banner by Amanda Nichols and Liam McFadden

The Secret Life of Bee Hunting

by Bailey Sasseville

It’s one of the oldest hunting sports in the world, once purely practical and now offering everything desired in recreational hunting: a long, suspenseful chase needing both physical and technical skill, wily twists and turns and most importantly, a sweet victory at the end. It will take you to sunny hilltop meadows, across sparkling streams and deep into shadowy forests, requiring patience, determination and sharp eyes. It is bee hunting.

Also called “bee lining” or “honey hunting,” bee hunting has been used for at least 10,000 years to find wild hives filled with the sweet, golden nectar so cherished and valued by societies on almost every continent. Today, of course, the sport is used more as a recreational, educational, or scientific activity rather than for profit, yet the techniques remain much the same. The tools are simple: a bee box, nectar and a compass. Modern technology, such as a GPS and topographical mapping software may be desired, but are by no means necessary. The process itself is also relatively simple, but it requires patience and time. You can hunt on any warm, dry day between spring and fall, preferably starting at a sunny location where many wildflowers are in bloom. After placing the nectar inside the bee box and setting the bee box near the flowers on a stool or a stump, you simply wait until about a dozen bees have entered the box, lured by the nectar. Then, it is time to establish a beeline.

The bees, loaded up with nectar to take back to their hives, after being released from your box will circle in the air a few times before figuring out their location and flying towards home. They will unload their nectar and return to you for more, bringing friends with them. After several trips back and forth, the bees will remember your location well enough to be able to fly in a straight line from the bee box to their hive, forming a true “beeline.” This is, of course, the origin of the colloquial use of the word. Now, you can use your compass to mark the direction the bees seem to be flying in, compiling measurements from the many flights you observe and taking the average.

The rest of the hunt consists of slow steps forward, moving the bee box farther along the bee line, then taking new measurements and moving forward again up and over hills, across brooks, through woods and clearings, ever closer to your treasure. If you have a set of paints and a watch, you can time the trips of individual bees to see how the lengths of the trips decrease as you get closer and closer to the hive. Eventually, the length will be short enough that you can begin searching from tree to tree, until finally you find your prize: a knothole in a hollow tree with bees endlessly buzzing in and out in search of nectar.

In the past, the tree would be cut down and the honey harvested. Today, however, almost all honey is harvested from apiaries, beehives of domestic bees. The goal of bee hunting is instead to make scientific observations of bees in their natural habitat, or simply to enjoy the thrill of the chase. This sport may seem ancient, outdated and irrelevant, but it is actually more pertinent than ever. In recent years, honeybees have been dying off in massive numbers. Scientists have suggested several causes of colony collapse disorder, from disease to loss of habitat to pesticides, but unfortunately no one answer is clear yet. According to one study, “American beekeepers lost 42 percent of their honeybee colonies” in 2014. Many of the world’s crops depend on continued pollination by bees and other insects, and if these trends continue, our food supply could suffer dearly. In addition to studying and experimenting on domestic bees, scientists attempting to reduce this decline must track down wild bee populations in order to study them, and many still use this ancient method of bee hunting. Some large-scale programs, like Discover Life’s “Bee Hunt,” rely on ordinary people to go out, hunt bees, and collect data and observations in order to better understand bees, both wild and domesticated, and the impact of climate change, pesticides, and other factors. Finding the cause or causes for collapsing populations is the first step in restoring their health.

Of course, bee hunting is also an attractive activity to those with less lofty goals. It is very fun for families because it can teach children about navigation and wildlife, as well as provide fresh air and exercise in a treasure hunt-style excursion. Any forests and meadows with abundant flowers far from towns will provide the best opportunities for finding wild colonies. Those living in cities such as Pittsburgh may be hard pressed to find wild bee populations as most will live in domestic apiaries, but this can provide an excuse to escape the smog and noise of the city for the nearby peaceful breezes of the countryside. So the next time you have a sunny spring weekend and nothing to do, maybe you’ll find yourself basking in a green meadow, surrounded by the gentle humming of wild bees, steeped in golden afternoon light and the sweet smell of nectar flowers.