In my previous life, BBLE (Before Big Life Events), I kept honeybees. The honeybee was, and still is, one of my deepest passions, and each time I see one it makes me smile. Honeybees are social creatures with their lives centered on their home. The recent focus on the honeybee and Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has caused more Americans to learn about – and appreciate – the hard-working insect. They are magical bits of sunshine, and we need them more than you know. Every time I visited the honeybees, I came away with a few tidbits of information. Sometimes it allowed me to be a better beekeeper. Other times it was a lesson on a larger scale – often, on life itself. And the honeybee is an expert on home-building. Here are some solid tips from the honeybee to the novice homeowner/remodeler:
Expect to sweat.
Nothing substitutes for good old elbow grease. In the honeybee’s case, sweat makes the honeycomb. Workers secrete or “sweat” a thick fluid that is chewed and formed into light yellow wax. The honeybee pulls and packs the wax into perfect, six-sided cells that will hold eggs, brood and food for the entire colony.
Count your blessings – your sweat builds equity, and you only have to wipe it from your brow.
Have a plan
That honeycomb? The colony doesn’t make it up as they go along. That honeycomb blueprint has been around since time began, and it still works the best. There is no wasted space in a honeybee hive – each cell is created from the last one and the walls never vary in thickness. No self-respecting honeybee would dare to change it. Whatever your plan is, that’s fine – just have one.
If something works, don’t Be-Dazzle it.
Sometimes you just have to make do.
The honeycomb may stay the same, but unique and un-beelike things might be packed inside. When times are tough and nectar is hard to come by, honeybees will happily swig Gatorade from a can, lick a Popsicle, drink pool water and roll in cattle feed for the bits of protein dust they can substitute for pollen. The cells may shine neon green from artificial dyes or be filled with soy flour supplied by a beekeeper. Anything to feed the crew.
When times are tough, you may have to substitute an “almost as good” product to stay within your budget.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
If the beekeeper mistakenly leaves out a frame and the space is too wide for the perfect honeycomb, honeybees create a living bridge from one to the other and fill the space in with extra sheets of fresh new wax comb. Each worker dives in to complete the project, using complex communication to determine where and when they are best utilized in the chain. Workers move across the bodies of their sisters, often taking the place of another who grows tired of hanging by her legs between frames.
Sometimes a girl just needs some help holding a board or hanging a mirror. Don’t be afraid to give a shout out to a sister.
Worker bees head for the cleaning products at scheduled times and whenever there is lull. They clean cells to a spit shine, carry their dead to the entrance and unceremoniously fly the bodies to the ground, and scrub the decks with their tiny front legs. Cleanliness is next to godliness in the beehive – and it keeps away unwanted visitors.
Tidy up the jobsite whenever possible.
Prepare for winter.
Honeybees send out groups of workers to insulate the hive as it gets closer to winter. Every crack or knothole in the pine wood of the hive boxes that may allow in cold air is plugged with a sticky brown substance called propolis. This keeps the winter hive warm and snug for the colony, brood and queen. But there is also strategically placed ventilation to keep the air moving.
Find those heat-sucking leaks and repair or weatherstrip before the winds howl, but let your house breathe the way it should.
Protect your turf
Honeybees are docile and easy-going – until something tries to invade their space. Then the militia is called in and lines are drawn. Guards are posted at the entrance, the queen buries herself in the middle of the hive and is protected by hundreds of nurse and guard bees, workers rush to drink their fill of honey in case an escape is in order. And safety is in numbers – thousands of the little girls can ward off a hungry black bear.
Lock up when you leave – and beware of bears in bee’s clothing.
Pull your weight
As soon as a baby bee’s still wet antennae break through the waxy lid of a nursing cell, she is handed a mop. Her first chore as a part of the hive is to swab out her own nursery, leaving it spic and span for the Queen Mom to lay another egg in the bottom. There is no time for coddling – she will learn to fly and move to the foraging crew in a matter of days. Every bee is expected to do her job.
The sore muscles go away – but the pride remains.
Look for the sweetest flowers.
The nectar doesn’t come to the hive. The honeybee uses her uncanny ability to discern flower nectars and heads for the ones that will give her quality and quantity. Time is honey, and the straightest and sweetest path is the best one. Develop a skill for finding quality materials and craftsmen who offer th best return for the money.
When it’s hot, sit on the porch.
Ah, you thought a bee never rests? Not so – when the summer sun heats up the hive, a large group of workers move out to the porch and fan their wings to create a breeze inside, keeping brood and honey at the proper temperature. The girls take breaks from their fanning and hang out in clusters called “beards,” cooling themselves and storing energy for later flights.
Remember to re-hydrate and take a break from work to appreciate what you’ve already accomplished.
Sometimes it’s right to leave home
When the colony gets crowded, and there isn’t enough food to go around, the group decides who will leave. They quickly raise a new, young queen and fly off with her to new digs. Sometimes the old queen will decide to find another home with some of her daughters. But there is never a hive big enough for two queens. Never.
If the place doesn’t fit your budget or your family, move on – there’s another one out there that is perfect for you.
And the most important lesson I learned from my honeybees is this:
Sing while you work. And hum if you don’t know the words.