A woman in a desolate corner of North Macedonia claimed to be the last wild beekeeper in Europe made a splash at the Oscars. Her story told in Honeyland took three years to produce on a slim budget and was never expected to win acclaim. I rate movies by how long they stay in my head. Five minutes? Five hours? This time it was still ringing the next day. I recommend watching it.
In the first scene we watch Hatidze Muratova, a vigorous woman of about 50 years old and ethnically Turkic, climbing a rocky precipice to check a bee colony. She removes a covering stone with bare hands to reveal a yellow honeycomb covered with bees. The insects would normally attack an intruder, but not her.
Her life in a deserted village was a spartan existence in a stone shack. It might have been otherwise for the able and intelligent woman, but her father forbade marriage because the youngest daughter was expected to stay with aged parents at home. He had passed away and now she cared for a bedridden mother (who dies). A hard tradition, but Hatidze was happy and obviously sociable at the Skopje market where she bartered jars of honey.
When a family of nomads turned up with a herd of cattle to settle among the ruins of the village, the story moves from the tenderness of home to a tense relationship with new neighbors. They are poor but their lives are more turbulent from poor decisions. Since Hatidze made her living from beekeeping, they hoped to make more income by building an apiary. Later in the season when honeycomb should be saved for the bees in winter they harvested all the honey, forcing their starving bees raid Hatidze’s hives.
She was friendly with one of the sons, teaching him the art of beekeeping. Her philosophy was to take half the honey for herself and leave the rest for them. The boy took the message home, but his father didn’t listen.
This is not just the story of a fascinating character struggling to manage relationships. It was her elementary philosophy that stayed in my head—take half and leave half. It’s a fine mantra for earth care.
For countless thousands of years humans had a negligible impact on earth. Our numbers were low and technology was primitive. The lives of hunter gatherers were probably short, but they lived sustainably. Neolithic people gave up nomadism for settlements where they grew crops and grazed animals. These were more prosperous times but living closer to each other and to their animals promoted disease, theft and a social hierarchy. Choices require trade-offs.
Settlement meant the ability to store harvests and accumulate wealth, so greed and excess are corollaries. Not satisfied with sufficiency, forests are chopped down, sea-beds scraped by trawlers and valuable ore mined to exhaustion for maximum profit regardless of the interests of future generations. The beekeeper of Bekirlija leads a wiser life that seems no less happy for not being conventionally rich.
Bee stings … an occupational hazard for beekeepers. The price paid for hosting hives and stealing their honey. I score about three hits per season, and they are generally deserved from carelessly zipping my beesuit. But honey bee stings don’t give the biggest punch: that dubious honor is held by the tarantula hawk and the bullet ant, each scoring 4 out of 4 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.
Dr. Justin Schmidt is a doughty entomologist at the University of Arizona (The Sting of the Wild). Over a career he has invited stings from every hymenopteran species he encountered. He gave a score of only 1 to some ants and small bees whose stings didn’t hurt much or for long. Most honeybee varieties scored 2, which I can report gets my attention. Red paper wasps and velvet ants were at 3. Few species reached the top of the range – a blinding pain that feels extreme/ excruciating/ electric – and yet the pain from a ¼” tarantula hawk sting is long over (if not forgotten) before a honeybee’s sting has started to fade. Why the difference? Why do some insect stings give crippling pain while others are as mild as pressing a pencil tip on the skin, and many fierce-looking bugs don’t or can’t sting? Nature presents many conundrums, but this isn’t one of them because stinging makes sense in biology.
The hawks lay their eggs inside tarantulas which are eaten alive after their larvae hatch. They rarely sting us unless we try really hard to annoy them, as Dr. Schmidt must have done to obtain “data”. Why should they shoot their big gun when we don’t normally threaten them? As solitary wasps they have no “home” to protect. The mud-dauber wasps are also solitary, often making a tubular nest of dried mud on the sidings of our home. Schmidt tried very hard to get them to sting him, and when one was sufficiently enraged it hardly hurt.
Honey bees and yellow jackets, on the other hand, are colony dwellers that store food during warm seasons to support them with their queen through the winter in readiness for a burst of foraging and reproduction in early spring. Their honeycomb must be defended at all costs, which they do aggressively whenever a beekeeper inspects his/ her hives. But honey bees rarely sting while they are feeding in a garden or meadow unless you trap them between your toes, etc.
During the hot Virginia summer large numbers of bees gather at the side of our pool to take water back to their hive for air-conditioning. I can impress visitors by nonchalantly wading through a buzzing cloud, trusting they won’t sting me clad only in swimming trunks. For the same reason that they are relatively docile away from their food store, a swarm of bees that is emigrating to create a new colony is quite passive, even though it may look terrifying. But there is a different explanation for the old trick of circus performers who dared to pour bees into their mouths – by carefully selecting drones they can’t be stung.
Queen bees possess a sting, but they leave hive defense to workers and reserve their swords for dispatching rival queens. There is another difference between them. Queens can sting repeatedly, whereas it is a death sentence for workers because their anatomy requires stings to be ejected with some of the viscera.
Human sensibilities might deem their sacrifice altruistic for defending the hive’s socialist society, but surely natural selection could have evolved a superior warrior bee that can sting and survive, just as many other species can and do? Perhaps the explanation is that death is required for the release of a special pheromone for attracting other bees to escalate attacking a threat. This pheromone is a mixture of volatile fatty acids said to smell like bananas, and beekeepers lightly smoke their hives to pacify bees by masking the scent. I can hardly blame them for being angry, and in a feminist poem Sylvia Plath sympathized with female workers whose bounty is stolen by (male) beekeepers:
One of the scariest encounters you might have on a hiking trail in the South-West is with a mountain lion, but I would rather take my chances with the big cat than with a swarm of Africanized bees (aka killer bees). They are spreading north in states from Texas to California. A young man died this summer after a bee attack, as have several dogs and even horses. Africanized bees can’t be outrun, wait for you to come up for air if you jump in a pool, and can’t be fought off except with fire. They don’t have a more painful sting but are more aggressive – much, much more aggressive.
The victim wasn’t reported to be allergic, but the thousand stings on his body exceeded the lethal dose for bee venom. The major active agent in venom is an acidic peptide, melittin, which has anti-inflammatory properties and is probably responsible for its long-supposed medicinal value in the Orient. So there may be virtue in it, even while we try to avoid stings or carry an EpiPen as a precaution.
There is an outsized fear of being stung that beekeepers have to shrug off. But, apart from the 30 minutes of pain, let’s put a perspective on the big risk – of dying from bee stings.
According to CDC statistics for human mortality from wild and domesticated animals for the fifteen years to 2014, 486 people died from dog attacks, 1,163 from other mammals (mostly cattle and horses), 9 from crocodilians, about 15 from black bears and only one from a mountain lion. But 921 people died after being stung by bees, wasps or hornets, although most of them are thought to have been allergic to the venom. This is not a huge risk compared to others we face, and it is one that I dare say beekeepers hardly think about, but if we could compare the total number of attacks from all these species, combining non-fatal and fatal ones, I am sure bee stings would soar above all. And what do all these figures reveal – that we put ourselves most at risk not from ferocious wild carnivores but from the creatures we choose to live with or steal from.
Next Post: Cruise to Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay
Question: When is a beehive hairy? Answer: When it grows a beard.
A poor joke but it helps to kick-start a post about heating and air-conditioning.
For most of the year, worker bees struggle to maintain the brood chamber in the 90 degree Fahrenheit range (32-35°C) needed for larvae and pupae to thrive in the comb. “Heater bees” keep the hive warm by vibrating their body and wings, which needs energy from honey delivered by other workers. In cold winters, the queen bee stops laying eggs and the hive switches to survival mode by clustering around her in a tight ball to avoid freezing to death. If a tele-thermometer is inserted deep inside the brood chamber you can monitor bee hive breeding activity because the temperature rises to a stable level when she starts laying again in milder weather.
Recent hot weather in the Virginia Peninsular posed the opposite challenge – heat stress. Daytime temperatures peak around 100° (38°C) and the nights stay warm. At such times the brood can perish and their wax cells soften and start to melt. Beekeepers help their colonies to get through the ordeal in July and August by painting their hives white and propping open the top outer cover to encourage a flow of air, but the workers carry a larger share of the effort to keep cool.
If you see lots of bees collecting water from puddles or swimming pools you know they are hot. So intent are they that it’s hard to discourage the industry, but human swimmers have little to fear because they are rarely aggressive except when defending their hive (who can blame them?). They regurgitate water brought home, which evaporates more quickly in the draft created by “cooler bees” lining up to beat their wings near the entrance. Yet another amazing fact about bees.
And bearding? I haven’t seen it in daytime, but when foragers come home after a hot day many of them stay at the hive entrance instead of going inside. It reduces the heat load on the brood. This behavior startled me the first time I shone a flashlight on a hive after dark. The crush of bees climbing over each other in slow motion had avoided taking their heat
inside. They looked like a goatee, and the fuzz of brown hair on thousands of heads and thoraxes can fairly be called a beard. Docile and hard to provoke, they ignore nosy neighbors like me who wonder what is going on in their collective brain. I think they are like old geezers I know who love sitting on their porch with a cold beer on a sultry night.