Getting to Know Our Busy Friends the Bees

Peter Finch of Cedar Cottage Community Garden sent us this beautiful guest post to help us get to know our busy and friendly co-species the bees. If we didn’t have bees we wouldn’t have us it’s that simple. Peter Finch is one of the founders of the lovely forest garden under the skytrain and is training to become a local bee-keeper.


I am standing chest-high in wild meadow flowers in full bloom. Wonderful deep red, blue, indigo, pink, orange and white–fragrant in the still, warm air–and teeming with activity. Bees of all sizes are at work on the flowers, inches away from my face. A prickly sensation on my left arm alerts me to the arrival of a very large bumble bee stopping to catch her breath. I can feel the vibration, yet her wings aren’t moving; her abdomen pulses as if she is panting. She tentatively extends her tongue and tastes my arm, then launches back into the air again.

“Aren’t you afraid?” asks a woman standing on the nearby roadway. I realize she has been watching me for a few minutes. “No, of course not,” I reply. Yet in my mind I’m thinking “Well, actually, at some level I’m terrified–it’s like the sparks from a forge. The thought of burning my hands scares me, but I can understand the fascination of watching a blacksmith at work.”

Primal reactions are overcome by curiousity, distraction, knowledge, or any combination thereof.

That’s all there is to it for most people. We are so disconnected from nature that we have lost the knowledge of living with the aliens among us. We confuse bees and wasps and hover flies to the extent that in the public consciousness, they are all bees and they all sting. Our fear of pain is so exaggerated that huge numbers of people get prescriptions for epi-pens on the off-chance that they might encounter a bee. The reality is that we are more likely to be killed by a person than a bee.

Who’s Who?

First, we had better sort out who is who. Look closely: the good guys wear white hats….no, not really. Besides, they’re nearly all girls.

Bees are usually furry, with rounded bodies. Their body sections are closely connected and some are fuzzy enough that they appear to have a football-like shape. The ones we are most aware of are yellow or amber to buff coloured and usually have black bands and sometimes orange markings on their abdomens. They also come in stunning decorator colours: cobalt blue, emerald green and golden brown. They are generally very docile.

Wasps and hornets are smooth shiny, and have distinct body sections. Their armour plates are usually black with white or yellow stripes. They fly quickly and the most noticeable characteristic is that their back legs trail out behind them in flight. They can be quite aggressive.

Hover flies are of a whole other order–they aren’t like bees or wasps, they can’t sting, but their colour schemes are similar to that of wasps. They have large compound eyes and as their name suggests, they frequently hover for several seconds at a time, something bees and wasps are not able to do for long. If you watch them for even a few seconds, the edgy colours won’t fool you.


Did I say “aliens?” Yes, it’s an apt description, rather like the famous line from Star Trek: “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it.”

Bees are complicated.

They are cold-blooded, yet they need an internal temperature of around 35 degrees Celsius in order to function properly. They are individuals, yet they function as a group. They have gender, yet in reality they are clones rendered genderless by the pheromones of the Queen. This is more or less true of all bees, but I have to make a further distinction here–there’s more than one kind of bee.

The European Honey Bee was brought to North America by early settlers, and can be found wherever beekeepers have brought them. They aren’t the most effective pollinators, but as they are social creatures, their sheer numbers make up for any shortcomings. Their chief advantage is that they create products that humans value: unlike our native bees, the European Honey bee makes honey and wax. European Honey Bees are one of only half a dozen species that are commonly cultivated world wide for this unique ability.

Although we tend to think of other species in terms of individuals, honey bees function collectively–awareness of local environment, light and weather conditions, availability of forage, physical threats, health of the colony, presence of the queen–even immunity–are all collective. Truly, they are The Borg, but they aren’t evil, they are just very well connected.

Each bee is able to secrete pheromones that identify who they are, and in addition to other highly developed senses, they can communicate through touch and taste. Any sensory terms are of course rather arbitrary: sounds might be more of a touch, fragrance might be a colour. It is known that bees can see much of the spectrum the human eye can detect, but they can also see into the ultraviolet range–yet for all its differences to human senses, their visual acuity is so great that bees can recognize shapes (which is why bee keepers often paint their hives) and even recognize faces.

What About the Bee Stings?

If you have read this far, you’re probably expecting the juicy part. Sorry to keep you waiting. Okay, what about bee stings? Here’s what you really need to know. While wasps will sting almost at a whim, bees will only sting defensively. If you step on one, expect to be stung. If you frantically wave your hands over your head, expect top be stung. Remember that bees evolved alongside the flowers they serve, and the predators that threaten bees, not long thereafter. Bees are hardwired over millions of years to respond to threats millions of years old. If you were a bee, what would a bi-ped waving its arms over its head remind of? A bear, of course! Go figure.

Essentially, it comes down to the fact that honey bees have something to protect:

  1. their brood, essential to the continuity of the colony,
  2. honey and pollen stores which ensures that the colony has enough food,
  3. the queen, who is not absolutely essential, but while she is in command, she keeps thousands of workers happy and organized.
  4. Sure, the sight of a swarm is frightening, but when bees swarm, they are accompanying a queen who is not laying eggs. There is no brood or food to protect, and despite the alarming spectacle of a huge mass of bees, they are so gentle that you could stick your bare arm into the swarm and not be stung.

    What if you do get Stung?

    Remain calm. The immediate site is likely to be sore, red and itchy for a few hours, and may remain tender for a week. Whenever possible, remove the stinger with something sharp and flat–the edge of a credit card can work quite well. Preparations like “Afterbite” or calamine lotion may help. 10-15% of those sting will experience some discomfort for 5-7 days, and .5% of children may have an adverse reaction that requires medical attention. Carrying an epi-pen is a reasonable precaution if there is concern about a severe allergic reaction (anahylaxis). Up to 3% of adults may have life-threatening reactions.

    How can you prevent bee stings? If you know you are likely to come in contact with bees, don’t wear perfumes and scents. Wear light colours or dull colours but avoid floral patterns. Always wear shoes outside.

    Bee Aware:

    The more aware we can become of bees, the better for the bees and the better for us. Bees of all kinds are being threatened by a whole host of human activities. Our use of pesticides and modern agricultural methods has made the countryside a hostile environment to the extent that the salvation of the honey bee (and ultimately all bees) is to be found in urban areas. If bees are to survive, we must be ready to share our backyards with them. Their survival is profoundly connected to ours: Einstein is said to have predicted that if the bees become extinct, humans may only have four or five years before facing extinction themselves.

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