How the inverse square law governs the distribution of bee poop
A while back I received an intriguing letter from a homeowner complaining about his neighbor’s beehives. The letter said, in part, “This year the landowner at the rear of my house installed approximately fifteen hives. Consequently, for three months now my house and cars have been smothered in bee poop. The beekeeper has said he will move the hives further along the field and this may alleviate the problem. I wonder if this is true. The nuisance is prolific; all my windows need cleaning daily as well as the cars.”
When I read the letter to my husband, he replied in true engineer fashion, “Tell him the inverse square law applies here.” So helpful.
The gist of the inverse square law
The inverse square law states that “the intensity of an effect such as illumination or gravitational force changes in inverse proportion to the square of the distance from the source.” Loosely (very loosely) translated that means that as you get further and further from the source of the problem, its effect gets less and less.While the inverse square law works really well for some things like light and radio waves, it works less so with bees. Still, it’s worth taking a look at this neat little diagram I borrowed from Wikipedia. If S is the source (the hive), and each little red arrow represents a bee, you can see that as the you get further from the hive, the bees become further apart. Bees that are further apart will deposit less poop per unit of area.
So in theory, at least, if the beekeeper moves the hives further away from his neighbor’s house, less bee poop should land on the neighbor’s windows.
Bees do not behave like electromagnetic waves
Unfortunately, unlike electromagnetic waves, bees have a mind of their own, and they do not radiate in perfectly straight beelines from a specific point and keep going forever. Nope. Bees have ideas, and ideas are antithetical to the laws of physics.
Will more distance reduce bee poop?
I can think of several reasons the inverse square law might come up short (or not) in this situation. Let’s take a look of some of the obvious ones. Bear in mind, they are all speculation on my part.
- Honey bees, I believe, are more apt to drop their load soon after leaving the hive. Carrying it any further than necessary would be energy wasteful, and biological systems do not waste energy. If this is the case, moving the hives further away might help a lot.
- Honey bees do not radiate evenly from the hive, but go in chosen directions. If a field is in bloom on the other side of the neighbor’s house, the bees may all go there at the same time. Thus, time of the year would play a big part in how much poop landed on the target windows.
- I learned in master beekeeping class that honey bees compensate for wind speed and direction while navigating. While I haven’t worked out the details, it looks like the wind could have a substantial effect on their flight path.
- Bees fly around objects. Obstacles in the bees’ path could hurt or help the homeowner, depending on where they are. If trees or buildings funnel the bees over the house, that is bad. If they funnel the bees away from the house, that would be good. Perhaps the homeowner could build a wall around his property. I understand there are people in government who could help.
My answer to the homeowner
When I finally I answered the letter, I wrote:
The inverse square law states that “the intensity of an effect such as illumination or gravitational force changes in inverse proportion to the square of the distance from the source.” This law applies to bee poop as well, with some exceptions.
Because of the inverse square law, a little further away could make a big difference in the number of droppings. Also, I think most bees drop their load soon after they leave the hive, which should also help.
But if the bees are traveling to a certain area, say a field or orchard, and they are passing over your place to get there, the decrease may not be as great as expected. So ultimately, it is impossible to answer your question.
I would recommend that you encourage the beekeeper to move his hives and see if that works. I think there is a good chance it will help. Try to work it out with him because these situations can get messy if you decide to use the courts. If you are reasonable, he may be reasonable too. We hope. And hit him up for some honey when you talk to him. Even if you don’t like honey, it makes a great gift for your friends.
So there you have it. A day in the life of a bee blogger. I never heard from him again, probably because he thinks I’m nuts.
Honey Bee Suite