The lovely flowers embarrass me,
They make me regret I am not a bee.Emily Dickinson
Do you guys watch Cosmos? The program is a remake from the Carl Sagan 1980s television program with the same name. Neil deGrasse Tyson picks up and explains how the universe is connected and how we are all star stuff. The original season is on Disney+ and the new season is on Hulu, you should watch. It’s such a beautiful program but I’m always drawn in when he discusses bees. I love bees, I think they are buzzy cute little creatures. Right now we live in a tiny neighborhood with heavy HOA rules that prohibit beekeeping. So while we are looking for a country home that will let me have bees (and chickens but that’s totally another blog), I’m learning all there is to know about beekeeping.
The History of Beekeeping
When the town of Newberry, Massachusetts, established an apiary, one Native American observed that not only did the white man work and made his horse and ox work, but he also made flies work.
Black German bees were the most popular until 1860 when the first shipment of Italian bees came to America. These high honey producers were of such a gentle disposition that they soon supplanted the Black German bees in popularity.
Beekeeping was portrayed on the walls of Egyptian temples, predating 2422 BC. Archaeologists discovered beehives made of straw and unbaked clay in the ruined city of Rehov. Found next to an altar decorated with fertility figurines, it is supposed that religious practices were associated with beekeeping.
Beekeeping was described on a stele found in the ruins of Babylon’s museum. It reads, “I introduced the flies which collect honey… I even understood how to separate the honey from the wax by boiling: my gardeners also know this.”
In medieval times bees were kept in a straw skep. A skep was made by braiding straw into ropes, twisting the ropes into a spiral, and securing each one to the next into a conical shape. The skep was placed in a wall cavity for protection against wind and rain. In the fall, an empty skep was placed on top of the full skep with a hole connecting the two. The bees would climb up into the empty skep, and the full one could then be removed and harvested.
Although honey yields were considerably lower than in modern hives, the method was simple and inexpensive. Almost every farm had several hives in the days when swarms were plentiful and easy to find.
A Revolution in Beekeeping
It is the natural tendency of honeybees to fill any empty spaces with combs and to cement smaller spaces together with a resinous substance called propolin.
In 1850 the Rev. Lorenzo Lorraine Langstroth, an avid observer of insects from a young age, made a remarkable discovery. He found that if a space of 1 cm (3/8″) was left in the hive for bees to move around in, the bees would neither build comb in the space or cement it shut. He called it the “bee space.”
The “bee space” was the exact space between two vertical planes on which honeybees build their honeycomb without filling the space between, leaving room to crawl through.
Langstroth’s method was to hang vertical sheets of wax down at the correct space apart. The bees, instead of building their comb randomly, would build it on these sheets of wax. Also, the cover board, usually well cemented to the frame with propolin, was now easily removed.
The modern hive has a base to raise it up off of the ground with an entrance for bees to get into the hive. On top of the base is a brood chamber where the queen lays her eggs in brood frames made of sheets of wax embossed with honeycomb impressions. This is where the bees will build the wax honeycomb.
Above the brood chamber is a wooden box like the brood box, only shallower. Known as a honey super, this box is where the honey is stored. A queen excluder divides the two chambers. The excluder admits worker bees into the honey super but not the larger queen, preventing her from laying eggs where honey is stored and later harvested. The hive may consist of two or three supers stacked on top of one another. The roof cover has a bee-escape for the bees to get out but not in.
In the fall, the queen excluder is taken out, allowing the queen to move with the winter cluster of honeybees that forms inside the hive when temperatures drop to 12-14C (54-57F). The bees cling together in the combs and move throughout the winter to reach the stored honey.
Although beekeepers are meant to take only the surplus honey not required to carry the bees through winter, it is difficult to determine how much honey the bees will need. The modern practice involves a fall harvest and feeding the bees with corn syrup and refined sugars over the winter. There is some speculation that this practice may be a factor in the current bee crisis.
There is a movement to return to former beekeeping. These practices encourages beekeepers to leave all the honey in the hive until spring when blossoming begins, and a new flow of nectar commences. Beekeepers could then be certain that what they harvested was actually surplus honey.
I’m luckily not allergic to bees. When I start buzzing someone’s ear off on my new bee obsession the subject always comes up, what about bee stings. I’m not a doctor, but any aspiring beekeeper like me should learn more about the dangers of bee stings. REPEAT Y’ALL I’M NOT A DOCTOR.
What about Bee Stings?
There is a difference between wasps and bees and how to treat their stings. It’s important to know what’s buzzing around the yard and how it affects you.
Before any sting treat can be treated, it’s important to determine where the sting came from. Wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, and bees (the most common stinging insects found in the yard and garden) vary in the kind of toxin they inject and how they sting.
Pollinator.org suggests most people are not stung by a bee at all but rather a wasp or another insect native to the area. The easiest way to tell the difference between a wasp and bee is by looking. Wasps are narrow-waisted and shiny while the bee is robust and fuzzy.
Wasps, hornets, or yellow jackets sting to paralyze their prey. They can sting multiple times as their stingers remain with them and not in their victim. Yellowjackets don’t do an overabundance of pollinating; their focus is on worms and other insects.
Honey Bees are Pollinators
The fuzzy honey bee is often as feared as a wasp or yellow jacket. Honey bees usually only sting when handled or stepped on. They are protected in some areas of the world because of the important role they play in pollinating.
Honey bees have barbed stingers which are attached to the bee’s digestive system. The stinger is torn from the bee, causing its death. The victim is left with the stinger hooked in their skin.
First Step in Treating a Honey Bee Sting
Rarely will a honey bee sting, but if they do, the stinger must be scratched out with the venom gland intact. Pest Control Canada suggests using a blunt-edged object such as a dull knife or credit card immediately following the sting. The stinger should not be pulled out between two fingers as more venom will be released into the system allowing for further irritation.
Stings Can Result in Anaphylactic Shock
For people with severe allergies to one or various venoms, anaphylactic shock (restricted airways) can be fatal. If a medical professional has confirmed a patient’s allergy to wasp or bee stings, they may have prescribed the use of an EpiPen or similar kit. Victims should report to a medical clinic or hospital after the use of such a treatment to ensure they are no longer at risk. Allergic reactions can occur anywhere from 10 minutes to 20 hours after the initial attack.
Allergic Reactions Requiring Medical Aid
More often than not, a wasp or bee sting will be an irritant and nothing more. A pharmacist or doctor can recommend an antihistamine for minor reactions. The following symptoms do require medical attention:
Swelling of limbs
Tightness in the throat or chest
Wheezing or abnormal breathing
Nausea or vomiting
Persistent pain or swelling
Pest Control recommends that after being stung, the victim should lie down and not be moved. Lower the area affected (arm or leg). Ice should be applied directly to the sting. A wide cloth tourniquet should be tied between the sting site and the heart (two fingers should fit under the band) and released after five minutes. Medical attention should be sought immediately if a sting happens in the mouth or nose as well. Swelling may occur that can block airways.
Avoid Infection from Stings
After a sting has occurred (and the venom gland removed if stung by a honey bee), the area should be treated as follows to avoid infection:
Wash gently with soap and water several times a day until healed
Apply an ice or cold pack wrapped in cloth for three to five minutes
Baking soda and water paste applied for 15 minutes
Pest Control recommends acetaminophen for pain
Eliminating Wasp and Hornet Nests
I think you should call in a professional for this, but so many DIY websites think you can do it yourself. A variety of pest control products are available that will eliminate nests in the yard. Follow the product instructions and use them at night when the nest population is at rest. For above-ground nests, never stand under the product spray or foam and have an escape plan. The following evening, double-check that the nest is not active, then tear it down with a long stick or broom. If occupants are still buzzing around, treat the nest again; do not attempt to remove it. Wasps also build ground nests.
Bee Hives Aren’t a Threat
Most beehives can and should be left alone. Humans, as with all nature, require bees for survival. If a beehive must be removed, seek professional assistance. Call the number on the back of your local honey, they may want to come collect the bees. Beehives are not as simple to remove as a wasp or hornet nest.
Enjoying the backyard without the fear of stinging insects is possible by being aware of what’s buzzing around and learning what can or can’t cause harm.
Related: Butterfly Gardening
While I’m sitting around waiting until the cutest house in the country pops up on my Zillow alerts, I’m still actively working on saving the bees in my tiny backyard. Making a pollinator friendly garden is so good for all of the bugs in our world. You can even do this on a patio, in a container. Some bee friendly plants are listed below. Or you can do what my family does, we get lost in the nursery and find the plants that actively have the most pollinators on them already. We’ve discovered some really pretty plants this way, most recently Stonecrop and Maypops!
Fruit Trees (especially
Golden Rain Tree
To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.Emily Dickinson
Thanks friends for listening, well reading about my bee obsession. You guys are the bees knees.