Our little yellow pals

At times, some little item draws our attention away from the mess the United States has become and lets us remember that there are lives out there to care about—our families, friends, pets, bristlecone pines, sagehen.

Last week, the interview by our Matt Bieker with the fellow, Duke Renslow, who tends the beehives in the cornices of the Washoe County Courthouse (“Accidental beekeeper,” June 6) reminded us not just of Renslow’s interesting work, but of the fact that the courthouse bees are not removed. They are allowed by officialdom to thrive.

We’ve had some experience with hives. In April 2007, in the offices we leased on Center Street for 18 years, a swarm of bees formed a huge hive on the outdoor surface of the window pane of our general manager’s office. They made us pay closer attention to some of those reports about bees dying out, and thus served a good journalism purpose.

The courthouse bees have been with us a long time. In April 1957, they got adventurous, and apiarist—there’s actually a title for beekeepers—Walter Bridgeman was called because a bee colony abandoned its cornice hive to settle on a bus bench out front with an ad for the Park Wedding Chapel painted on it. Traffic at that bus stop declined sharply. Bridgeman used smoke to sedate the bees and coax them into a wooden hive. What an amazing, nonviolent skill.

Besides honey and stings, bees give us folklore, like “busy as a bee.” Of course, we don’t know that they are busy. They may very well be lazy. But when a creature is born with only one speed—fast—then style overcomes substance, and its reputation as a workaholic is made.

Which, as it happens, is genuine, because there are also bee mythologies. Cosmetics marketer Mary Kay Ash once said, to motivate her sales people, “Aerodynamically, the bumble bee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumble bee doesn’t know it, so it goes on flying, anyway.”

The same is often said of hummingbirds, and, of course, it is not true of either species. It’s interesting to ponder the lofty conceit that goes into the notion that if humans cannot understand something, that makes it impossible. The flight of bees is aerodynamically possible because they do it. The explanation of how they do it was what was unknown. And now, even that is known. For the record, and to stamp out this myth at least among our readers, here is the explanation of a team of scientists at the California Institute of Technology and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas:

“Our analysis of honeybee aerodynamics reveals how the rapid low-amplitude wing motion of bees is sufficient to maintain the weight of the animal. Furthermore, honeybees exhibit considerable ability to generate excess aerodynamic power, which they accomplish by raising stroke amplitude while maintaining constant frequency. This ability may be related to requirements of social insects to carry loads related to foraging, undertaking and brood transport.”

It may not be lyrical, but it is factual. For something more lyrical, we turn to St. Francis de Sales:

“The bee collects honey from flowers in such a way as to do the least damage or destruction to them, and he leaves them whole, undamaged and fresh, just as he found them.”

There’s an example for humans.