Busting Myths About Working With Bees

Bees in a Lab
The surprising reality of how scientists work with bees in the lab.
By Dr Edward Straw


As someone who’s worked with bumblebees in a science laboratory for 5 years, I’ve been asked just about every bee-related question imaginable. So, for world bee day, I thought I’d lay out some of the common misconceptions about what it means to work with bees.


Myth- The bees are just flying about in the room

We actually stop the bees from flying by using a nifty trick which relies on the fact that they are really bad at seeing the colour red. We have special lightbulbs in our labs which only emit red light, which to a human is plenty of light to see in, but to a bee is pretty much like being in darkness. Because they are in the dark they won’t fly, which makes them much easier to work with.


Myth- Bees surely can’t like being in darkness

Actually, lots of bumblebee species live in underground nests, they’re quite at home in the dark.


Myth- We get our bees from the wild

This does happen sometimes, but normally we just order them in the post. You can buy a colony of bees for about €80, and they take about 10 days to deliver. They come in shoebox sized plastic boxes which contain a whole colony. Delivery drivers don’t like us.

What the inside of a bee lab looks like, the boxes in the background are what bees get delivered in. Red light isn’t very flattering.

Inside of the Bees Lab
What the inside of a bee lab looks like, the boxes in the background are what bees get delivered in. Red light isn’t very flattering

Myth- Albert Einstein said…

Nope, he didn’t. Doesn’t matter what Facebook says, Einstein was a theoretical physicist, he didn’t say anything noteworthy about bees.


Myth- Bees die if they sting you

This isn’t really myth because it’s usually true for honeybees. Bumblebees on the other hand can, and will, sting you several times if they want to. Stings are quite rare in the lab (if safety precautions are followed), I’ve averaged just under 1 sting a year.


Myth- Thinking bumblebees are honeybees

There’s actually 20,000 species of bee globally, and 100 in Ireland. I work with the buff-tailed bumblebee, which is one of the more common species in Europe. Honeybees are a different species entirely, they’re the ones beekeepers look after who make honey.


Myth- According to physics, bees shouldn’t be able to fly

We’ve all seen bees flying, they’re very not good at it, but they can fly. Physics just got this one wrong.


Myth- We wear bee suits to work with the bees

We usually just wear jeans and a t-shirt. The lab is kept quite warm to keep the bees happy, so you don’t really want many layers on. Because of the red light and all the bee safety stuff we do you don’t actually need a bee suit; it’d just get in our way.


Despite the general public’s love for bees, they are misunderstood more than almost any other animal. Hopefully this article cleared up a few misconceptions about what it means to work with them in a laboratory.

Busy Bees GIF
The busy inside of a bee colony, see if you can spot the queen bee, she’s the huge one

This article was posted on World Bee Day! If you’re interested in more bee content we’ve got you covered:

You could read Peter O’Connell’s guide to “Bee-coming a Bee-Keeper” or Will Hawkes describing the incredible 130 mile migrations of the buff tailed bumblebee. Entomologist Laura Ellen Healy has written two articles, one on the significance of insects and another on their benefit as a food source. While environmental educator Oisín Duffy has written 8 different bee ID guides: The buff tailed bumblebee, white tailed bumblebee, common carder bee, moss carder bee, heath bumblebee, garden bumblebee, red tailed bumblebee and early bumblebee.


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