During this year of COVID restrictions, many people have taken up new hobbies that don't require in-person socializing: birding, sewing, sourdough-bread baking. For some of us who proudly identify as word nerds, the preferred pastime has been a clever and challenging puzzle that can be enjoyed either in solitude or on social media: the New York Times Spelling Bee.
This isn't the spelling bee you may be picturing, in which contestants (usually schoolkids) stand up, one at a time, and attempt to spell difficult words. The Times Bee comes in two flavors: a pen-and-paper puzzle in the Sunday Magazine, introduced in 2014; and an online game, launched in May 2018, that's refreshed daily. In both varieties, six letters surround a central letter in a hexagonal "beehive" shape. (The bee in spelling bee has been used metaphorically since the 1530s to mean "busy worker"; the sense of "a meeting of neighbors to labor together," as in a quilting bee, is American English dating back to 1769. Spelling bee was first documented in 1809.)
Anyone can play the Bee, but to chart your progress you'll need a New York Times Games subscription, which also gives you access to the crossword and other online puzzles. I have no financial stake in the Times or the Bee, so my endorsement is unbiased: the subscription's modest cost is worth it.
The seven-letter Bee is constructed each day by veteran puzzlemaker Frank Longo from a computer-generated list based on the latest Scrabble word list. The challenge: to construct as many words as possible from the "hive." The rules: words must be at least four letters long (in the newspaper version, the minimum length is five letters) and must contain the central letter. Letters may be repeated, and at least one word — the pangram — contains all seven letters. (Pangram comes from roots meaning "all" and "letter.") Each four-letter word earns a single point; the point value of longer words is equal to their length — a six-letter word is worth six points — and each pangram earns a seven-point bonus. Proper nouns and words deemed offensive are not allowed, and you'll never find an S in the hive — easy pluralization would give the game away.
The Bee is both a vocabulary game and a pattern-finding challenge; in the latter respect, it resembles Scrabble. Are there productive letter combinations, such as UN, ING, or ED, that can be used to create multiple words? Do you remember that -ULE is a suffix meaning "small," as in VENULE, a small vein? Does an abundance of vowels suggest foreign-language imports such as AIOLI and LUAU? Solvers find satisfaction in tracking their progress in each day's game, beginning with "Good Start" and proceeding through "Nice" and "Amazing." "Genius"level is rewarded with a bee icon — she has a name: Beeatrice — wearing a mortarboard.
But wait — you can keep playing on beyond Genius. There's a hidden prize, Queen Bee, for finding all the words in a hive; achieve it and Beeatrice appears wearing a crown. How many is all? That's kept secret, but the total point value is approximately double the Amazing level.
The undisputed Queen Bee queen is Deb Koker, an engineer and lawyer in Bedford, Massachusetts, who rises every morning at 3 a.m. Eastern, when the new Bee is posted, and by 4 a.m. has usually found all the words and posted her results on Twitter. Recently she created March Madness–style brackets for words that aren't accepted in the Bee but maybe ought to be — words like COIR (a fiber made from coconut husks), ALEE (toward shelter), and TAMARI (Japanese soy sauce).
Other players have found ingenious ways to build on the Bee and help fellow players. Writer and programmer William Shunn, who lives in New York City, created the Spelling Bee Solver in September 2018, soon after he discovered and got hooked on the Bee. "When I got good and thoroughly stuck, I wanted a way to figure out the answers I was missing, just so I would stop obsessing over it," he told me. The Solver grid tells you the total number of words in that day's puzzle as well as how many words of each length you'll need to find. "The more I played around with it, the more interested I became in figuring out what elements made for a good Spelling Bee puzzle,"; Shunn says. He's been a puzzler since childhood, when he especially loved puzzles "where you're given a long word and need to find all the smaller words you can form from those letters. I could never get all the words, but I loved thinking through all the possible combinations, which is perhaps why I spend so much time on Spelling Bee analysis."
The Bee's appeal, he adds, "is its intersection between language and mathematics." On his website, Shunn has also posted a helpful glossary of Bee terms.
Another Bee fan, Kevin Davis, takes a different approach: On Twitter each day, he posts clues to that day's word list. Constructing a good clue is an art in itself: What's a "fine lustrous silk with crisp texture used for formal gowns"?
I got TAFFETA without a hint — fabric names are an arcane specialty of mine — but several times a week I'll discover a new-to-me word in the Bee. ARHAT (in Buddhism, someone who has achieved nirvana) appears regularly enough that I can now spot this once-unfamiliar word. Likewise LOBLOLLY (a type of pine tree) and CANNA (a type of lily). One Bee fan admitted on Twitter, "I have learned more scientific words by following #hivemind #spellingbee #nytsb than I ever thought I would in my adult life."
By the way, those hashtags are an indication of the Bee's appeal: On Twitter, they allow solvers to connect with each other, celebrate victories, and share good-natured gripes, many of them directed at the Bee's editor, Sam Ezersky, whose Twitter handle is @thegridkid. There also are Spelling Bee groups on Reddit and Facebook. There is plenty to deplore about social media, but I've found these Bee colonies to be invariably civil, supportive, and — this is key — passionate about words.
But you can enjoy the Spelling Bee on your own as well. Diane Fischler, a nutrition consultant in San Rafael, California, achieves Queen Bee rarely, but still says she looks forward to the Bee every day. "I spend at least 30 to 45 minutes on it before I start work, and then I pop back in throughout the day when I need a break," she told me. During the pandemic, she says, the Bee "has been an anchor and a source of deep pleasure."
A word puzzle that can do all that? It's enough to give you a little buzz.