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Cosmic Bees: Building Comb Among the Stars

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8 minutes of reading

Apis florea nest closeup by Sean Hoyland. Wikipedia.

I pull a frame of bees out of my hive and a chain of bees hangs from the bottom, trailing off into space. When bees draw comb they festoon, hooking their hands and feet together like acrobats. Apiarists are not totally sure what purpose festooning serves, but perhaps they are measuring and making calculations like the good architects they are. Sometimes I think about their festooning as though it was a constellation—like watching a cloud or making a design from stars in the sky, I try to map an image onto the linked bee bodies. Ursa Major. Ursa Minor. Apis Mellifera. Our constellations make shapes out of stars, giving narratives and names that illustrate what human cultures have valued—love stories, kitchen utensils, common animals, and so on. On hot summer nights, when worker bees camp out in a cluster outside the hive’s entrance to keep cool—a bee version of a sleeping porch—I wonder if they look up and see constellations. Because they can see ultraviolet light, does the night sky look different to them than it does to us? Does the vastness of the stars look instead like one infinite field of flowers? A Nectar Way instead of a Milky Way?

Maybe this fantasy about bee constellations started with the time I caught sight of myself in the glass of our back door, covered by a white suit and hooded veil, pursued by an angry guard bee. As I waited for the bee to stop buzzing around my head, I looked like an astronaut in a spaceship airlock, a dangerous creature threatening her life. Or maybe it was the meme that circulated in the beekeeping forums I frequent—Ripley from Aliens, an alien dangerously close to her face, captioned “That moment you realize the bee is on the inside of the veil.” Probably, however, my daydreams about space bees started with the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, for which NASA was inspired by the hexagonal pattern bees use to maximize the surface area of the telescope’s folding mirror. The telescope looks like a slice of honeycomb floating off into space.

James Webb Space Telescope, NASA. [1]

Forty years ago, NASA took bees into space to study if and how they could survive, fly, and build comb in microgravity. Because bees pollinate the crops for one in every three bites of food available on Earth, if humans ever build a colony in space, taking bees along could help with agriculture. According to Bee Culture, in 1982, Columbia took along 14 honey bees and a variety of other insects to study how microgravity affected their flight. Adult bees not born in space struggled, choosing to cling to surfaces rather than fly. In 1984, the space shuttle Discovery took about 3,400 bees into space. Most survived the flight, with only 150 dying in transit. Over an eight-day mission, astronauts studied their comb and flight patterns. Bees on this mission adapted better to flying in zero gravity than they had on Columbia, but their first efforts at drawing comb produced structures built at an angle, indicating that the bees may have had difficulty sensing up from down in the absence of gravity.

Bees can only produce honey during times when they can find abundant nectar in the environment around their hive. The period of greatest nectar availability, called the honey flow, varies regionally but may last from late spring to late summer. Some locations get a second honey flow in the autumn when goldenrod blooms. This year, my hives missed most of the honey flow because it took them months to build comb in the supers—the boxes added to the top of their hive designed for them to fill with honey. Bees build comb by first secreting flakes of wax from glands on the underside of their abdomens. They then manipulate the wax using their feet and mandibles to build it out into the individual hexagonal cells that form the completed comb. Making beeswax is energy-intensive labor that bees are not likely to undertake if they do not have access to nectar sources or a good reason to build fresh comb, like a real need for more storage space. Approximately eight ounces of honey are consumed to produce one ounce of wax. Bees are much more likely to use or repurpose wax they already have if they can. The bees’ energy is only one factor in the production of comb. For example, bees build honeycomb more easily during hot summer days when they can manipulate the wax more easily. Bees between the ages of 14 and 21 days build comb best, so a population of bees in that age range helps move things along.

Many beekeepers start with a package—a three-pound box of bees without a hive—and once they are installed in a hive they are motivated to build quickly because they need the comb to raise the next generation of bees, and to store honey. In a way, a hive is just a box, the comb makes it a home. To start, most hives consist of pine boxes, open on either end, and with eight to 10 blank plastic or wooden frames inside. The bees build their comb on the frames. Whereas wild bees will build comb perfectly well without the foundation the frames provide, for a backyard beekeeper, it keeps the bees’ work organized in a system that can be opened up and inspected. Like pulling files out of a cabinet, a beekeeper can lift each frame, studying the colony’s health and activities. The boxes that make up the hive are stacked between a bottom board and a lid, and as bees need more space—to store honey or for the queen to lay more eggs—additional boxes, called supers, are added to the stack. When the honey flow is on, a determined colony can build out a super in a week. Eventually, bees use the comb to store pollen and honey, and also as the nest where the bees raise brood—young bees. A healthy queen may lay 1,000 eggs on a summer’s day. Within a hive, nurse bees, often among the youngest workers, attend to eggs and larvae before they are developed enough to be sealed in wax for the pupating process. Nurse bees tuck their heads into each baby bee’s cell as often as 1,300 times a day, feeding and examining the larva inside. As a workforce, the nurse bees help regulate the temperature of the brood, ensuring that the next generation of workers emerges healthy and strong. Unlike a spider or a bird tending to a clutch of eggs, or a mammal carrying a pregnancy, bee young are raised by the colony, not the queen mother.

Painted wooden beehives with active honeybees near Mankato, Minnesota.
By Jonathunder. [2]

The bees that NASA took to outer space on Discovery were about 15 days old, in their comb-building prime. Because they did not have a comb built out in the Bee Enclosure Module that NASA provided them, they would have been motivated to build comb if they had the proper nutrition to do so. Eventually, they got the hang of drawing comb in microgravity, and the queen laid 35 eggs. Once back on Earth, they failed to hatch, for unknown reasons. In many respects, the bees on Discovery succeeded. They adapted to fly in microgravity and built comb in the observation hive, both with and without foundation—a thin plastic sheet inside the frame that stabilizes the comb and encourages bees to build neatly in the frame (they can and often do still build however they want). Their comb featured a variety of angles, indicating that they were struggling to orient themselves in space. The bees even began disposing of their dead, as they do on Earth. In short, they went about their business, perhaps aware that conditions were not normal, but doing the best they could anyway. As I read about the space bees, I kept returning to the same question—why weren’t there more of them? Would they have built a straighter comb if they had access to a full workforce, festooning and adjusting together? To human eyes, the bees’ work may look like a disorganized frenzy, less elegant than the spider’s weaving and less linear than a factory’s assembly line. To the bees, however, each individual’s efforts are a link in a chain of events, a team effort through which all the activity connects to build a successful colony. Without enough worker bees, their finely tuned instincts and skilled labor cannot come together properly.

With all due respect and acknowledging that I am just a backyard beekeeper, I doubt that NASA brought enough bees to space. 3,400 bees sounds like a large number, but the package of bees that most beekeepers start with equates to about 8,000-10,000 bees. By the peak of summer, the population in the hive will grow to 50,000-80,000 bees, and to survive cold winters, they need about 30,000 worker bees and the queen. Building a home is a real team effort and the NASA bees hardly had enough team members to survive. 3,400 bees are practically no bees. When I started beekeeping, I drove home with a small 3-pound package of bees in the back of my car. No bees got loose, but I draped a towel over the box just in case. Every spring, thousands of backyard beekeepers do the same. If we could do it in our beat-up old Hondas, I’m sure NASA could. Transporting 10,000 bees is really no harder than transporting 3,400, and the bees likely would have behaved differently if they’d had a full colony.

The implications for bee experiments in space are fascinating and the data on the ability of pollinators to adapt to microgravity seems important, but significantly limiting the numbers of bees for a healthy community is missing the bigger interconnected picture. In the United States, where a strong streak of human individualism drives such things as the economy and the worship of astronauts, people tend to grasp a by-the-bootstraps, pioneer image of survival, forgetting that it takes an incalculable number of us humans to make society work. For bees, 30,000 is a common baseline. NASA only took 3,400. If the ultimate goal of these studies is to see if we could survive outside of Earth long-term, is it possible that NASA also underestimates how many of us humans it takes to build a functioning human community?

A honey bee forager collecting pollen. By Jon Sullivan.[3]

On sunny days, from my kitchen window, I watch the bees coming and going from their hive. New foragers make graceful figure-eights as they conduct orientation flights setting their internal GPS to home before flying away to find pollen. Foragers navigate through the crowd, passing resources to waiting workers who will transform the pollen and nectar into bee bread and honey. From a distance, the bees illuminated by the sun appear like a dancing nebula, suspended in the air outside their hive, making patterns and swirls with their flight.

I am not an astronaut. I am not even a scientist. I am just a person who loves bees. So, instead of thinking about if they could pollinate a farm on Mars, I imagine the constellations they could make if the bee colonies in my backyard floated into the night sky, a kaleidoscope of wings and antennae, making shapes that signified the legends bees live by—a strong queen, excellent flowers, and an epic honey flow.


Works Cited:
Conrad, Ross. “Bees in Space.” Bee Culture -, November 20, 2019. https://www.beeculture.com/bees-in-space/.

Featured Image credit:
Apis florea nest closeup by Sean Hoyland. Via Wikipedia: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Apis_florea_nest_closeup2.jpg
. This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Sean.hoyland.

Image credits within text:
[1] James Webb Space Telescope, NASA. Via Wikipedia
. This file is in the public domain in the United States because it was solely created by NASA.

[2] Painted wooden beehives with active honeybees near Mankato, Minnesota.
By Jonathunder. Via Wikipedia
: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Beehives_in_Mankato,_Minnesota.jpg. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

[3] Bee collecting Pollen by Jon Sullivan. Via Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bee_Collecting_Pollen_2004-08-14.jpg. This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Jon Sullivan

  • Kasey Butcher Santana

    Kasey Butcher Santana is co-owner/operator of Sol Homestead, LLC, a backyard alpaca farm where she and her husband, Julio, also raise chickens, bees, a pumpkin patch, and their daughter. When not beekeeping or gardening, she loves to read mystery novels and hike.
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