The buzz about bees has been bountiful since, geez, the dawn of civilization. Or at least ever since the first striped critter buzzed by any sort of prehistoric thinker.
In ancient times, prevailing wisdom had it that bees were the only creatures who survived unchanged from the Garden of Eden.
Pliny the Elder, writing of honey in ancient Rome, penned this: "Whether this is the perspiration of the sky or a sort of saliva of the stars, nevertheless it brings with it the greatest pleasure of its heavenly nature. It is always of the best quality when it is stored in the best flowers."
The poet Virgil wondered if some "portion of the divine mind" might be found in bees, or if the old buzzers were immortal souls, winging around with a return ticket to their celestial homes. Or, perhaps, messengers of the gods dispatched to show us how to live: in sweetness and in beauty and in peaceful harmony.
All in all, as Candace Savage writes in her charmer of a book, "Bees: Nature's Little Wonders" (Greystone, $26), "it's not a bad rep for a bunch of stinging insects."
Perhaps, then, we would be wise to turn our attention to all the striped fellows buzzing through our gardens, ferret out who's friend or who's foe. Figure out how to cozy up to these divine messengers. And indulge in sweet spoonfuls of bee lore, legend, fact and just plain frivolity.
Here then, a primer on all the buzzers you should know. (With a swarm of bee puns.)
Let's begin with the basics: Not every stripy thing that stings is a bee. They're wrongly blamed, nearly every time, says bee defender Susan Brackney, author of "Plan Bee: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Hardest Working Creatures on the Planet" (Perigree, $21.95). But heck, with all that the buzzing brigade brings to the garden, you might want to put up the welcome flag for the whole Hymenoptera order (that would be the bees and wasps and all their biwinged cousins). There's pollination, of course, that knack they have for brushing up against the flowers' reproductive parts and making gardens oh-so-fruitful. And, according to evolutionary biologist Alan Molumby, wasps especially do heavy lifting when it comes to gobbling garden pests. Yellow jackets and paper wasps are chowhounds whenever caterpillar and beetle larvae are on the menu.
A Who's Who to help you sort it all out:
What: The telltale sign here is the fuzzy backside. Honeybees come in a range of colors, not strictly black-and-yellow striped.
Where: Dwell merrily in a hive that's anywhere from two to five miles from your garden. Stick exclusively to the garden. Have no nose for sweets of any other kind (unlike pesky yellow jackets, see below). Might live in old wood, under the eaves of a house. Prefer vertical dwellings. Won't live underground.
You need to know: There are some 4,000 different kinds of bees. Honeybees are not native to America, and usually fall into two types, the laid-back Italian (a golden-hued bee) or more aggressive German (a blacker bee).
It will only hurt you if you squeeze it while weeding or messing around with your plants. Once a honeybee stings you, it'll die — so it's not so interested in premature death and hardly inclined to sting unless out of desperation. Unlike other stingers, there's a barb on the end of the honeybee's stinger. It gets stuck beneath your skin and literally pulls off the stinger from the poor bee.
If you do get stung, try to scrape off the stinger (your fingernail or a matchbook cover do the job); don't squeeze it or you'll just be adding to the slow-burning venom that makes it hurt so much. An ice cube to the site should help dull the pain. (And maybe a spoonful of honey will sweeten the not-so-sweet moment.)
Gardener's note: Happy to work right alongside you, as you toil in the beds. But because they're attracted to floral scents, don't wear perfume or flowery lotion while you garden. All in all, a rather Zen-like critter.
"Beesides," not only do they churn out honey by the pounds, these sweet things are essential for the pollination of apples, oranges, almonds, blueberries and more than 90 other crops. A world without honeybees is an empty world, indeed.
(Bombus bimaculatus, just one of the North American species)
What: This is the fat fuzzy fellow, slowly making its way through your garden. Think Goodyear blimp in striped pajamas.
Where: An original cavity-dweller, bumblebees build nests in tucked-away places, say, under the eaves of your house. Should you care to make a bumblebee bungalow, half-bury an upside-down flower pot or teapot. The bumblebees, according to Indiana beekeeper Brackney, will merrily fly in and out, through the spout or drain hole.
You need to know: A gentle soul, for certain. Has no interest in bothering you, as long as you leave it alone. Happy to help you pollinate your garden. In fact, folks put them to work for just such purposes in commercial greenhouses.
Psst: Although the carpenter bee is often confused with the bumble, it's the carpenters that bore holes in houses — so, please, don't accuse the bumble of such "mis-beehavior."
What: Shiny, bright yellow and black.
Where: Often, nest right in the ground. Scavenges around garbage cans, soda straws, your picnic. Not so interested in your perfumey flowers.
You need to know: This is the nastiest buzzing fellow around. A real bully. Technically, a wasp. According to its defenders, the yellow jacket won't sting unprovoked. But it doesn't take much to stir its wrath. And because there's no barb on the stinger, entomologists warn, it can sting and sting and sting. Get the point?
Wasps (Dolichovespa maculata, among the meanest)
What: Often the biggest of the buzzing bunch, they fly with legs down, as if a war plane approaching the airfield.
Where: Often live in papery-looking hives of their own construction. Paper wasps tend to live in domes. Bald-faced hornets build nests, often in trees.
You need to know: These dudes can be mean and aggressive. "That's why you see so many sports teams named after wasps and hornets," says Laura Andersen, a beekeeper at Garfield Farm Museum in La Fox, Ill.
What: Littlest one of the buzzers, anywhere from a quarter- to a half-inch. It's got stripes (though sometimes they're hard to see), is rather iridescent and has quite a taste for salt.
Where: Ground-seeking bees, they build nests in dried-out neglected patches of soil; you might even find them hovering over a sun-baked swatch of dirt in the median of a parking lot.
You need to know: There is hubbub in the hives over whether this is really a bee at all. Quite simply, it is. They are not out to stir trouble, but you might get a pinch if, for instance, you slap one of these wee bees as you feel a little something up near your garden hat, or kneel down and crush one who's been slurping the sweat behind your knees. More of a pinch than an out-and-out sting. On the Schmidt Pain Index they score a 1.0, meaning they're practically painless.
Bees by the numbers
Number of bees in a flourishing hive: 60,000 to 100,000
It takes 4 pounds of nectar to produce 1 pound of honey.
On average, it takes about a dozen bees to gather enough nectar for 1 teaspoon of honey.
Each of these bees must visit more than 2,600 flowers. And all these flights back and forth to the hive add up to 850 miles.
It takes 8 pounds of nectar to make 1 pound of beeswax.
Source: Susan Brackney's "Plan Bee"
Books worth a buzz
"Plan Bee: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Hardest-Working Creatures on the Planet" (Perigee Trade Paperback, $13.95) by Susan Brackney. You'll laugh out loud at parts.
"Bees: Nature's Little Wonders" (Greystone, $28) by Candace Savage. The charming vintage illustrations are worth the price of admission. This one's rich in poetry and lore, and apicultural history by the tablespoon.
"A Book of Bees … and How to Keep Them" (Houghton Mifflin, $12) by Sue Hubbell. The book to make you fall in love with beekeeping — and bees. If delicious writing sets you swooning, this tale's for you.
— Barbara Mahany
A few bee facts to tuck in your bonnet
Bees are blind to the red part of the color spectrum.
Bees have two sets of wings, and all six of the worker bee's legs have suction-cuplike pads and tiny claws. The better to dangle every which way from your garden jungle gym.
One of the earliest bees on record: Primitive rock-painting near Valencia, Spain, one dating to 7000 B.C., depicts a man gathering honey from bees.
Beekeeping has been called "farming for intellectuals," according to beekeeper and writer Sue Hubbell, who goes on to tell us that early thinkers from Aristotle to Columella, a Roman agriculture writer, waxed eloquently about the creatures of the hive.
— B.M.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun