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The Fascinating World of the Honey Bee

While gathering nectar for food, honey bees carry pollen between flowers, shrubs, and plants. In turn, these crops thrive and reproduce and keep our food cycle going. Without the honey bee’s continual pollination, our food crops – and nourishment for our livestock and other animals – will die off.

Several weeks ago, I spoke with Roger Senechal about what I might expect to see during last month’s total solar eclipse. As we spoke, he compared his love of astronomy with his other passion – beekeeping. The part-time priest marveled at the way God has worked his magic with our heavens and also in the world of the honey bee. As he shook his head and wondered how bees know all the things they do, it sparked my curiosity to learn more.

Beekeeping is an intriguing hobby, serving good and useful purposes. Rick Armstrong was inspired to study honey bees when he learned about the plight of farmers in China. With a honey bee shortage, these farmers were forced to manually pollinate their blooms with a feather attached to the end of a bamboo stick. With this weighing on his mind, he began planting clover on his rural acreage and raising honey bees. “My wife and I plant 2 acres of crimson and white clover every year. This keeps our 10 hives of bees happy and healthy,” he says.

Excited to see honey bee hives up close and personal, I follow Rick and Quick Foy, his fellow Nashville Area Beekeeper’s Association expert, to the apiary. It is 93 degrees outside, and I am dressed in jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, and boots. Not uncomfortable and hot enough, I add layers of protective clothing – a heavy and tight fitting jacket, long gloves, and mesh headgear. Hundreds of bees fly in and out of the hives, traveling to the nearby bushes and gardens at Nashville’s Glen Leven Farm.

Quick Foy and Rick Armstrong, left to right

Rick and Quick impress me as the type of guys who don’t get bothered by much. Rick calmly mentions they’ve been stung hundreds of times. “And it hurts every time,” Quick laughs. Before popping the top off the hive and acquainting me with the bees, my guides surround the area with smoke. According to Quick, smoke tends to calm the bees down. Sensing fire in the area, the bees’ instinct is to prepare for danger and gorge themselves on honey. The honey makes them full and satisfied and docile, much like we may feel after a big Thanksgiving meal.

As I cautiously peer into the hive, Rick explains it contains about 50,000 bees. Each hive is home to a single queen bee, hundreds of male drones, and thousands of female worker bees. The queen’s only job is to lay eggs. Laying 1500 eggs every day, she miraculously knows not to lay any more eggs than she has nurse bees to feed them. “She doesn’t even feed herself; her attendants handle the job for her,” chuckles Rick. Angling the frame so I can get a better look, it is still hard to see the specks of eggs he points out.

Retired from 40 years of firefighting, Rick is also impressed by honey bees and what they know. He explains bees navigate by the sun – it is their GPS system. Amazingly, they compute mathematical and navigational corrections so they can find their way back to the hive. Their wiggle dances signal to other bees where to find nectar. Rick adds they also communicate by pheromones. The queen produces this substance and spreads it through the hive from bee to bee to bee. Somehow, the queen’s pheromone lets her bee friends know everything in the hive is good and thriving.

Rick hands me one of the hive’s frames, with loads of bees crawling around, and I am struck by how neat it seems. “The inside of a beehive,” Quick says, “is thought to be cleaner than an operating room.” I learn propolis, a sticky stuff bees make, helps to keep the hive tidy. Known as bees’ caulking or glue, the honey bees use this to seal and weatherproof their hive. Quick hands me a small piece and tells me to smell the natural, pure fragrance. Some people use the propolis in teas or for medicinal purposes.

Continually surprised by the honey bees’ abilities, Rick tells the story of a mouse sneaking into one of his hives. After stinging the mouse to death, the bees used their propolis to embalm the large (by their standards!) creature. Since they can’t carry the mouse out of the hive, they simply work around him, safe in the knowledge that disease won’t spread through their home.

Quick explains, “although it sounds like hocus pocus, bees have figured out their version of diversity.” The lone queen in the hive doesn’t mate with her roommates. She leaves the hive and flies over to the specially designated drone congregation area. Rick jokes this is the bee scenario of “hanging out at the bars.” The queen mates with a variety of drone suitors one time in her 3 year life. She then returns to her hive with 3 million eggs inside of her.

Another mind boggling honey bee bit of trivia – How is it that human sperm dies quickly, but drone sperm can last 3 years inside of a queen? When a queen’s production starts dropping, the worker bees know it is time for a new monarch. They feed royal jelly to 4 or 5 potential new rulers. Whichever one mates and comes back first is the new queen. I ask my experts what happens to the old queen and the other queen wanna-bees? Rick, Quick, and Roger agree this is yet another mystery of the honey bee world, and explanations vary widely.

The worker bees have a life span of only about 6 weeks. Besides the risk of birds, man, and traffic, they literally work themselves to death. The bees all have tasks, and they are happiest when they are busy – producing honey, carting away dead bees, regulating the hive’s temperature, or guarding the entrance.

A big highlight is tasting the honey, fresh from the hive. Quick digs some honey from the cell and helps me unzip my headgear long enough to savor a spoonful. When the bees finish making the honey, they cap each cell with wax they produce. The bees even build the cells at an angle, although hard to actually see, so their honey won’t spill out.

Rick and Quick concur there is so much to master about honey bees and their role in our environment. “The bees are smart, and those tiny creatures do unbelievable things,” reflects Rick. Quick adds, “I am just a humble beekeeper trying to learn about their world.”

To learn more about raising bees, Rick Armstrong and Quick Foy suggest checking out Virtual Bee School classes through the Nashville Area Beekeeper’s Association.