Honeybees’ secret life gives deeper insight


“Place a beehive on my grave and let the honey soak through. When I’m dead and gone, that’s what I want from you. The streets of heaven are gold and sunny, but I’ll stick with my plot and a pot of honey. Place a beehive on my grave and let the honey soak through.”

– from The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Have you ever considered the fact that some of our most vile critters we share this earth with are also among the most industrious and cunning?

You can count me among the many who despise spiders, snakes, mice and bees, but recently a friend who is a veteran hive-keeper set my mind straight on a few things.

Bees really are amazing creatures. Honeybees are social creatures who live in colonies, with each colony a family unit. The queen bee is the single, egg-laying insect and her many sterile daughters are her workers.

The worker bees are incredibly cooperative, working together to gather food, to work at building a most perfect nest, and in raising the young. Males are rare indeed, and are reared only at the times of year when their presence is required.

New beekeepers learn right off the bat that the key to being a success at this business is in learning to find the elusive queen.

The way to do this is by first locating her circle of attendants, hovering over her, waiting on her every whim. So who wouldn’t want to be the queen?

Well, consider the fact that she is in labor pretty much her entire life and you just might change your tune!

Within the hive, there are many jobs, and it amazes me to think of the level of cooperation required to settle a colony.

There are scout bees, those who go out and look for a suitable place to start a new colony upon deciding to leave the old nest. Eventually, one location is decided upon at the suggestion of the scouting bees, and the whole swarm takes to the air.

Once settled into their new home, they all must work incredibly hard. It takes honeybee workers ten million foraging trips to gather enough nectar to make one pound of honey.

Communication. “The whole fabric of honey bee society depends on communication – on an innate ability to send and receive messages, to encode and decode information,” according to The Honey Bee book by James and Carol Gould.

The honeybee requires not only physical contact with the colony, but the social companionship and support that comes with it. Isolate a honeybee from the rest of the hive and she will soon die.

And a queenless colony is a pitiful thing. If a queen bee dies and another is not yet chosen, “a mournful wail or lament” will ensue, and the colony will die.

“But introduce a new queen and the most extravagant change takes place,” it is said in The Queen Must Die by William Longgood.

I read this and thought of the social structure and true geometry involved in building a perfect hive. I also thought of spider’s webs and the intricacy required in spinning such a fragile thing.

Nature is an amazing thing, perpetuating in spite of our efforts to knock it all down. There in the barns and sheds, the insects proliferate by working together.

And to think… they manage to do it all without government agencies or committee meetings or benefit suppers!


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Judith Sutherland, born and raised on an Ohio family dairy farm, now lives on a 70-acre farm not far from the area where her father’s family settled in the 1850s. Appreciating the tranquility of rural life, Sutherland enjoys sharing a view of her world through writing. Other interests include teaching, reading, training dogs and raising puppies. She and her husband have two children, a son and a daughter, and three grandchildren.