The Culture of Bees

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Mona Chambers

Mona Chambers; photo courtesy Mona Chambers


Mona Chambers is a full-time biological technician at the US Department of Agriculture’s Bee Research Center. Chambers also keeps her own bees, and for this story, she is representing herself as an individual beekeeper.

Most of the time Mona Chambers keeps a beehive in her backyard, right under her bedroom window. “I like hearing the bees. And also it’s a pretty good deterrent.”

A beekeeper and bee researcher, Chambers reveres the insects as universal symbols of unity, community, and workable systems.

Part of that cooperation is evident every spring, when bees swarm.

The main reason bees swarm is to accommodate a colony that has become too large. They will choose a new queen and one half stays behind, while the other half takes the old queen and finds a new home.

Swarms consist of female worker bees, some male drones, and the old queen. They usually stay in one place for a few days or just a few hours, Chambers says.

Beekeepers consider it lucky to find a swarm. “Because you can hive a swarm — that means capture it put it into your equipment,” Chambers says. “They’ll either stay or they won’t. So there’s not really this concept about keeping something against its will.”

While people are often afraid of swarms, Chambers points out, “When they swarm, they are very vulnerable. They have no resources, no brood or food — it’s just their mass. They just want to stay out of harm’s way.”

Sometimes a whole colony will leave a hive to search for one with more ample resources. This is sometimes mistaken as swarming, but is known as “absconding,” Chambers says.

Powerful Pollinators

One of Chambers’ goals is to take the sting out of people’s perceptions of bees.

“People always think first about getting stung or about honey, but really it’s all about pollination,” she says. “Many people don’t realize that farmers hire beekeepers to pollinate their crops.”

California almonds, for example, rely heavily on that pollination. Other crops like citrus and clover also rely on beekeepers to ensure their populations.

“Bees don’t just randomly fly around orchards. There’s an entire industry of beekeepers moving from one state to the next following pollination,” she says.

Chambers admits that can be hard on the bees, but says bees are part of what feed this country. “One-third of the human diet is pollinated by bees.”

Bees survive on flowers and water. Nectar is their carbohydrate, and pollen is their protein. Gathering these resources is very particular kind of dance, Chambers explains.

“Bees have hairy bodies. They also have a static charge, so when they land on a flower the pollen sticks all over their body. The hairs on their legs are like a comb they use to comb all the pollen off their bodies and shove into what’s called a ‘pollen basket’ on their back legs,” Chambers says. “They’ll fly back to the hive and another bee helps them get it off and deposit into hive, and then they go out again for more.”

All the bees we see outside of a hive — the foragers — are older. “And they’re always female, too,” Chambers says. “The males are back at the hive, or fulfilling their main purpose to mate, which they do in the air.”


Honeybees; photo courtesy Mona Chambers


The Sweet Rewards

Springtime also means pollen season in the Sonoran Desert, and many plant varieties provide nectar and pollen for bees — mesquite, cat’s claw, desert wildflowers, and citrus are some examples. These result in honey for humans.

Mesquite usually has the most “nectar flow” Chambers says. But this year, colder-than-usual May temperatures might mean a lesser mesquite flow, since the blooms are not out with the same abundance as usual.

Chambers recommends buying honey directly from beekeepers or at farmer’s markets. Supermarket honey, she says, is pasteurized, and that process of high heat kills many of the beneficial properties in honey.

“Bees are revered as this magical creature all over the world,” Chambers says. Part of this is because they produce all kinds of products used by humans. “They make honey, which for a long time was the only source of sweetness we had. And wax, which we used for candles before electricity.”

Bees also have their own in-hive medicine, Chambers says. They produce propolis from tree sap, which they use as a glue. “They are very fastidious and clean. They like to seal things up. They won’t defecate in the hive, for instance. And if something gets in the hive, like, say a mouse, they’ll cover it in propolis, which is anti-bacterial and anti-viral.”

Propolis has also been used by humans for centuries as traditional medicine, Chambers says.

In addition to honey, wax, and propolis, bees also make alcoholic beverages, Chambers says. Fermented honey produces mead, which sometimes happens all by itself. “You could have a hive in a tree stump and rain gets in and it turns to alcohol. It’s older than beer, and there’s no need for humans to be involved.”

And when humans are involved in extraction, Chambers says, they can do it without harming the bees. “Beekeepers know that and they will never take more than they need. It’s a delicate relationship between beekeeper and their bees.”

Occupational Folklore of Beekeepers

Beekeeping is a specialized practice with a long tradition that’s been passed on from beekeeper to beekeeper. As with any traditional task, it has its own folklore — tools, language, beliefs.

The most common hive for both commercial and backyard beekeeping is called a Langstroth hive, Chambers says. This is the most recognizable portable beehive, patented in 1852. “Its wooden frames come out, making it easy to extract honey and replace the honeycomb without destroying it,” Chambers says.

Another form of hive is called a top-bar hive, which is a more stationary, single-story hive that uses a single bar rather than a four-sided frame to house the honeycomb. Top-bar hives are gaining popularity among small-scale or backyard beekeepers because they don’t require heavy lifting or an expensive honey extractor.

Beekeepers often use smoke when they are working with bees in order to keep the bees calm. The smoke suppresses an alarm pheromone, she explains. “If bees sense danger, an animal or a person, they send out alarm pheromone that puts all the other bees on high alert. The smoke masks that and keeps them calm.”

Smoke causes the bees to eat. “They think it’s a forest fire, so they stock up on resources so they can leave if they have to,” Chambers says.

Many beekeepers burn brush or untreated burlap and use a special bellows to distribute the smoke. But when Chambers was traveling in Serbia, she observed a beekeeper using a cigarette as a smoke source.

“He couldn’t believe I was also a beekeeper, especially because I’m a woman. He called a formal meeting in the backyard of all the local beekeepers — they were all men. I had to drink a lot of the local regional honey liquor.”

Beekeepers also use something called a hive tool to pry open the hive lid, usually sealed with wax and propolis. The Serbian beekeeper used a pocketknife, she says.

Easy Does It

Working with bees requires a body language that is slow and calm. Chambers views each bee as an individual, and she tries to be as gentle as possible. “If you squish a bee accidentally, that sends a pheromone to the rest,” she says.

Chambers says she enjoys the meditative aspect of working in a colony. “Some think it has to do with the frequency of their buzz, which is like the sound OHM. There’s this wonderful quietness. Bees doing their thing and you’re just observing them. They’re all working seamlessly.”

Observation is essential. “When you go into a hive, you have to look closely to discover aspects about a particular hive and its overall health,” she says.

Beekeeping also requires that you to pay attention to the seasons, as bees have different needs in the spring versus the winter. “A lot of it is trial and error,” Chambers says. “You learn by doing and observing. The science part of me likes that. But it’s also intuitive — you have to be able to assess the colony and know what’s going on, through experience.”

European Honeybees vs. Africanized Bees

There are nearly 1,000 species of bees in the Sonoran Desert, many of them solitary species. “There’s one native species here that looks like an iridescent green fly. It’s incredible,” Chambers says.

But most of the bees we see are honeybees, which were brought over by colonists and are now adapted to the New World. They are especially well acclimated to the desert, Chambers says.

The challenge with keeping bees in some states, including Arizona, is the presence of Africanized bees.

Africanized bees were brought to Brazil from Africa in the mid-1950s as part of research experiment. Researchers wanted to see if they could breed with European bees to become more climate-tolerant to southern tropical climate. The African bees were accidentally let out and mated with feral honeybee populations.

Africanized bees arrived in the U.S. in the late 1990s. They look the same as European honeybees and are great honey producers, Chambers says. They are less prone to disease, but tend to be more aggressive, she says.

“They can be scary to work with, it’s true,” Chambers says. “But some European bees can be really mean, too.”
Mostly, Africanized bees present a liability issue, she says. “There are regulations for keeping bees within city limits.

Pima County ordinances require residential beekeepers to notify and get permission from nearby agricultural producers. Additional ordinances require hives to be at least 30 feet from exterior lots.

Threats to the Honeybee

In the last decade or so, beekeepers across the country began noticing their bees were both dying and vanishing.   The phenomenon, now known as Colony Collapse Disorder, poses a threat to honeybee populations as well as to agriculture.

Chambers says the reasons for the decline are multi-faceted. “If it were just one thing, it would have been solved already.”

One main factor are Varroa mites, an invasive arachnid that looks like a tick and feeds on bees in their larval stage, Chambers says. The mites carry viruses and diseases, including “deformed wing virus,” which causes bees to be born with non-functioning wings.

“Their wings look like little sticks and they can’t fly, which means you have an entire colony that can’t feed themselves,” she says.

Pesticides are also a factor, along with poor nutrition, which is often the result of industrial agriculture. “Bees want a naturally diverse diet, so when farmers cut down everything but a single crops, it limits bees’ nutrition. One way to solve that is to let weeds like dandelions remain,” she says.

This is why bee-friendly gardens are also important. “They allow for more bee food and more variety,” she says.

Changing Lives

Paying attention to what’s threatening bees is critical, Chambers says, because the insects offer so much to humanity. Beyond bee products, she’s seen how simply working with hive can teach so many important lessons

Once, Chambers was doing an educational program for a group of teenagers, who were goofing around and making fun of the bee suits and how they looked, she says.

“The thing is the bees don’t give a _____ who you are, who you know, and what your deal is. I told them, ‘If you don’t pay attention they’ll sting you.’ I could sense their fear.”

The teens watched as Chambers handled the hive without gloves, which impressed them. And then it was their turn. “Their hearts melted. They turned into eight-year-olds. ‘Look, look, this bee is getting honey!’ and ‘I see a baby!’ It empowered them, because they overcame a fear.”

Chambers says working with bees with can change people’s lives. One of her dreams is to find ways to continue to bring beekeeping to marginalized populations such as youth, veterans, and prison inmates.

“Bees have ability to melt away the boundaries. Because of that fear we have for them, they require reverence.  Once you establish that relationship, they can teach you so much about their system and about the larger environment.”

Chambers says she’ll continue to keep a hive outside of her window and tend to beehives wherever she lives. “There’s a saying that once you start beekeeping, you’ll never stop,” Chambers says. “You can’t leave it. It gets in your soul.”


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