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Buzzed on Bees

Suited up for hive inspection. (Photo by Lori Moffatt)

As a kid, I briefly wanted to be an entomologist. This career choice never received full support from my parents, who probably realized that the jars of fireflies and boxes of desiccated beetles that brought me such joy one summer would eventually gather dust in the garage beside the rock polisher.

And while my insect devotion was fleeting, I remain fascinated by their complicated social structures. Today, when I see a line of sugar ants making their way methodically across a wall or witness the graceful ballet of honeybees gathering pollen on a purple cenizo, I wonder: How in the world do they communicate?

So last weekend, when I was offered an opportunity to sit in on a three-hour beekeeping class hosted by the Round Rock Honey Company, I donned a decidedly non-summery outfit of long pants and cowboy boots and joined 25 other bee-curious students for a wild Saturday morning. Round Rock Honey, which maintains hives throughout the state, and also in California, offers Texas classes in Round Rock, Waco, Dallas, and Houston. If my class is typical, most students are aspiring beekeepers, with a smattering of folks like me thrown in for good measure.

Before Certified Master Beekeeper Lance Wilson got started, the conversation turned from sci-fi bee movies (1973's drive-in classic Invasion of the Bee Girls has some devoted fans) to bee stings. Here, I learned my first bit of useful information: Copenhagen chewing tobacco, several students revealed, can reduce the pain of a bee sting.

"What?" I asked. "How does it work?"

"Just moisten a ball of it," someone told me, "and rub it around on the sting. Works for scorpions, jellyfish, and mosquitoes, too."

That alone would be worth the price of admission. But then Lance, who received his bee education at the University of Georgia, began to reveal some of the mysteries of bee life. "You can think of a honeybee as a vegetarian wasp," he told us, then explained that bees, wasps, and ants are in the same order (hymenoptera). He also explained the purpose of the all-white, veiled bee suit we'd don later: "It looks opposite from a bear."

There's no wonder that science-fiction writers turn to insects for their plotlines.

Bees, he told us, are attracted to hairiness, so the last thing you want to do while working with bees is wear a fur coat or a fake-fur coat, for that matter. When bees are alarmed, we learned, they emit an alarm pheromone that smells a bit like rotten bananas. Then, if the bees also have a visual cue (such as someone who looks or acts like a bear), they're likely to go into stinging mode. To obfuscate both the pheromone cue and the visual cue, beekeepers often use smoke while working the hives. And yes, there are stingless bees in South America, but they evidently have a ferocious bite.

We went over the anatomy of a bee, learning that some 80 percent of sensory input is read through their antennae, which can measure temperature, humidity, and even CO2 levels in the air. Too, bees are endothermic, meaning they can raise and lower their body temperatures, which comes in handy when they want to oust a queen. Lance told us that since stinging a queen bee to death is pretty inefficient (not to mention suicidal for the worker bees), instead they surround her and crank up their body temperatures, effectively cooking her to death.

There's no wonder that science-fiction writers turn to insects for their plotlines.

Beehive populations are mostly female – a queen bee, whose only job is to lay eggs (she produces an egg every 45 seconds), drones (the only males in the hive; typically they make up only 5-20 percent of the hive population), and the worker bees. Worker bees are all female, and they make all of the decisions in the hive, including who gets to be queen. Lance told us that most scientists consider a beehive to be a collective organism – a superorganism if you will – meaning that each bee acts in the interest of the colony, rather than the individual. This means that in theory, the organism can live forever.

We learned various harrowing aspects of bee procreation (after mating, for example, the drones' abdomens explode with an audible "pop"), moved into some discussion of Africanized bees and the perils currently facing bees worldwide, then donned our bee suits for a quick car trip to see the hives.

Bundled up in a white, shapeless jumpsuit, complete with gloves and veil, I was unable to take photos or notes. Thousands of bees buzzed around us as Lance and Round Rock Honey owner Konrad Bouffard opened the hive boxes to show us the amazing industry inside, and I gained even more respect for the collaboration between bees and their keepers. And the honey, some of which we were allowed to sample straight from the combs, was delicate, complex, and nuanced with subtle flavors.

Later, as we drove back to headquarters, I chatted briefly with a fellow classmate and amateur beekeeper named Susan, whose primary reason for beekeeping surprised me. "Of course I love the honey," she told me. "But for me, beekeeping is relaxing. It compliments my meditation and yoga. It's oddly peaceful to work with bees. They are very orderly."

Learn more about Round Rock Honey products and beekeeping classes at www.roundrockhoney.com.

From the August 2013 issue.

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