“Bees have so much to offer us if we only listen.” – Jay Ebben from Painted Hives

After checking weekly and waiting, admittedly not-so-patiently, on the arrival of the new bee colony, I was thrilled when WonderLab welcomed the new bee colony into the gallery and WonderGarden. Before this experience, I had no idea how a bee colony would be installed into the hollow space fashioned to look like a tree trunk that I had been checking for weeks. 

When I approached the first thing I noticed was a faint, whisper-like buzz coming from the tree. Muffled by the sound of children laughing and summoning their parents, I paid close attention to that sound and chose to listen to the hum of the bees.   

The Stepping Stones to Pheromones  

Inside the hive, I noticed a white box with a tube at one end placed there by Sam Couch, WonderLab’s animal exhibits manager. Curious, I asked Sam about the box and its purpose. 

“It’s a sugar box. That is how you introduce the queen into the hive,” Sam said. I learned later from Sam and Gabrielle Gilbert, one of WonderLab’s animal care interns, that the queen bee is larger than the other bees in the colony. At WonderLab, she also has a yellow dot placed on her back, so that she is easy to locate. 

The queen bee releases a chemical substance that is used to change the behavior and development of the other bees in the colony called pheromones. Pheromones are a foundation in many species’ lives. Not only do animals use pheromones to communicate, they also use them to reproduce, survive, check in on each other’s well-being and establish territorial boundaries. Bees use pheromones in almost every aspect of their lives in a colony and outside of it. 

According to Sam, the sugar box is used as a tool to introduce the queen to the new colony. The tube attached to the box is full of sugar that the worker bees must eat away in order to release the queen. This allows the bees to grow accustomed to the queen’s unique smell (pheromones) at a slow pace. 

If the queen were introduced to the hive quickly and her scent was revealed all at once, the worker bees would likely attack. In the WonderLab colony, it took a little over 24 hours for the workers bees to free their queen from her sweet confines.     

No Bee Left Behind 

Something I found particularly interesting about the new bee colony was the loss of some of the bees when the queen was installed. Many of the bees flew away from the hive while it was still outside before its installation inside the museum. 

Being the sentimental person that I am, I worried that those bees had lost all ties to their family and their home. “How would they know where to find their new home?” “What if they can’t find their way back to the hive?” “Will they die out on their own without the queen and the colony?” I had so many burning questions about these stray bees. 

All of my worries were put to ease when I learned that after the installation of the hive, the box the bees came in was hung close to the new hive so the straggling bees could find their way to their new home, the WonderLab Bee Hive. Blood may be thicker than water, but honey is thicker than blood.  

The Stinging Truth  

I have always been interested in bees. Maybe this is because I had always been told to avoid them so that my child’s feet would not accidentally threaten the life of a stinging bee. It makes sense to me why someone would be afraid of bees, but it amazes me that something so tiny and essential could strike such paralyzing fear in some people.  

Growing up, my father never liked bees, in fact, he was rather afraid of them. He would go out of his way to avoid any interaction. I have witnessed him willingly jump off ladders for the fear of getting stung. 

However, honey bees usually are not aggressive unless they, or their hive, become threatened or they are swarming (which is the phenomenon of the queen and many of the workers leaving the hive to find a new place to live. This occurs when the hive outgrows its current home). When a honey bee does sting, it can release a pheromone that will attract nearby bees to join in the attack turning one sting into hundreds in seconds. As a general rule, bees are important, so be sure to make sure bees never feel threatened or attacked.  

It is frequently mentioned that bees will die after stinging. This is true. When bees sting, they do not only leave behind their stinger in their victim, but also portions of their abdomen, digestive tract, muscle and nerves. For a bee, these injuries are too large and significant to survive. As a result, bees will die after stinging. This is why bees do not WANT to sting humans. It is far worse for them than us.  

The Wonder of the Bees

Bees are a wonder in the world of insects.They are essential to the survival of every creature, including mankind. Yes, honey is nice to add to your coffee or bread, but bees are much more than honey.

For humans, honey bees are an essential part of the food chain. Bees work through a process called pollination where they transfer pollen in order to fertilize plants. This contribution allows all animals, including humans, to eat vegetables and fruit. For those of us who enjoy meat as well, bees pollinate the plants that feed those animals. According to GreenPeace, you have a bee to thank for every 3 bites of food you consume. 

The Bees are in Danger 

Bees are disappearing at a shocking rate. According to Real Food for Life, from April 2016 to April 2017, 33 percent of United States bee colonies have died. This poses a threat to all living things. 

 “The Life of the Bee,” Maurice Maeterlinck wrote: “If the bee disappeared off the face of the earth, man would only have four years left to live.”

 This vast vanishing epidemic is due to things such as pesticides, parasites, disease and habitat loss. A chemical called glyphosate is used in many weed killers for plants in gardens. This chemical is gathered when bees gather pollen from infected plants and return to their hive spreading the pesticide and ultimately killing the colony. Another cause is the Varroa Destructor, also known as the vampire mite. This mite feeds off the blood of bees exposing them to illness, disease and eventually death. There is also a phenomenon referred to as “colony collapse disorder.” This occurs when the majority of the worker bees die off leaving behind the queen and nurse bees in the colony. Luckily, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, this phenomenon, having once been a major threat, has declined significantly in the past five years. One problem that is not improving, however, is an infestation of Small Hive Beetles. This is an issue that collapsed the WonderLab hive in 2018. These beetles lay eggs in with the bee larvae.  When the beetles hatch, the larvae eat all of the honey and its comb. On July 29, 2019 hive beetles were seen in the exhibit hive, fortunately, like bees in any other healthy hive, the WonderLab bees are fighting them off. Bees fight hive beetles by backing them into a corner and keeping a few bees standing guard 24/7. The bees guard the beetles until the beetles starve and die. The WonderLab hive has been doing a fabulous job of this. 

Save the Bees 

Protecting the bees has never been more of a necessity.  There are small things that each of us can do to help. Plant bee friendly plants such as lavender, honeysuckle, or crocus. Create habitat space by building homes for bees to live in. Visit Friends of the Earth to find out how you can build your own “bee hotel.”  Be careful about the pesticides and avoid products with glyphosate.  

There are many more ways we can help the bees. To learn more, visit https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/sustainable-agriculture/save-the-bees/. Or visit the Bee Cause and remember, 999 out of every 1,000 insects are beneficial or harmless. 

“According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way that a bee should be able to fly.Its wings are too small to get its fat, little body off the ground. The bee, of course, flies anyway. Because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.”–  The Bee Movie (2007) 

About the Author: Meredith Hardy is a WonderLab Writing and Content Development Intern. She graduated from Indiana Unversity in 2019 with a degree in in Media Advertising and specializing in Public Relations and Sex, Gender and Media. She has always been interested in the life of bees and is a supporter of the Save the Bees movement. Her hope is that people realize the necessity of bees; bees aren’t creatures to fear, they creatures to save from extinction.