You never know what you'll encounter during a walk through the New Canaan Nature Center's wildflower garden. Foot-long garter snakes slither under your feet while frogs hop out of nowhere.

But it's the 10,000 or so bees that really grab your attention.

"If we get stung, we did something wrong," said Keith Marshall, director of education at the nature center and a self-taught beekeeper, as he pulls out part of the hive buzzing with about 3,000 bees, all collectively doing what's referred to as a "waggle dance," shaking movements that signal danger to other bees. "If you had something rip the roof off your place, you'd come out and say `What the heck?' too."

Marshall recently invited the New Canaan News along to watch him open one of the center's four working beehives, something he does regularly as a way to check the productivity of the hive, as well as its health. The buzzing swarm indicates a healthy hive, and it is highly unlikely that the bees will come after us. Both of us are in white, protective suits (bees are more likely to attack dark things that attack them like bears and skunks), and as long as we don't make any sudden moves we should be OK. It helps that Marshall carries a smoker device, which he uses to mimic a forest fire. The bees' survival instinct forces them back inside to protect the hive.

Most people think of honeybees as scary predators searching for something to sting. The truth is they have better things to do in their short 23-day lifespan. Beehives are like small cities, a highly democratic society in which several different types of bees have specific jobs. At the center of their world is the queen bee, a female whose job is to lay as many eggs as she can -- as many as 1,000 a day. Male bees, known as drones, don't do much -- their only job is to mate with the queen -- and the female worker bees are the ones who venture outside, collect pollen from flowers, and bring it back so that they can turn it into honey for food for their babies.

"The big joke in the beekeeping world is that the males don't do much, and the females do all the work," Marshall said. "I love going out into the meadow on a warm summer day and seeing all these worker bees going out on patrol."

Huge swarms of honeybees have a tendency to attract a lot of fear and media attention, as happened recently in New York City when thousands gathered around a mailbox in Little Italy, and another incident about a month ago when a swarm made a temporary home around a streetlight in Chinatown. While police cordoned off the area for safety, the bees likely were just shopping for more permanent real estate.

More Information

Fact box

"Bees swarm to move to a better location," Marshall said. "They have no hive to protect, so theoretically you could reach your hand into the swarm and not get stung."

Marshall said bees prefer not to sting, since it's a last resort survival instinct for them. Most bees will die if they sting -- the stinger makes up about half of their abdomen. If a bee stings, it's because it's trapped (such as in your shirt), or because it's protecting the hive (usually when someone steps on it).

In fact, if it weren't for honeybees, chances are we wouldn't be here. It's estimated that about 60 percent of our food supply is directly affected by the pollination that bees provide as they go about their daily routine. According to Marshall, there are about 200 species of pollinators in North America, most of them ancestors of bees brought over from Europe. They were bred to be hardy, as they had to survive cold winters in Russia and northern Italy. Here in the states, the bees carry pollen from flower to flower, helping them reproduce. From there, animals eat grasses and flowers, and make their way into our food chain.

"It's all linked," he said. "Honey is the nectar of flowers, a natural sugar that bees regurgitate so they can have food over the winter."

To give an idea of how important bees are to the overall food chain, Marshall points to a valley in China that is famous for producing Asian pears. In years past, officials have "nuked" the valley with pesticides and herbicides, essentially ridding the valley of any pollinators. Because of this, citizens hold a "pollinating party" every year where they have to hand-brush pollen onto the flowers that produce the pears.

It just may be that honey is the perfect food, too. Marshall reaches into a hive and pulls out a piece of honeycomb and offers me a piece to chew on. It has the texture of wax candy you may have eaten as a kid, with the taste of fresh, sweet honey.

"In the medieval days, it was a cure-all because it has anti-bacterial and anti-microbial properties," he said. "It's one of the most pure foods we have. Think about it -- have you ever seen honey with mold on it?"

Honey is also believed to be good reliever of seasonal allergies. By eating local honey from local plants, many allergists believe that it can serve as an antidote for sniffling and sneezing.

If you're still convinced that bees are mean creatures out to sting you, Marshall said to remain calm when you are near them, especially near a hive.

"It's these people who cosmically attract bees -- bees are able to tell if you're coming in with high energy," he said. "You need to be calm and steady your breath. Whatever you do, don't walk in front of the hive. It's their entrance way."

The New Canaan Nature Center, located on Oenoke Ridge Road, has a working beehive located in the visitor center. With about 3,000 bees at any one time, visitors can observe bees coming and going, while working to feed and protect the queen bee.

"This is a unique opportunity for people to observe what is going on inside the hive," Marshall said.