English for beekeepers: basic terminology
With that title, I can hear my ratings tumble like rocks from a precipice. Certain words invoke sheer boredom in beekeepers; “English” is one, “physics” is another. Although my “Physics for beekeepers” series is my personal favorite, it certainly is not yours. I don’t expect “English for beekeepers” to fare much better.
My complaint is that many beekeepers—by no means all—use words that mean different things to different people. That in itself is fine, except it is impossible to communicate when there is no agreement on meaning. As a writer, it is my job to communicate. Readers expect writers to convey information or stories in a way they can understand.
Flexible definitions lead to mushy, unclear thinking, and unclear thinking leads to miscommunication. For example, the terms median and mean have very specific definitions to scientists and mathematicians. If I say “mean” when I meant “median,” the information I’ve communicated is wrong, even if the two values are identical. Huh?
Beginners are brutalized by imprecise words
Never mind, here’s an example closer to home. I once met a beekeeper who had just put her two honey supers under her two brood boxes. When I asked her why, she said her mentor told her to reverse her supers. Now in a world where all bee boxes are inexplicably called supers, I suppose this made sense. She understood the word “super” incorrectly because her mentor used it incorrectly—and that lead to miscommunication and the wrong outcome. Poor bees.
Similarly, about three years later a beekeeper I knew “reversed” his brood boxes by rotating them 180 degrees. Can you blame him? The word “reverse” all by itself doesn’t mean much unless someone explains, and we beekeepers are notoriously bad at explaining.
A short list of confusing terms
A few months ago I wrote about the words “colony” and “hive.” You can compare them to “family” and “house.” A colony lives in a hive just as a family lives in a house. Hives do not abscond. Hives do not swarm.They cannot possibly starve or die. Instead, hives are inanimate objects that don’t do much of anything except rot. We accept this sloppy wording after a while because we know what we mean. But for someone who is just learning, this type of language is incomprehensible.
Lots of confusing terms come to mind:
- People say nuc when they mean a small brood box, but a nuc is a small colony (a nucleus colony). It is a nuc regardless of the size of the box it’s in. Conversely, if a small brood box is empty, it’s not a nuc, it’s just a small box. Such an empty box can be called a “nuc box,” but not a “nuc.”
- A cluster is not a swarm. “During the winter, the swarm moved to the top of the hive.” Wrong. That bunch of bees is a cluster or colony.
- Caste does not mean sex. Honey bees have two sexes, male and female, and the female sex is divided into two castes, workers and queens. This yields three types of bees (three adult phenotypes) but not three castes.
- Ill-tempered does not mean Africanized. Ill-tempered bees could be Africanized, but most are not.
- Swarm cells and supersedure cells are built for different purposes; they are not equivalent. When someone says “queen cell,” which one do they mean?
- People talk about the honey flow, but the thing that’s flowing from flowers is nectar. The term “honey flow” gives the impression that honey is flowing, fully formed, from the blossoms when, in fact, it doesn’t become honey until it’s been processed by honey bees. “Nectar flow” is a more accurate term.
- Queen is not capitalized in the middle of a sentence. Queen is a relationship like mother, father, sister, and brother. Or you can think of it as a job description: lawyer, mayor, painter, worker, queen. It is not a title, unless you happen to name her. Then, I suppose, you could call her Queen Melissa or some such. But if you name her, you have different problems.
- Eggs hatch. Pupae emerge. Maybe it doesn’t sound logical to you, but we need ways to distinguish these things. This is the terminology the good bee journals use and the one I use here.
The worst of the worst
Of course, the all-time most irritating word in all of beedom is super. Super is short for superstructure. You can’t have a superstructure (which means “above the structure”) unless you first have a structure. All boxes cannot go above something that’s not there. You have brood boxes and supers. Brood boxes are the basic structure of the hive and contain the brood; supers go above the brood boxes and hold the honey. Simple and drop-dead logical. Why is that so confusing?
If anyone is still awake, I have one more complaint. Recently I saw the abbreviation SBB used to mean “screened bottom board.” Two months later in the same publication SBB was used to mean “solid bottom board.” Just think about it; to help control Varroa mites you should use an SBB instead of an SBB. But everyone knows that, right?