How to see it
Around the end of February, look in the east after dark. You will probably see Regulus, the brightest star in the constellation Leo, rather close to the eastern horizon. Then the bright stars Castor and Pollux in constellation Gemini will catch your eye higher up in the eastern sky. Halfway between the Regulus and Castor/Pollux is the Beehive star cluster – also known as NGC2632, M44 or Praesepe (manger in Latin).
On spring evenings, the Beehive shines in the south to southwest sky. It disappears from the western evening sky in June, and returns to the eastern morning sky, starting late summer. Keep an eye out for Regulus, and the Gemini stars Castor and Pollux, for they’re your guide stars to the Beehive star cluster.
You’d think that an object with so many names would be bright. But the Beehive star cluster isn’t bright. Only in dark country skies can you see this faint fuzzy object with the unaided eye. However, binoculars magically transform this smudge of light into a glittery swarm of stars..
M44 or NGC2632 as it is known to astronomers as an open cluster of stars in our galaxy. Open clusters are stars that are gravitationally bound and are created out of the same star forming nebulae such as the stars in the Orion Nebula. This open cluster’s distance is estimated to be between 520 to 610 light years from our solar system. There are approximately 1,000 stars in the cluster. If you use binoculars to see the Beehive, the brightest star you are seeing is 42 Cancri.
History and Mythology
Ptolemy at the beginning of the last millennium wrote that the Beehive star cluster was “the nebulous mass in the breast of Cancer.”
Galileo had the first telescopic view of the Beehive in 1609. With his paper tube and two pieces of glass he was able to detect 40 stars.
Around 1769, Charles Messier added the cluster to his famous catalog of nebulous objects. Hence the designation M44 – the 44th object in Messier’s catalog.
The Beehive star cluster was known as a manger in Greek and Roman mythology. You might notice two bright stars on either side of the cluster with your binoculars, or you might see them unaided eye in dark skies. These two stars, Asellus Borealis and Asellus Australis. In skylore, these two stars represent the donkeys that Dionysos and Silenus rode into battle against the Titans.