I recently turned 35. For some reason, I assign great significance to that age. It’s the age my parents were when they had me, not an intrinsically important landmark, but still one by which to make comparisons. By this time in their lives, my parents had been married for 14 years, had lived and held jobs a few places throughout Southern Illinois and Kentucky, and had wound up in Colorado, and most important to my own life, they had a brand new baby. Sorry, I know they had lives outside of what led to me, but it’s hard to imagine my parents’ lives in terms other than what has led to my own experience. Maybe I’ll call that the curse of the parent/child relationship.
My egocentric world view aside, the impending landmark inspired me to stop thinking about something I’ve wanted to do for a solid decade, and to finally do it. I have happy news for everyone, I’m enlarging my family by several thousand, give or take a few. I’ve decided to finally give beekeeping a try. The fact that I live in a condo complex is part of what kept me from actually setting up a hive. I knew my bees would be the first suspects if anyone got stung, no matter if it was actually a honey bee that stung, and I didn’t want them to have to face the angry mobs—definitely more concerned about what the people might do to my bees than what my bees would do to humans. I also had a tough time deciding on the perfect place for a hive, away from human traffic and safe from marauding raccoons and bears. One spot was good as far as being quiet, another had good exposure to the sun, another had good access to water and shelter from the wind, but none would be safe from hungry mammals.
But a couple years ago, some friends started a hive, and then a couple weeks ago, I got to get my hands in there and help with harvesting the honey. No, harvesting the honey from a hive without bees is not the most challenging part of keeping bees, but it was enough for me to finally make the leap out of my head, into reality. My parents took on the very questionable endeavor of raising a child at this age, I can probably take on bees. The absolutely worst thing that might happen is if they all die. I don’t want that to happen, but I will learn, and bees are more replaceable than infants. The new family members are now perched on a small balcony off my bedroom, sheltered from unwelcoming neighbors, and critters preparing to hibernate. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they decide to stay.
Here is a video I made of my experience getting a beehive started. It is perhaps a little lengthy, just over 30 minutes, but I think this whole process is fascinating, so I guess I’m at least making it available to anyone else who is interested. The whole time, I was handling the bees with bare hands, although I did have a veil on to at least avoid stings on the face and neck. I would expect the opposite to be true, but bees are very docile when they are looking for a home. They let me dump and shake and push and run my hands over them without any protest. Pop some popcorn and prepare to be a little more willing to leave a couple dandelions out there next year… or at least I’m hoping to convert someone to a little bit more of bee-friendly gardening.
One thing I love about keeping bees, in the couple of weeks I’ve been preparing, is learning about how they function. Honey bees have an elaborate social system where thousands of individuals collaborate as a single hive organism. When everything is normal, a single queen lays all the eggs. All the fertilized eggs hatch into larva that becomes tens of thousands of worker bees. The queen also lays a few eggs that aren’t fertilized, and these bees without a full set of genes are the only males in the colony. The males are almost useless to the colony in that they cannot sting and do not forage for resources or do anything to maintain the colony. They might manage to provide some genetic diversity to other hives, but the worker bees kick all of them out of the hive when winter approaches, so they won’t hang out and be a drain on the colony’s resources. However the female worker bees play several different roles depending on their age and the hive’s needs.
In the first week or two of life, a worker bee is a nurse, working with the brood, cleaning out cells in the wax, and feeding the larva pollen and honey. After that, for another week or so, she’s a middle aged bee, completing a variety of tasks such as maintaining the structure of the hive, receiving nectar from the foragers, and guarding the hive. Their roles seem to depend partially on age and partially on what the colony needs at the time. Finally, in the last part of their life, the worker bees become foragers, a physically demanding task with a wide variety of dangers that will eventually kill them.
With tens of thousands of other worker bees around you, it seems reasonable to me to wonder why one might not choose to keep doing tasks inside the hive long after your peers have become foragers—live the relatively safe and easy life. Of course, my question assumes a creature has individual autonomy, whereas each honey bee seems to behave more like a cell in a body than as separate bodies. Fortunately, I am not the first person to ask such questions, and, researchers have examined what leads worker bees to change their roles both as they age, and depending on environmental demands. One focus I find interesting, partially because of its application to understanding human behavior, has to do with gene expression. Back in the day, there was all this focus on mapping the human genome, because once we knew what all the “building blocks” looked like, we’d be able to explain every aspect of how the human body looked and worked. But then we discovered genetics were a bit more complex than just knowing what was there, you also need to look at how genes are expressed, some of what is there is more important than others. Researchers found chemical tags that attach to a worker bee’s genes and appear to control her behavior and her role in the hive at any given time. The tags determine which proteins the genes produce, and these change both with age and external pressures. As a sad example that ties back to human behavior, researchers have also found tags attached to a gene connected to the production of a stress hormone in childhood abuse victims who later committed suicide. The implication is that if we can learn how to change the tags on the genes connected to the stress hormone, presumably caused by the abuse, we could eliminate one factor that might lead this group to commit suicide.
It brings me back to wondering why my life is so different from my parents’ in some ways and so similar in others. Often, I wonder how much autonomy I have in my life, and how much is just an illusion of autonomy. Perhaps I choose to have a dog, but perhaps there is some sort of feedback loop where positive emotions connected to having a dog lead to gene expression that makes it more likely that I will have an even greater positive emotional reaction to my dog, making it far more likely that I will arrange my life to accommodate a dog. The whole time, I think I have a dog, because I know what wonderful animals they are, but really, it’s chemicals influencing my behavior. I’m never really going to know how much my life decisions are purely reason-based calculations, but I am willing to accept that my behavior is probably shaped more by similar forces as the worker bees are than I realize.
If I could have more control over what my current life looks like, I do feel some sadness that I’ve reached an age when even my parents—generally later at having kids- had already had one. I’m not looking for any sort of reassurance that I could certainly meet someone and fall in love in the next couple years. I’m a little skeptical about having the capacity for romantic love; I don’t know if that’s just because it’s a reasonable conclusion after my life experiences, or if my life experiences have led my body to produce more of the combination of chemicals that lead to more cautious behavior and expectations. It’s simply the reality that I am currently half my parents’ age, and it is a time at which I choose to take stock and decide that certain measurements are significant.
All of that aside though, I am incredibly grateful that I chose to be sort of impulsive—as impulsive as you can really be after 10 years of contemplating what this and that would look like- and bring home a colony of bees. I look forward to observing their behaviors and patterns, and them getting to know me. Bees are considered a cornerstone species, in that an entire ecosystem would collapse without them. I don’t know if that’s true in the United States, since they were introduced from Europe 200 or 300 years ago, but maybe with the impacts we’ve had on the environment, and the way it adapts to fit stressors like humans, even the environment in North America depends on honey bees. I want to show my bees around the neighborhood, pointing out all the crab apple blossoms right now, and the flowers that should be up in the next month or two, and where the future flowering bushes will go. However, I suppose I should probably just trust that they’ll figure it out for themselves. I am grateful to every single yellow dandelion out there right now. The very short time I’ve had bees has already changed my awareness of the environment around me, in that I’m much more curious about bee friendly plants, and I find I’m listening so hard for the buzz of bees that I’ll hear phantom buzzing when there is no bee. I know things might go wrong—my bees could decide they don’t like this location, they could be overrun by mites, wasps could attack, or they simply might not survive for no reason I can understand. But parents take risks with everything that could possibly go wrong with their kids, and they decide to give their kids everything they can. Obviously keeping bees is nowhere near the scale of having children, but it is a great adventure, almost certainly punctuated with challenges and sadness along the way. I’m happy to be doing it. Plus, the potential for bee-related puns is almost limitless.