Honeybees have sex in mid-air, Betty Mencucci tells her audience in a Rhode Island College lecture hall. The royal lady zooms toward a pack of male drones, she says. "And the minute a queen is there, they're like, 'Whoa, guys, there she is!' " Mencucci shouts.
"They fly after her," she continues, standing at a table piled with beeswax candles and jars of honey, "and they form, like, a comet of bees after her — this is up in the air like maybe 15 feet or so — and the strongest and the swiftest drone will catch her first and he will mate in mid-air. Immediately after a mating, there's a popping sound heard, and he falls over backwards and he drops to the ground dead." The crowd chuckles.
This happens over and over up to 20 times, Mencucci says: the chase, the hookup, the drone's post-coital death drop. Then it's time for the queen to head back to the hive to lay thousands of eggs.
It's day one of the Rhode Island Beekeepers Association's 2013 "Bee School" and the birds and bees, for bees, are just a small part of the lesson. Mencucci — the owner of Betty's Bee Farm in Burrillville and "RI's Pioneering Woman Beekeeper," according to RIBA — has a lot of material to cover.
She hands out pages of bee facts ("Flight Speed . . . 15 MPH maximum"), bee terms ("Royal jelly – a milky white substance secreted from glands of the nurse bees"), and recommendations for equipment ("smoker . . . bee brush . . . full suit with veil"). She passes around blocks of pure beeswax for guests to smell. She lists the myriad reasons for inviting a swarm of stinging insects into your backyard: achieving harmony with nature; upping the pollination rate of your garden; practicing "apitherapy," by stinging oneself with bees to relieve the pain of arthritis.
Today's lesson seems to have cross-demographic appeal. Seated in the audience are older women with canes; a young, burly, bouncer-looking guy with a dragon tattoo swirling around his right forearm; and a fortysomething man diligently scribbling notes with a pistol holstered to his belt and a "Bureau of Criminal Investigation" polo shirt on his back. Present for the lecture, too, is RIC's sustainability coordinator, Jim Murphy, who explains after the lecture that the college acquired two hives of its own last summer shortly after his job was created. They're named "Latifah" and "Bee-atrice," for their respective queens.
Tending to those hives has helped ease Murphy's anxiety about getting stung. "When I first started taking care of them . . . I was in there with the suit, the gloves, the hat . . . the smoker," he says. Since then, his fears have eased considerably. Today he's wearing only slacks, a button down shirt, and a light winter coat. That's fine, he says: "If I were to go up there right now, I would just open it up and take a peek in."
Registration for the current Bee School session is closed, but anyone interested in beekeeping is invited to join RIBA or go to ribeekeper.org. To enjoy the wonders of beekeeping from a safe distance, follow RIC alumni Scott and Emily Langlais's adventures at provbees.tumblr.com.