What's true and what isn't about bees

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Not long ago, the TV quiz show, Jeopardy! gave us to understand that only female honeybees have stingers. This is all right if you're running a television quiz show, but if you keep bees you may want better information.

There is only one female in a colony of bees, and she does have a stinger. But up to a late hour last Friday evening, a queen bee has never stung anything except another queen bee.

She does not do this in anger or spite but politely and in good taste, for it is the way with bees. I have never witnessed this ceremonial frolic because I was always away attending to other matters, but I do know a colony of bees has but one queen at a time.

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All well-regulated beehives have three genders: male, female, and neuter. The neuter is, biologically, an undeveloped female, and it does have a stinger. But around a beehive, you'll seldom hear it referred to as a she or a he. The male honeybee has no stinger.

Honeybees are maligned. If a wasp or a hornet stings a citizen, the cry goes up that "A bee stung me!"

A honeybee rarely stings in the field. It is too busy seeking nectar and pollen to bother with you. It will, however defend its queen and her hive with its life, and this is no joke. (Mostly, the only people who get stung by bees are beekeepers.)

The queen's function in the hive is to lay eggs. In this, from first to last, she is assisted by neuters. and her majesty is an empty myth. She seems no more than a slave to tribal laws.

Her marital flight is carefully arranged by the neuters, which have the male bees lined up and ready. Only at mating time does a hive have drones, and a queen mates but once. She flies straight up from the hive, and mates with the strongest and fleetest drone.

Immediately upon her returning to the hive, all drones, including the bridegroom, are exterminated by the neuters, who then carry them in funereal processions out of the hive. A beekeeper can tell by the drones that a new queen reigns.

Escorted by her neuter attendants, the queen deposits a single egg in successive cells in the brood combs, and whether the bee that hatches will be a drone, a queen, or a neuter depends on what the neuters (which run things) feed it/her/him. Little bees hatch in a few days and have larval and pupal stages. The queen is fed "royal jelly"!

One of my best bee recollections is about the Fay-muse apple tree by the roadside.

Originated in France, the Fameuse (famous) became the Yankee Fay-muse and was a favorite with us. Late summer and early fall, it was a red apple with whitey-white flesh. Some called it the "snow apple."

We had one tree near the road, and while we didn't mind somebody's snitching an apple, we didn't like snitchers who broke off limbs. So an early beekeeper in the family began setting a hive under the Fay-muse just as the apples began to redden. This deterred random poaching, unless by beekeepers, and our friends knew if they wanted an apple we'd give them one at the house.

I'd move a beehive under the Fay-muse tree every August, and take it back to the apiary after the fall aster honey flow.

I was now about to retrieve the hive, but first I would remove the 28-pound super with its fall honey, and that would lighten the lift. I had the cover off the hive, the boxes of comb honey exposed, hive tool in hand, and bee smoker ready if needed.

If all goes well, this is soon over. But it calls for quiet attention and no quick motions, and it is not an occasion for interruptions. Fact is, not too many people come close enough to interrupt.

Bending over the open hive, I was absorbed, and a shadow fell across my task. Somebody had approached behind me! Slowly, very slowly, I shifted myself without putting my bees to panic, lifted my veiled head, and beheld a priest in Franciscan garb who stood unprotected among my flying bees and smiled.

He said, "Good afternoon!" In passing on the road, he had seen me at my open hive.

I said, "It is, indeed, salve tibi."

He said, "Et tibi pax. I used to attend the bees in the seminary. That's beautiful honey!"

He was the Rev. Fr. Edwin Mihailko, new pastor at the Slovak Parish of Sts. Cyril and Methodius in our town. That afternoon we began a long friendship based entirely on apiculture that continued after he was moved along to parishes in Montreal and Pennsylvania.

Father Edwin knew when I would be "taking off" some new comb honey, and would arrive just as the hot buttermilk biscuits were coming from the oven. He had never tasted basswood honey and was partial to it. It is pretty good.

One fall I showed Father Edwin how to "line" bees, which he had never done. Wild bees can be located by starting a flight line. When the line gets going, you follow it to the colony, which is usually in a hollow tree.

It's a good excuse for a hike and a sandwich in the warm fall sun, and sometimes you do find some wild honey worth the effort of taking it home.

But the good father and I had only the sandwich and sun. Our line of bees went directly back to one of my own hives.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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