybe it’s the same thing that attracts me to Christianity: it’s all about loving the unlovable; caring for those who illicit fear from most people; finding the good under the “undesirable” first glance. Honey bees aren’t any more welcome at a party than the social outcasts Jesus ate with, but they are just as necessary to our humanity.