Once up on a time, I was a beekeeper. Now it wasn’t my dream to work with bees. In fact, when my biology professor offered me a job in his lab for the summer, I almost turned him down. Because, you know, bees sting. And that hurts. But then I realized it was an incredible opportunity.

So I said yes.

And I absolutely loved it.

bee hives

We had hives like these.
photo by Brian Jeffrey Beggerly

Our hives looked a lot like these, only ours had big numbers painted on them. That way we could keep track of which colony our bees were from. Honey bees live in colonies of up to 60,000 individuals–all of them sisters from the same mom. (Think you’ve got issues with your siblings? Imagine what it would be like living with thousands of them!)

I’d get suited up, fire up the smoker, and crack open the lid of the hive. Smoke poured over the bees inside, keeping them calm, and I could check to see how they were doing. Was the queen laying eggs? Were there lots of workers? Did they have enough honey to get through the winter?

smoker

Yep, this thing was made for the sole purpose of calming bees.
photo by Blaine Pearson

Then I’d find a frame for the lab’s research. A typical hive has 10 frames in it with a wooden outer, well–frame, that holds a thin layer of wax. Bees build their waxy comb onto that base, so it’s easy to pry a frame loose and lift it out to see what’s going on inside the hive. Bees store different things in different parts of the hive. Some frames contain honey, others have growing bees, called “brood.” Brood frames were the ones I needed. But not just any brood  frames would do.

I had to find one with bees that were just about to emerge from their pupal stage. After the queen lays an egg inside a cell (a six-sided opening in the wax), worker bees called “nurses” take care of it. The egg hatches, and the nurse bees feed the growing larva until it’s ready to pupate. At that point, the workers seal up the top of the cell, closing off their little sister until she’s ready to come out.

inside hive

Look at all those bees!
Photo by Chiot’s Run

And that’s what I was looking for: bees that were just starting to emerge. I had a special carrier box to take the frame back to the lab, where we kept it in a nice warm room that mimicked the conditions of the hive. Once a day, we removed the bees that had emerged, putting them in containers, so we could study their behavior.

A "baby" worker bee crawling out into the world for the first time. Isn't she the cutest thing?  Photo by Waugsberg

A “baby” worker bee crawling out into the world for the first time. Isn’t she the cutest thing?
Photo by Waugsberg

It was fascinating. So much so that I stayed in the lab for four years, until I graduated and left town. And bees (of all kinds, not just honey bees) now hold a special place in my heart.

Sometimes it’s worth stepping outside your comfort zone. That’s where the magic happens.

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