Peggy Keener: To bee or not to bee

Published 5:48 pm Friday, June 10, 2022

What woman hasn’t, for at least one fleeting moment in her life, wondered what it would be like to be a queen? To be the Royalist of Royalties who rules over all others—the great unwashed.

Still, in the history of the world, no queen has ever been so adored and attended to than the queen that rules the colony. The Queen Bee of the beehive.

I’ve been reading “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd, where I’ve gleaned all kinds of interesting bee factoids. Not only is Kidd an extraordinary story teller, but she is also an aficionado of bees.

“Honeybees,” she writes, “are social insects that live in colonies. Each colony is a family unit comprised of a single egg-laying female or Queen, and her many sterile daughters who are called workers. These housekeepers cooperate in food gathering, nest building and rearing the offspring.” (Ladies, is this sounding familiar?) “Males are reared only at the time of year when their presence is required.” (Uh-huh!)

“The Queen produces a substance that attracts the sister workers and can only be obtained from her by direct contact. This substance evidently stimulates the normal working behavior in the hive and is referred to as the ‘queen substance.’ Experiments have shown that somehow the bejillion children bees obtain it from the body of the Queen.” (Bleeding her dry as children are wont to do.)

“Honeybee sisters depend not only on physical contact with the colony, but also require its social companionship and support. If you isolate a honeybee from her sisters, she will soon die. What people don’t realize is that there is a complicated life going on inside a hive. Truly, it is a secret life.” (Hence the title of the book.)

Monk wrote about one time approaching a group of hives, only to find they had either been abandoned or the colony was deep inside having a noonday siesta. (After all, bees get pooped out, too.)

In this happens to you, if you dare, you can lay your cheek flat against the top of a hive box and you will hear a perfect high-pitched whistle that sounds as if someone has left the teakettle on the stove too long.

You see, the bees are not having a sleep over. Au contraire. As if food gathering, nest building and rearing the offspring are not enough, the sister bees—in their spare time—are working like crazy to create their own air conditioning system. To do this the songsters buzz in perfect pitch with four-part harmony, rolling up and down the musical scale. (Had the Beach Boys only known this, they could have been called the Bee Boys.)

It must be said that the nest building sisters are true mathematicians for they make each section of the comb into the shape of a perfect hexagon. Then there are the gifted field sisters who have uncanny navigational skills which they use for gathering the nectar and pollen.

Meanwhile the gifted nurse sisters nurture. They tend to the baby bees … often referred to as newbees … and selflessly sacrifice themselves for what is best for the newborns.

There is also a select group of attendant sisters who are like ladies-in-waiting to the Queen. They feed her Royalness, bathe her, and keep her either warm or cool. In other words, they do whatever is needed, fussing over her to the point of actually caressing her. (Whoa! Next Christmas I’m asking Santa for an attendant sister!)

And finally there are the mortician sisters. I do not know if any of them are also funeral directors. It would not seem so for in performing their demoralizing tasks, their main job is to simply and efficiently keep the hexagons spic and span. This is accomplished by whisking their recently deceased comrades out of the hive. (They use brooms for there are no Hoovers in hives.)

All this begs the question of what the Queen actually does? Well, she doesn’t just sit around polishing her crown while yelling commands at the sisters, you know. She lays eggs. Eggs, eggs and more eggs. Day in and day out. Egg laying is her shtick. After all, as Queen Bee, she is the spawner of every single bee in the hive—thousands!—and it is up to her to keep the whole shebang working.

Sue Monk Kidd goes on to say that “if the Queen were smarter, she would probably be hopelessly neurotic.” (And who’s to say she isn’t?) As is, the Queen is shy and skittish, possibly because she never leaves the hive, spending all her days confined in darkness. Her life is spent in an eternal night, perpetually in labor. Even though her role is that of the Queen Bee, she really isn’t. Her real title is Mother of the Hive. And yet even this is a mockery, for she lacks any maternal instincts or abilities to care for her wee bees.

Meanwhile, the drone males have been lollygagging about doing nothing. Just sitting around twattling away with idle bee chatter as they wait to mate with the Queen. (I’ll bet the first one in line—slam bam, thank you, ma’am—thinks he’s irrefutably the bee-all and the end-all!) Once the Queen lets the boys know she’s ready—yippy ki yay—it’s fiesta party time! (Note: those disgruntled males who are last in the lineup are forevermore known as wannabees.)

On a sad note, it must be said that a bee’s life is unreasonably short. Due to their strenuous foraging during spring and summer, a hapless worker sister usually doesn’t last longer than four or five weeks. Her fateful condition is known as busy-as-a-bee-itis and is brought on by over fatigue.

It takes worker sisters collectively ten million foraging trips to gather enough nectar to make one pound of honey. (Wait! How do they know? Are there official bee forager counters? And, now, how am I supposed to avoid feeling guilty the next time I eat a pound of honey?) With dangers all around them, many worker sisters die even sooner. (Gosh, that’s terrible. And, I suppose, that causes the mortician sisters to be chronically cranky because they’re so plum tuckered out.)

To be sure, bees are wonderful. Without them man would have a tough time existing. On the flip side, though, is the lamentable soul who gets stung by one. In the end, albeit, it is the victim who gets his comeuppance for his assailant dies. That bee, you see, is a kamikabee.