A friend saw me scoop a struggling honeybee out of a puddle and set it on a branch to dry. “It’s a bug, you know.”
The implication being, of course, that this particular bee is just one of countless identical organisms with no volition, no personality, nothing to make it worth the trouble to save.
Comments like that make me want to slap the speaker. Or drink a lot of wine. Sometimes both. But as neither of those responses generally converts anyone into a bee-saver, I’ve armed myself with seven facts about honeybees that just might make them treat these banded wonders with a little more respect.
1) Honeybees have human facial recognition. Think about that for a minute. I do not have honeybee facial recognition. I love them, but I cannot tell Maryanne from Martha. But honeybees recognize the people who regularly visit their home and disrupt things as we beekeepers must. They are calmer with us than with strangers, which is handy if you do not like being stung. But if you tick one off, it will remember your face. So the next time you’re convinced that a bee has singled you out for harassment, you’re probably right.
2) Bees are better at geography than you are. A foraging honeybee may travel 5 miles away from the hive in search of the sweet stuff. On that trip, she will likely meander from one flower patch to another, possibly many times. But once her pollen pockets are full, she flies a straight line back to the hive—a beeline, if you will. No GPS, no Google Maps, just her internal compass to steer her back home. I still get lost in Riverhead.
3) A recent study at London’s Queen Mary University found that honeybees can solve fairly complex problems in pursuit of a sweet reward. Bees were placed on a sheet of plexiglass, under which an artificial flower harbored a small pool of sugar water in its center. The flower was not directly accessible, but the bees could see it and smell the treat. A string extended from the flower to outside of the plexiglass cover. Most of the bees tested figured out how to pull on the string to get the flower out so they could drink the sugar water. And not only did they figure it out, but when those bees were returned to their colony, they taught their sisters how to get to the reward too. Let’s see your cat do that.
4) Bees communicate with symbolism. After finding a good nectar source, a honeybee will fly back home and do the waggle dance, a complex series of moves she uses to tell her hive-mates how to get to the treasure trove. The waggle dance takes place on a vertical landing area near the hive entrance where foragers coming and going will see it. The dancing bee will waggle in figure eights while her sisters gather around to get the news. The longer she dances, the farther away the nectar source. But not in a general way. Every 75 milliseconds she dances adds 300 feet to the map she’s drawing for her sisters. The more energetic the dance, the richer the nectar source. And—this is the coolest part—the angle of her dance, in relation to an imaginary straight line running from the dance floor to the sun’s current position, tells the other bees what direction to travel. So if the flowers are 15 degrees to the left of that imaginary line, the angle of her dance will be 15 degrees left of vertical.
5) Bees like a morning jolt of caffeine just as much as you do. Now, this may come as a shock, but Starbucks did not invent caffeine. Caffeine occurs naturally in flowers, where it works to drive off harmful insects and lure in pollinators, like the honeybee. Given a choice between two identical feeding stations—one where the sugar water is spiked with caffeine and one where it’s just sugar water—bees will not only prefer the full-caf, but they will be more energetic than bees that sip only the decaf.
6) Bees can do complex spatial calculations. A classic math problem, called the “traveling salesman problem,” is a tough one even for computers to solve. The premise is that a traveling salesman has six stores to visit, and needs to do so as efficiently as possible, despite the stores being geographically scattered. Substitute a bee for the salesman and flowers for the stores. Bees quickly learn to fly the shortest possible distance needed to reach all six flowers, even if they first found the flowers in a different order. As bees literally work themselves to death flying 500 miles in the last two to three weeks of their lives, every hundred-yard-dash they can save makes a difference. Oh, and they figure it out with a brain the size of a sesame seed.
7) Bees can count, at least up to four. Researchers at the Australian National University trained honeybees to walk past a set number of colored stripes in a tunnel to get a food reward, which was placed next to one of the stripes. When the food was removed, the bees still returned to the same spot. Then it got interesting. The researchers varied the spacing of the stripes, and then switched out the stripes for other kinds of markers. The bees were steadfast in passing the same number of markers as before to get to the spot where they had found treats previously.