Honeybees: Five Cosmic Facts

Words by
Nicholas Dowse
| February 29, 2016

When I get away to my little cabin in the hills, far from city lights, I love nothing more than standing under the night sky and gazing up at the big, beautiful mess that is the Milky Way. It still packs a wallop – especially when it’s not competing with the orange glow of the metropolis. The cosmos: the complex order of seemingly infinite, deep, dark space; peppered with billions of pretty stars (and, occasionally, a bit of Russian space junk burning brightly upon re-entry).

That’s how I used to think about the cosmos. I still love doing a little bit of stargazing but, these days, I get the same feelings of awe at the prospect of a sunny day, crisp blue skies, and our very own little star – the sun – burning brightly above (and perhaps a white crescent moon, just hanging in there, in that same blue sky). This is the cosmos by day. It’s a bit more local. And it’s all about a star that is everything to blooms, bees and beekeepers: the sun.

Everything bees – and by association, we beekeepers – do is dictated by the sun. The location of our planet in relation to the sun, as it orbits our fiery star every 365 days, determines what season we are in which, in turn, determines what the bees are doing on any given day. The sun provides light for plants to photosynthesize, allowing them to convert solar energy into plant growth such as reproductive structures – flowers – that are dusted in pollen (protein for bees) and dripping with nectar (carbohydrates for bees). The sun warms the bees’ little bodies, to about our own body temperature, allowing them to fly off and forage for that life-sustaining pollen and nectar. These foraged goods are then converted to food stores – including honey. In the cold seasons bees cluster inside their hives or wild hollows, eating that stored honey to fuel the shivering of thousands of wing muscles. This friction creates heat that keeps the colony warm and cozy through winter.

Actually, if you think about it, when the sun isn’t around to warm up the bees –  honey is. Honeycomb is like a battery of liquid sunshine.

We beekeepers position our hives and apiaries in relation to the sun too: somewhere where the bees can catch some morning sunshine to warm up with (think of sunshine like a morning coffee – the sooner a hive is warmed up, the sooner they start work). But we also try to protect those same hives from the fierce blaze of the western, summer sunshine.

Beekeepers know that when wild colonies select new nesting sites, in hollow logs, swarm traps or compost bins; they prefer an entrance that catches the warming rays of northern light (in the southern hemisphere – in the northern hemisphere bees prefer an entrance facing the sunny south). We beekeepers take note of the sun at all times, and the seasons it orchestrates, and do our best to provide the conditions our bees prefer.

Humans have always observed the special relationship between bees and the sun. Here are five cosmic connections between bees and the cosmos:

Detail from the Temple of Karnak, Luxor, Egypt. Photo by Jennifer Berk (accessed under a Creative Commons Licence via Flickr from http://bit.ly/24vJER4).
Detail from the Temple of Karnak, Luxor, Egypt. Photo by Jennifer Berk (accessed under a Creative Commons Licence via Flickr from http://bit.ly/24vJER4).

1. The ancient Egyptians believed bees were the tears of the Sun God Ra

The ancient Egyptians were stargazers. The cosmos played a deep and central role in their everyday cultural and spiritual lives. Even the simple, daily rhythm of our sun rising and setting was a miraculous event and had profound meanings to the ancients’ understanding of life, death and rebirth.

Ra (or Re) was the Sun God, and was associated with creating all life. Ra had dominion over the sky, the earth and the underworld. In Egyptian mythology it was believed that when Ra cried his tears metamorphosed into bees when they splashed down upon the earth.

This transformation was profound and bees are tangled up in a great deal of ancient Egyptian religious lore, culture, food, medical practices and artistic representations.

Photo by Sally Wilson.
Photo by Sally Wilson.

2. The sun dance: bees waggle their bums when they talk about flowers

Bees communicate the location of food sources (flowers), water supplies and potential new nesting sites, by dancing. European honeybees (Apis mellifera) select a spot on a vertical section of honeycomb, waggle their abdomens with really cute intensity, and walk in a figure-eight pattern. Put simply, the location of the food is determined by how vertically the central axis of the dance is performed (and that is because the location of the sun is always referenced as being in the vertical position, or at 90°). For example, a dance that is performed completely straight up and down (at 90°) indicates the food source is in the direction of the sun.  A waggle dance at 45° to the left of ‘up’ indicates a destination 45° to the left of where the sun hangs in the sky. The length of the dance (the number of figure-eight patterns repeated) indicates the distance to this location – the longer the dance, the greater the distance.

These days this behaviour is commonly referred to as the waggle dance, but I’ve heard some switched-on beekeepers, and old-timers, refer to it by its more cosmic moniker: the sun dance.

Photo by Sally Wilson.
Photo by Sally Wilson.

3. Bees can sense the electrical fields of flowers

The sun charges everything. Literally. A great deal of energy that is generated by photosynthesis, and roots tapping water and nutrition in the earth, is directed towards the production of beautifully coloured and patterned flowers designed to attract bees, and aromatic nectars that do the same. And, although human eyes cannot detect them, every flower also directs energy to an electrical field that bees can sense, or ‘see’. Flowers often have a negative electrical charge, and bees a positive one. This means that the negative charge of pollen, for example, is attracted to the positive charge of the bee, and will literally jump out at the bee when it is close (and sticks to it). It also means that when a bee visits a flower the electrical charge of that flower is temporarily altered. Other bees can sense this change in voltage and know, without visiting that flower, that it has recently been robbed by a fellow bee – so is probably not worth visiting right now. This is an efficient and elegant arrangement for both bees and the plants they pollinate.

Cosmic-5_post41-796x555
Inside the hive: the spiral brood comb of the Australian native sugarbag bee, Tetragonula carbonaria. Photo by Tim Heard.
Cosmic-5_post4a-796x555
An artist's impression of our home galaxy - the Milky Way. Photo by NASA/GSFC (accessed from http://go.nasa.gov/1UsCtol).

4. The Australian Sugarbag bee builds its nest in the same spiral pattern as the Milky Way

Sugarbag bees, Tetragonula carbonaria, are native to south-east Queensland and the warmer regions of eastern New South Wales. They are stingless, significantly smaller than the European honeybee, and produce much, much less (but very treasured) honey. The geometry of their nest is a beautiful thing to behold and talks about all sorts of connections between something even as humble as a small, social insect in Australia and the immensity of the cosmos. Our gigantic solar system – our sun and its gravitationally-bound eight planets – is but one system in a vast galaxy, the Milky Way. Yet the rules governing the arrangement of matter in space – be it in a small beehive in a Brisbane backyard, or the complex arrangements of solar systems in our galaxy – display the same organisation structure. In this case, the bee nest and galaxy are both arranged as a spiral. The geometry of this nest is pretty cosmic – often referred to as the golden ratio, a geometry that yields pleasing, harmonious proportions. The lizard in our brain understands this as Beauty. And this beauty is everywhere.

Photo by Sally Wilson.
Photo by Sally Wilson.

5. The Mystic Honey Doctrine

To conclude our five cosmic bee facts, we travel to the Indian sub-continent and to Hindu doctrine. Several bee species are endemic to this region, including the Asian honeybee (A. cerana), the giant honeybee (A. dorsata), and the dwarf honeybee (A. florea). The honey of these bees has a long and rich history of being hunted, or cultivated, by human communities, and open bee nests are a familiar site under tree branches, cliff overhangs and even on city buildings.

It should come as no surprise that the complex order of the honeybees’ cooperative and harmonious nests, and the sweet treasure such a sophisticated social life produces – honey – came to the attention of spiritual gurus.

In The Principal Upanishads, translated and edited by Swami Nikhilananda (1963), the concept known as the Mystic Honey Doctrine is explained. Simply put, in this holy text honey is used as a metaphor for the connectedness of all life on our earth and in the cosmos.

Honey is described as the delightful outcome of creation within the bee colony – a beehive is comprised of tens of thousands of bees and, likewise, the composition of this earth reveals a diversity of creatures. Honey is used as a metaphor: living beings are the honey (the ‘outcome’ or ‘effect’) of this earth, this universe.

But perhaps the Mystic Honey Doctrine explains it more simply:

“This earth is the honey of all beings and all beings are the honey of this earth.”

“This sun is the honey of all beings and all beings are the honey of this sun.”

Nicholas Dowse is the founder of the Melbourne-based beekeeping and creative collective, Honey Fingers.

We would like to thank Tim Heard, entomologist, beekeeper and the author of The Australian Native Bee Book for providing images to accompany this article.


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