Posted by Ben Wroblewski
I’m pretty much terrified of anything that crawls with more than four legs. If it also bites, stings, flies, or even jumps, I usually plan to set everything within a 10-mile radius of it on fire, lest it survive anything less. The irony is not lost on me, then, that I’ve spent much of my junior year doing something that has become one of my favorite parts of my undergraduate career—handling honey bees.
To be sure, it was somewhat of an accident. In the fall of my junior year, I enrolled in a course offered here at the university called Honey Bee Biology. It’s one of those specialty classes everyone raves about, offered only once a semester for a maximum of 30 students, so it was nearly impossible to get in. For fun, I signed up on the waitlist, and somehow got in shortly before the semester began. What I didn’t realize was that part of the final grade was visiting the apiary (bee house) here on campus with the professor, inspecting a hive, and extracting honey. So, with my phobia of every living thing of the class Insecta, I was going to have to not only surround myself with more than 50,000 bees (you read that right)—but also break into their house and steal their food. Did you know that bees sting? Just thought I’d remind you in case you forgot.
So you can also understand my despair when, upon arriving at the apiary on the morning of my scheduled visit, I discovered we were only provided with a protective jacket that covered the head and torso. Expecting to go in with nothing less than a full hazmat suit, I began silently crying to myself and wondering what I had done for the universe to punish me like this. Confusingly however, Dr. Rippel (the course professor) showed no signs of apprehension, and in fact he even appeared playfully excited to go in and inspect. He started describing the different hives and their varying dispositions in the same way a proud parent talks about all their kids. I was baffled when we finally went over to the hives and Dr. Rippel didn’t even bother to put his veil on. Meanwhile, I wondered to myself if I should have told my parents I loved them before I died.
I can still remember that terrifying moment when Dr. Rippel pried the inner cover off the top of the green hive box and then suddenly… nothing. Don’t get me wrong, it was filled with bees as expected—thousands of them. But what I had expected to turn into something more like a gruesome scene out of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds ended up being far more mundane. We were able to lift frame after frame out of the hive and hold them right up to our faces, watching the fascinating activity buzzing about the surface of each comb as the entire colony worked in concerted effort to maintain the hive. I was surprised with just how calm everything was—how calm I was—as we made our way through the frames. I even started to think the bees and their little pulsating abdomens were cute. By the end, not only was I no longer petrified, I was actually enthralled. To top it all off, we took back a frame full of honeycomb, crushed it, strained it, bottled it, and got to go home with a fresh bottle of our own honey.
Fast-forward to this semester, and I’m now the Teaching Assistant (TA) for the course. On top of things like grading quizzes and passing out papers, I also get to go out frequently to the apiary with current students and teach them about brood patterns, queen cells, pollen foraging, and all the other down-right amazing things honey bees do. And I love every minute of it. I’ve learned so much about bees and their integral role in our society, and they’re constantly teaching me something new. When I someday get the time and space to devote to it, I’m sure I’ll raise my own honey bees too. Don’t be fooled though—with the exception of bees, if I ever see anything with a thorax in my apartment I’m still burning it down.