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Jane Ahlin, Published September 01 2012

Ahlin: Ignorance of bees is OK; denial of science is not

When our older daughter was married several years ago, we invited out-of-town guests to attend a brunch at our home the morning after the wedding. Although I don’t remember the exact number, it was a large group of people, and in order to be prepared, we rented tables and chairs to put in the backyard. During the weeks leading up to the wedding, we did our best to make the backyard presentable, watering and weeding, clipping and mowing. Nobody would have sent a picture of the results to Better Homes and Garden; however, considering it was my husband and I who did the work, the yard could have looked much worse than it did.

That particular August weekend started out hot – windy, too, on the day of the wedding – but early the next morning, dawn ushered in a day as beautiful as any summer day can be. Up went the round tables with starchy white cloths to cover them and chairs set around. Bright pink azaleas used in the wedding became the morning centerpieces. Egg-bakes were lined up on the kitchen counter ready to go into the oven, and, all in all, we were feeling pretty doggoned good.

Then came the bees. Like something out of a horror movie, hundreds and hundreds of bees took over the backyard, making it impossible for anybody to take a plate of food to a backyard table. Forget the beautiful day; people ate inside.

Flash forward to this August, and my husband and I are grumping to friends about the lousy bees everywhere. We tell them about our neighborhood block party, where we were in pitched battle with the little buggers for food. We also tell of noticing three or four hives at our lake place, at least one at the base of a tree, another in an old railway tie and yet another under the steps to the dock. That’s when one of our friends said, “Bees? Those aren’t bees; they’re wasps – yellow jackets.”

And in that moment, I had a revelation: For oh so long, I’d maligned the wrong insect. (Just wondering, but does this qualify as “living in the land of embarrassment”? Or is it so last century to be embarrassed about one’s own ignorance?)

I’ve told the brunch-with-bees story at least a few dozen times over the years and nobody corrected me. That either means the listeners were too polite to point out my ignorance, or it means most other people are as clueless as I am about bees and wasps.

Certainly most of us know bees have chubbier bodies and hairier legs than wasps, but what I didn’t know was that bee numbers peak in the spring while for wasps, it’s late summer. Bees only sting once. Their barbed stingers are left behind and because it’s part of their digestive makeup, they die after they’ve stung. Wasps can sting again and again and often precede the sting with a bite. Both bees and wasps flourish following mild winters that turn into hot summers.

One thing is for sure: The old myth, “bees, good; wasps, bad,” does not hold up. We may value bees more because of their pollinating and honey-making work, but wasps are carnivores that feed on other insects. (Think of them as natural pest control. One wasp even attacks the Emerald Ash Borer.) Were it not for a late-summer change in dietary needs, wasps might not bother us much. However, as fall approaches, wasps switch primary food groups from proteins to carbohydrates. In other words, they stop looking for insects and start looking for sugar. That’s when they’re up too close and personal for comfort; that’s when they’re everywhere.

Yet, wasps aren’t our only concern this hot summer. Citing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Forbes Magazine reported that July 2012 “was the hottest month on record for the continental United States” and that around the world, “the month of July ranked as the fourth-warmest July since people began keeping records in 1880.” This summer, the size of the Arctic ice cap also shrunk to the smallest area on record, an ominous sign in ongoing evidence of global warming/climate change that should give us pause.

Not knowing bees from wasps is embarrassing ignorance. But denying the science of climate change is ignorance that threatens the planet.

Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.