Dusty but still relevant

I was looking through my old writing files the other day and came across this short essay I wrote years ago that I had completely forgotten about. Why not post it on my blog? I thought. So, at the sake of yet MORE bee stuff, here it is (with hugs sent out to Catherine, Joan, and Joan’s granddaughter):

Why Does that Lady Love Bees?

“Grandma, when you walk in the woods you have to be very careful not to step on a bee.”

“Why is that?” asked Grandma.

“Because bees sting and it hurts!” said her granddaughter.

“I know a lady who studies bees. She loves bees!”

“Really, Grandma? Why does that lady love…bees?”

I laughed when my friend told me this story. To her granddaughter, I am the lady who loves bees. I love bumblebees—they are the big bees with the fuzzy coats. Yet they can hardly be compared to teddy bears. Their creepy-crawly, hairy legs and their big black insect eyes… And yes, bumblebees do sting. They can sting many times and not die.

Let me share one little-known fact about bumblebees: when a bumblebee is restrained and she can’t sting her captor, she squirts a yellow, sticky liquid. Bee poop. I’ve had the pleasure of having it squirted in my face.

So if bumblebees are creepy, gross, and can inflict pain, why do I love them?

I didn’t always love bees. In fact, I was downright terrified of them. Then a few years ago I was offered a job as a research assistant in a bumblebee laboratory. Summer jobs were hard to come by as a student so I was happy to take whatever I could get—even if it meant working with stinging creepy-crawlies.

Safety was the bee lab’s first priority. The bees lived in special boxes and flew around in big, screened cages. Despite all of our precautions, however, bees did on occasion escape and fly loose in the room.

Personal Revelation #1: Bees are not bloodthirsty stinging machines that hunt for human flesh. Bees are likely to ignore you, or hover at a safe distance to try and decipher what the heck you are. Once the bee has decided you are not a flower, they’d rather have nothing to do with you. Stinging is their last line of defense. They would much rather flee.

Personal Revelation #2: Just like interacting with any animal, your attitude toward bees is key. Act aggressive and the animal will respond with aggression. Act nervous and the animal will act nervous, too. Act calm, confident, and with respect, and I bet you’ll never be stung. (People can be like that too!)

Personal Revelation #3: For an animal with a brain the size of a grass seed, bees accomplish remarkable feats. I saw first hand that they can learn very quickly which colours and odors are associated with the best food. They can adjust their rate of nectar gathering to accommodate the rate at which flowers refill their nectar supply. And say nothing of their ability to locate food and then find their way back home. The term “beeline” actually refers to bees’ ability to fly a straight path home despite the many twists and turns they may have taken to get to a place.

Did you know that ultraviolet rays (UV rays)—the rays that sunscreen protects us from—are invisible to humans, but bees can see them? Bees must experience the world very differently than we do.

Personal Revelation #4: As creepy and scary bees may seem, we need bees. About a third of the food we eat comes from plants that are pollinated by bees. For example, do you like tomatoes, blueberries, or cranberries? If you do, thank a bee!

In the bee lab I once watched a new bumblebee as she hatched from her shell. She had spent the better part of the day chewing a hole big enough in her cocoon so she could slide out. Her new bee fur was grey, silky, and slicked back with dampness. When she pulled herself half way out, she stopped and her antennae poked and prodded the air around her. It seemed as though she was taking in her surroundings—sensing her multitudes of bee sisters bustling around in the nest.

My Biggest Revelation: Before I started working with the bees I thought I respected all animals. But the truth is, I only respected the cute and cuddly ones. I feared and loathed the others. Before my days in the bee lab, if I had seen that baby bee in our house, I would have swiftly introduced her to our fly swatter. That little bee would have died due to my own ignorance and assumptions.

The bees taught me that great things come in small packages—and some of these packages may not necessarily be cute and cuddly to the human eye, at least not at first. Behind any creepy-crawly may be hidden some of Nature’s most fascinating secrets.

It’s the least we can do to take my friend’s granddaughter’s advice and watch where we step.

 

References

Buchmann, S. L. & Nabhan, G. P. (1996). The forgotten pollinators. Washington, D.C.: Island Press.

Collett, T.S., & Collett, M. (2000). Path integration in insects. Current Opinion in Neurobiology, 10, 757-762.

Greggers, U., & Menzel, R. (1993). Memory dynamics and foraging strategies of honeybees. Behavioral Ecology & Sociobiology, 32, 17-29.

Hughes, H. C. (1999). Sensory exotica: A world beyond human experience. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

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