By: Michael Krummel
The Smell, The Look, The Taste?
Why do I keep bees? Why do you keep bees? Despite the apparent simplicity of the question, it is an interesting question not often given much thought. The reasons, it turns out, are as many and varied as are beekeeper’s solutions to a problem.
Is it to “save” the bees from extinction, a noble gesture but of questionable impact if only a hive or two. Maybe we keep bees to protect the bees from man (my painful and swollen experiences say they can protect themselves much better than I can!). Maybe we are working to protect them from the environmental issues (is that easier than working to improve the environment so it is not a danger to the bees?). From a psychological perspective we know humans, as a specie, aren’t big on maternalism, but score high in protectionism; is it their tiny size but large work ethic that make us want to protect them? I’ve heard many reasons about why people keep bees but I seldom hear the words “fun” and/or “educate kids” in a response to the question, so why do we keep bees?
Do we keep bees because of the sensory – smell, sight, hearing, touch, & taste – pleasure they give? Maybe it’s the smell of a healthy beehive? A healthy hive has been described as smelling like “round like cotton and nebulous like sea foam” (Honey Bee Suite, 2018). Most would agree it is earthy, warm and complex, but well-loved by beekeepers. We know it is a combination of honey, pollen, wax, propolis, pheromones, different amino acids, and life. A non-beekeeper may not understand what they are smelling – may not even like the smell – but it is comforting and distinctive to those that are keepers of bees.
Surely we keep bees (or do they keep us….?) because we can see their growth in the hive: the fast Spring growth and pure whiteness of new comb, the whole “business and size” of the colony, watching them fill the comb with honey, the new growth in the form of eggs, larvae and pupae that “we” managed, or maybe it’s the delight in a successful “Where’s Waldo” search for the queen. Oh, and don’t forget that to a beekeeper every bee around the homestead is “our” bee on “our” flowers in “our” yard. Maybe we keep bees because we enjoy seeing the “ownership” we have? Maybe we vicariously “share” the rewarding production outcomes of our busy little bees with their perfect work ethic?
What about the “touch” of beekeeping? Could it be the reason why we choose to be beekeepers? It might be the heft of a full honey super, or the weight of a comb full of honey, especially when compared to the almost no-weight of an empty frame or bar when we put it into the hive. Could it be the tickling of a bee walking across our skin, or the prickly weight of a living bee-beard? I’m sure it isn’t the hot pain felt from a sting, but it too is part of beekeeping.
Might we keep bees because of how we feel when embraced by the sound of the hive, the steady buzz that we can almost feel in our bones? This is very different from the higher pitch of a flying worker bee (250 Hz) (Hord & Shook, nd), which tends to make people automatically duck and look around in concern or fear. According to Dr. Chang at the University of Colorado School of Music, the sound from a healthy hive is an “E3 about 165 Hz with a variance that goes down a perfect fourth and up around a half step.” Huh? What this means is 165 Hz is the average tone of a healthy beehive (it is the E below middle C), and has a variance between 124 Hz (B below middle C) and 175 Hz (F above middle C) (Solheim, 2018). From another perspective, it’s basically the lower frequency range of an average adult woman’s voice (165-255 Hz), so maybe it’s a maternal comfort we feel when we hear that tone. Or, from even another perspective, at that frequency (165 Hz), if it was a drum or otherwise pulsed, it can affect our coordination and we would feel the urge to dance or otherwise move to it (Tomatis, 2005). Whether maternal or the desire to find rhythm, for beekeepers it is a comforting sound. Even non-beekeepers seem to like it, once it is explained to them what they are hearing.
We can’t forget to consider the “taste” of beekeeping as a potential reason for keeping bees. Taste, one of our chemical-based senses, happens in the mouth (unlike smell, which happens in the brain). Our taste buds are DNA-coded to recognize the five taste categories, and sweetness (think sugar – our brain alone consumes a quarter pound of it a day as energy) is an important one (Gritzer, D., 2018). With the close relationship between smell and taste, add honey to the mix and we have a sweet reason to keep bees. Honey, being a little denser than sugar, tastes sweeter than sugar due to the fructose not being bound to the sucrose (Dreifke, 2018). We know honey can be floral, smoky, woody, spicy, nutty or earthy; fresh like grass or as pungent as aged cheese, a flavor for everyone. The end result of beekeeping usually culminates in a taste of honey, making it worth all the work and waiting involved by both bees and beekeepers to get there. Is that delicious sweetness enough to warrant the cost and efforts of beekeeping? It very well might be, it sure is for me.
Why do commercial beekeepers keep bees? They have to love it to do it. Commercial beekeepers probably see beekeeping as a job and a source of income, but maybe their beekeeping started because of a romantic encounter, or started because they like growing things, maybe because their work equates to food on our tables, or even because they can meet the best of people as they travel with their bees. They believe they know why they keep bees, but might it also be because of the same sensory connections we make with our bees? I think so.
Why am I a Keeper of Bees? – I started out of curiosity and the science of it. However, I quickly became enamored with all of the sensory (or sensual) aspects I discovered as I spent time with my hives. The taste of honey is wonderful and always changing, but the other senses soon competed for attention. The smell of my hands after working in a hive, wearing a bee-beard for the first time, the lulling drone of a healthy hive, and the sight of a healthy, growing hive because I provided them a safe place and they took advantage of it. My world of sensory perceptions would be poorer without me and the bees keeping each other.
Different reasons for different people. So why do you keep bees?
Dreifke, S. (2018). Food myths debunked: Honey is better than white sugar because its natural. Retrieved 06/12/2018 from https://www.fitday.com/fitness-articles/nutrition/healthy-eating/food-myths-debunked-honey-is-better-than-white-sugar-because-it-is-natural.html
Gritzer, D. (2018). Flavor science: How we taste sweet, sour, salty, and more. Retrieved 06/12/2018 from https://www.seriouseats.com/2016/07/how-do-we-taste-salt-sour-acid-sweet-bitter-flavor.html
Hord, L. & Shook, E. (nd). Determining Honey Bee behaviors from audio analysis. Boone, NC: Appalachian State University Press
Solheim, V. (2018). The Beehive effect: Spiritual healing in the field. HoneyColony.
Tomatis,. A. A. (2005). The ear and the voice. ISBN 978-0-8108-5137-5.