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Beekeepers' Language: Learning the Buzz

Q. I know that bees buzz and dance. That's how they talk, right? But most beekeepers I've met either grunt or say things that I really don't understand... Can you teach me the Beekeepers' Language? - from I.M.A. Wordsmith, 06/28/04
A. No prob, Bob. Here's the Buzz, right from the Glossary of my Bad Beekeeping book:


Beekeepers have their own language, and it goes far beyond mumbling a few choice words at bees and bureaucrats.

Here are a few terms to get you started at bee-talk:

BEESWAX - I once met an educated young lady who thought 'beeswax' was a made-up word, something funny to tell children, as in "Get the beeswax out of your ears!" It took a while to convince her that bees make wax. They make it in tiny flakes which they extrude from the underside of their abdomen. Then the bees clump the flakes together into the combs upon which they live.

COMB - Honey comb is made of seven-sided hexagonal pieces (seven-sided if you count the bottom - without a bottom the comb cell would be pretty useless). Bees have fashioned this wax into honey-comb for holding their honey, and into brood-comb for (any guesses?) holding their brood.

BROOD - Beekeepers often sit and mope and whine and complain, but when the beekeeper is quiet and contemplative, we say he (or she) is 'brooding.' This is not much different from the use of the word 'brood' to mean a clutch of cluckers in a hen-house or a frame of eggs, larvae, and pupae in a bee-hive.

QUEEN - The fully functional female, delicate, long and slender, with smooth skin and soft hair. She lays the eggs in the hive.

WORKER - The non-functional female honey bee, often gruff in manners and too busy to care.

DRONE - The fully functional male, but if he ever performs his function, he dies immediately. The only drone you will ever meet is a virgin. What's the point, we wonder?

HONEY BEE - There would be very little honey produced without honey bees. And few honey bees would survive without honey to eat. We are stuck with a bit of a chicken-and-egg philosophical dilemma here, but amber-encrusted honey bees dating back forty-five million years seem to suggest the problem was resolved long ago. The honey bee is but one of an estimated 20,000 species of bees (scientists are not finished counting yet) but beekeepers will readily tell you that the honey bee is the most important species.

BEE IN HER BONNET - Few women wear bonnets anymore, so this expression is getting harder and harder to defend. And if bees go the way of bonnets (which is certainly possible) we may have to drop the phrase from our vocabulary entirely.

BEEKEEPER - This is the guy or gal who keeps bees. But people are always saying to me, "Ron, isn't there another word for beekeeper?" Absolutely. One may wish to use the alternate words 'Super-Hero' or 'Divine-Pollinator' although I've also seen the entirely too proper 'apiarist' used as a substitute.

APIARIST - Latin-inglish for beekeeper. From the Latino Abejo, abbreviated Apis in the text books, which means 'bee' then anglicized with the -ist ending, which means super-hero. The other contrived word which you never hear is from mellissa (Greek for honey or bee or honey bee or something) plus the versatile ending '-fier' which gives us the modern word mellissafier. Try these out on your friends when you're bored.

BEEKEEPER - and BEE FARMER These terms are commonly used in England to express the difference between the totally eccentric person who keeps a few hives of bees (the Beekeeper) and the raving lunatic who tries to make a living as a Bee Farmer.

GLOVES - These devices slip over the hands. Stylishly made of the sun-dried hide of a goat and snugly fitting up to the elbow, they are frequently worn on informal beekeeping outings.

VEIL - We are too brave to typically wear a veil as protection from bee stings, but since most of us beekeepers are a bit funny-looking, the bee veil gives us a chance to hide behind a shady screen.

WHITE SUIT - Beekeepers are white-collared farmers, donning a heavy set of overalls even on the hottest days of the year. A useful accessory is a ball cap with a pop-can holder and flexible straw assembly.

SMOKER FUEL - Smoke 'em if you got 'em, the chief apiary inspector's assistant's friend once told me. She used recycled hemp burlap bags to keep her bees mellow. Other beekeepers use cardboard, wood chips, pine needles, or dried cow dung. If you can't find any of these products on your own, a bee equipment saleslady will gladly sell you some prepackaged smoker fuel.

SMOKER - These special devices are simply steel smudge pots with leather bellows attached. You puff air through the bottom of the smoldering fuel, it gives off a cool white smoke that quiets most honey bees so you can rob their honey.

HIVE TOOL - This is the tool beekeepers invented to pry frames out of beehives and pop the lids from soda bottles. Home Hardware outlets now sell them - not in their 'Beekeeping Supply' aisle as you would expect, but as paint scrapers.

BOTTOM BOARD - As the term implies, this piece of beekeeping equipment is a board. It rests on the ground, providing a convenient place to set the first Brood Chamber.

BROOD CHAMBER - Much more than a chamber for brood, this wooden box and set of combs holds developing bees (the brood), honey, pollen, and thousands of bees. This is the place bees meet, visit, and sometimes plan insurrections against royalty.

HIVE COVER - Ever since earliest times, people have covered their hives. It keeps the rain out. We continue the tradition even into the twenty-first century.

BEE HIVE - or BEE-HIVE or BEEHIVE Similar to Bee Yard, Bee-yard, and Beeyard, (and Honey Bee, Honey-bee, Honeybee) no one seems to know the correct form to use, so in this book I have randomly used all three variations at different times, just as the bee journals seem to do.

NUC - Possibly an abbreviated form of nuclear or nucleon or nucleate or nucleogenesis. But I'm not sure. I've always thought it was a stand-alone word, one invented by my father in 1947 to mean 'tiny bee-hive'.

SUPER - The honey-holding part of the beehive which sets on top the brood chamber and holds honey, if the bees are inclined to produce any. Actually, we still call the box a 'super' even if the bees have suffered a poor year, though it is then sometimes referred to as an 'empty-super'.

FRAME - Think of a picture frame. Replace the seaside landscape with a chunk of beeswax comb. Throw away the matting, you don't need it. Replace the beveled and polished oak wood with spruce or pine, make it square and clunky. Attach ears (wooden ones) to the top edges of the frame, so your hands don't get sticky holding onto the honeycomb. Now you've got yourself a bee hive frame.

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