Berkeley Prof on Beekeeping and the Personality of a “Hive Mind”

By Krissy Eliot

Jonathan Sheehan, director of the Berkeley Center for the Study of Religion, has always been interested in social insects. So a few years ago, after meeting a beekeeper in Santa Cruz and telling him he’d like to keep his own bees, Sheehan found himself driving his little blue Honda Accord home—with his first hive in the back.

“As I was driving, I was worried I’d get into an accident and find 30,000 angry bees in the car,” Sheehan says. “It’s been fun ever since.”

Though the whole process of beekeeping is rewarding for Sheehan, one of the greatest pleasures is getting to watch how the bees organize their living systems and how the hives develop distinct personalities. His fascination with bees actually relates to his work as a history professor. In his book, Invisible Hands: Self-Organization and the Eighteenth Century, Sheehan talks about bees and examines how orderly behavior can emerge from apparent chaos—with people relating this to bees since the 1750s.

“Bees don’t really have per­son­al­ities that I can tell, but bee­hives defi­nitely do,” Sheehan says. “Some are friendly and some are not.”

“Bees have a tremendously interesting biology and social life, all of which you can see firsthand in your backyard,” Sheehan says.

He loves working with the hives because they have their own rhythms—shrinking, growing and changing over the course of a year. And a lot of that has to do with the hive’s personality.

“Bees don’t really have personalities that I can tell, but beehives definitely do,” Sheehan says. “Some are friendly and some are not. This is a great mix for me. Lots of learning but also having to develop a more intuitive feel for how creatures thrive in the world.”

Sheehan steers clear of keeping African honeybees because they tend to be very aggressive (which is why they’re called killer bees). Instead, he likes to keep Italian and Russian queens—with the Italians making larger hives composed of generally gentler, yellower bees, while the Russians are a bit grouchier and darker, and make smaller hives.

But as “nice” as a hive’s personality can be, getting stung is still part of the job. And Sheehan doesn’t wear gloves when handling them.

“I’ve found that I tend to get more stings when I squish the bees,” Sheehan says, and he’s less likely to do so barehanded or with nitrile doctor’s gloves. And if he does get stung, it’s because he does “something stupid like opening the hive when it’s too cold out” (65 degrees or below). Sheehan admits to once also getting stung on the behind, which, he says, “smarted.”

Sheehan says his beekeeping work is minimal in the winter, giving him little to do besides repair or build equipment in his backyard—where he usually keeps two to three hives at a time. But once spring hits and the fruit trees are in bloom, colonies accumulate pollen and nectar and rapidly expand in size. And since Sheehan assembles his own hives, he has to work quickly to keep up with colony growth.

To get an idea of how fast colonies can grow, consider bee development: The queen usually lays 1,500 to 2,000 eggs—and that’s during the course of one typical spring day. Each egg is placed in a cell of the hive and becomes a quivering, opaque larvae after just three days. It then grows to full bee size within six days, with the help of nurse bees feeding it what’s called “bee bread,” made from the hive’s pollen and honey stores as well as glandular secretions.

Sheehan collects random swarms he sees from trees and bushes. He drives around town, shakes an appealing swarm into a big cardboard box, pops them in the trunk, and keeps his suit on because sometimes bees fly into his car.

So what happens if Sheehan doesn’t expand the hive? They’ll swarm: A giant group of bees flies out of the hive to look for another hive.

“This has happened to me a couple of times, incidentally,” Sheehan says.

Sheehan collects random swarms he sees from trees and bushes. He drives around town, shakes an appealing swarm into a big cardboard box, pops them in the trunk, and keeps his suit on because sometimes bees fly into his car. He drives them home and puts them in the hive.

The real fun for Sheehan happens in July, after the spring flowering is done, because that’s when he gets to harvest the honey. He then trades the honey for things other people make, like quince jelly, pies, and apple cider.

Sheehan doesn’t have any professional training in beekeeping, but he does belong to the Alameda County Beekeepers Association, where he says he gets a lot of helpful apiarist advice—even though it can be contradictory at times.

“Unfortunately, beekeepers are super opinionated about the right way to keep their critters alive, so every question tends to get about nine loudly disagreeing opinions,” Sheehan says.

One of the hottest topics among beekeepers is colony collapse disorder, when a hive is destroyed because the worker bees abandon the colony leaving the queen and juveniles to fend for themselves.

“Lots of people blame neonicotinoid pesticides for some of this, which do ‘stress out the bees,’” Sheehan says. But the disorder also occurs in places where these pesticides have been banned or rarely used, so the biggest stressor, according to Sheehan, is the varroa mite: a parasitic mite that attaches to a bee’s body and weakens it.

“I’ve lost several hives over the years, including three this winter,” Sheehan says. “I blame the mites more than anything else.”

He’s built two new hives for the summer, and fortunately, he says, they’re going strong.

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