He's the bee's knees, mind your own beeswax, you're as busy as a bee, and there can only be one queen bee are all familiar phrases. Used to describe human behaviors, some are directly related to our friend the honeybee and others are just fun rhymes or a play on words from nearly a century ago or more. Whatever the reason, the honeybee is the source of inspiration, whose value is indisputable as seen in the last few weeks in a series of columns devoted to it, from swarming and typical honey produced in our county to its countless health, beauty, and agricultural benefits. A look at this social community of insects wraps it all up and makes the meaning behind some of these phrases more obvious.
The phrases "bee's knees" and "mind your own beeswax" likely stem from a playful use of words. There seems to be no definitive answer when looking back in history other than a few different theories. We all know that "bee's knees" means something is the best or really good. There is some evidence it could have begun in the early 1900s as a nonsense phrase used to denote something that doesn't even exist, and as a joke, have some unsuspecting person use it. The 1920s was apparently a time when it was trendy to use nonsense phrases like the "cat's whiskers" and rhymes to mean "excellent," and "bee's knees" stuck. A dancer in the 1920s named Bee Jackson also popularized the Charleston, which places some emphasis on the knees. Everyone also knows that 'mind your own beeswax' means to keep out of other's business or personal affairs. Some say it came about in the 1930s and the use of the word "beeswax" instead of "business" was just a way to take the 'sting' out and be a bit more polite. Several sources say the popular story that women put wax on their faces to obscure pock marks and someone noting it was melting with the response, "mind your own beeswax," is untrue and a fallacy.
Understanding the workings of a beehive gives meaning to "one queen bee." Predictably, for many centuries, it was thought there was a "king" of the hive, but now we know that a healthy hive of at least 60,000 bees is predominantly female and it is the queen that is the key to the hive. She lets out an odor, or "pheromone," that is passed along to all the female workers so that they know all is well in the hive. She is the mother of the hive in that she alone is the sexually mature reproductive female that lays all the eggs. With her longer abdomen, she lays one egg per cell; as many as 2000 eggs per day. Fertilized eggs become female worker bees, and unfertilized eggs become drones, or male bees, reserved for mating of future queens, usually from other hives. Worker bees attend to all her needs including feeding her and getting rid of her waste. When queens become old, emitting less pheromones and laying fewer eggs, the worker bees will develop a new replacement queen by feeding regular larva extra royal jelly, a special secretion from the glands of the young worker bees. The old queen either swarms to a new hive or dies. The first virgin queen to emerge from her cell kills other queens yet not emerged from their cells, with the first and strongest surviving and accepted as the new queen of the hive. She will shortly take a mating flight near the hive and mate with as many as 15 drones who have congregated in certain areas, after which their male appendage, or penis, is ripped out and they die. The queen has millions of sperm to release for her lifespan of two to five years or so, but almost always, there is only one queen per hive.
A queen bee comes in a special cage whereby she is introduced to the hive and accepted by the worker bees due to the special odor (pheromones) she emits.
Observe any hive and it is easy to see it is buzzing and bursting with energy, giving real meaning to "busy as a bee." All the workers are females and have specific roles in their short lifespan of approximately 45 days (longer in the winter). As they age, they have different roles. In the beginning days, their job is to clean the cells, followed by becoming nurse bees to feed larva. As the worker ages, her job is then to build and repair wax comb. She will also store nectar and pollen that has been brought to the hive by other workers. Mature honey from nectar is capped with wax to save it and keep it from spoiling. Some workers are designated to attend to the queen, spread propolis throughout the hive (antibacterial bee glue), carry out dead bees, bring in water, guard the entrance, feed the drones, and fan their wings to help regulate the temperature of the hive. In her final days, the worker becomes a forager or scout bee; finding food sources as much as three miles away, and brings it back to the hive. One day at the end of her lifespan, she dies and does not come back. Any remaining drones, or male bees, who do have the ability to feed themselves but don't, are starved by the female worker bees at the end of the summer and thrown out of the hive so that no precious food supply is wasted on them throughout the winter. New male (unfertilized) eggs are laid by the queen the following spring.
Honeybees truly are the "bee's knees" for all they do as evidenced in the past columns. Beekeepers will go to great lengths to maintain the health of their hives, including re-queening when something goes amiss. One of our hives had something that is called a 'laying worker,' which means the queen was gone for some reason and the only larva were drones. Without intervention, this is eventual death of the hive. A drive to the next county and one $25 insect later, this queen was carefully introduced to the hive with the hope that she will be accepted.
Make it a good week and enjoy all the benefits of the honeybee and honey, which is truly a liquid gold. Never, never waste a drop, as it takes a bee's entire life to produce just one twelfth of a teaspoon. By the way, a very nice elderly gentleman at the event last Monday in Portland to honor cartoonist Brad Anderson of the famed Marmaduke, shared that he has been reading the series of columns on the honeybee. He said that he has not had to have an allergy shot for 20 years because he takes a teaspoon of local honey every day. He cautioned, however, that it must be every day. He enjoys it on a piece of toast. As far as your health, don't forget about another miracle food that is ranked as one of the highest antioxidants. Ripe right now and plentiful in our county, it is the blueberry of course. Our friends, the honeybee, help to pollinate this wondrous fruit, which we saw just the other sunny day as we enjoyed picking berries once again at friend Shawn Gullo's blueberry patch near Cockaigne. It is a tradition to go to this treasure trove each year, and from its rich abundance have the satisfaction that we will have berries all winter for our health and the memory of the warm sunny days of summer, even as the cold winter winds blow. Check local listings or farmers' markets and enjoy honey, blueberries, and all the other wonderful produce right from our own backyards.
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#1 A queen bee comes in a special cage whereby she is introduced to the hive and accepted by the worker bees due to the special odor (pheromones) she emits.