Bees – one short name accounts for 16,000 to 20,000 species of hairy flying insects classified into seven families. All live within social communities that depend on strict work routines. They all seek the same food sources – pollen and nectar – and each processes their harvest and preserves it in hives built in the ground, in hollow trees, or in human-designed apiaries.
The bee quest for pollen served plants well for 130 million years because bees helped plants reproduce. Bees and humans have a much shorter but more emotional relationship. Bees need plants for food, as do humans. Bees ensure plant fertilization which ensures that humans will have food crops. Over millennia, humans domesticated one species of bee to satisfy this and many other needs – Apis mellifera (the honeybee).
Humans built hives for their honeybees and clustered these hives (apiaries) around orchards, grape arbors, and other areas of intense flowering-plant cultivation. These hives take many forms, but each houses a colony of honeybees. The hard work of the pollinators filled the hives with honey, and from the hives, humans harvested the most natural and veritably the only sweetener available before the introduction of heavily processed cane sugar – honey. Honey, pollen, and bee venom also had medicinal value, as did beeswax. Beeswax when processed became the binding agent for pigments in encaustic art, a component in the mummification process, the candles that lit cathedrals, and the sealing agent for small containers. Finally, the bees themselves were part of the supply chain on which apiarists depended as they harvested queens to propagate new honeybee colonies.
Museums may hesitate to include hives in public areas because of the added expense and expertise required to maintain them or because of concerns about allergic reactions to bee stings. The hives, however, can launch numerous discussions about the long and complicated history of bee, plant, and human interactions.
The absence of hives can also lead to conversations about native pollinators, the thousands of other bee species often ignored and feared. Sometimes all it takes is a brief prompt – Bee Aware – to engage the public in an exploration of nature and human interaction.
Seasons affect the stories to tell. During flowering seasons, all bees collect pollen from flowers. Watch closely and you will see Apis mellifera as well as other species native to your area including bumble bees and carpenter bees (also in the Apidae family) and sweat bees (the Halictidae family). These all have hairy bodies. Other striped flying insects may look like bees, but if they have hairless bodies, they are not bees. These insects, including paper wasps (Polistinae) or yellow jackets (Vespinae), are predators and they can be aggressive, especially in the fall when they have no responsibilities for their colonies, and food is in short supply. Stay calm, observe them in action, take a picture to identify the species later, and enjoy your nature lesson in a museum.
This series of blogs address topics that museums of all types may find useful in interpreting the bee- human relationship.
Which came first, bees or crops? Why does it matter?
Evolution across the globe resulted in mutually dependent bees and flowering plants, but human intervention to ensure pollination of crops affects natural bee-plant relations.
What can law do for bees? A Touch of History
Old Irish laws, the Bee-Judgements, help readers assess how humans legislated behavior in support of bee work.
How has beekeeping changed over time?
An archaeobeekeeper and an archaeological open-air museum in Germany showcase pre- and proto-historic beekeeping methods.
Which hive do bees prefer? Treehives and cultural heritage in Poland
Adaptive use of trees as beehives support an exploration of the relationship of tangible and intangible cultural heritage in Poland.
What do bumblebees do that we overlook? A case-study in Norway
Farmers today rely on other bee species, specifically the bumblebee, to pollinate greenhouse plants, as this museum documentation project in Norway explores.
How do museums support bee preservation?
Learn about a range of efforts supported by AIMA museums that can help sustain bee diversity and spread the word to the general public.
How do bees inspire artists? Bee art from AIMA blogger museums
Explore artistic expressions feature art and imagery inspired by bees in AIMA-member museums.