The murmuring of innumerable bees…

09 +00002013-06-03T17:58:47+00:0030 2012 § 12 Comments

Honey bee
Yesterday I went on a pilgrimage to Ripon with my husband, in quest of bees. We (I say ‘we’ – he is the bee-keeper, the one who has acquired the considerable amount of scientific knowledge needed and has the requisite patience; I am the bee-keeper’s assistant, so can get by on more limited quantities of both and shirk my duties if I feel like it.) started keeping bees a number of years ago, with reasonable success. However, the terrible winter and very wet spring here took their toll and, like many beekeepers, we suffered losses.

Because, according to the press, some 80% of the nation’s bee colonies perished this winter, ‘supply and demand’ now dictates that the cost of a ‘nucleus’ colony is very high (up to £250) and it’s definitely a sellers’ market. Hobby beekeeping isn’t cheap anyway, with hives, frames and beekeeping paraphernalia. The equipment is, to me, like something designed by Heath Robinson or Rube Goldberg and I’m not surprised it’s pricey, given the frankly bizarre design of smokers, heated honey-capping knives, centrifugal honey extraction drums and solar wax melters; the few existing suppliers who have cornered the market definitely call the shots. Anyone thinking of starting up should throw those rose-tinted, back-to-nature, self-sufficiency specs away and go for crystal clear lenses. Then there are the bees themselves: they aren’t like kittens; they don’t come out to melt you with their charms when you are trying to decide whether to offer them a home and they don’t take kindly to being shipped by car and bumped around, before being hoiked out of one temporary home and bundled into another. Though some strains of bee, such as the Italian ‘ligustica’, are more gentle, bees tend to be ‘mongrels’ with very variable temperaments; sometimes a queen bee has genes with an attitude problem. So, though you might dream of summer days and drowsing in the garden sunshine, imagining yourself transported to the Mediterranean by the murmuring of the apiarian equivalent of the Italian soldiers in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, the reality can be more like taking on the aliens in Independence Day or WWII kamikaze pilots, hell-bent on taking you out even at the cost of their own lives. Think high-pitched incoming whine and be prepared to take cover. Unhappy bees do not subscribe to the concept that assault and battery is a crime. They just do it.

However, for those of us who do love bees and have become used to their temperamental ways and needs, caution is the watchword, and we pulled the plug on the travelling box and retreated quickly to a very safe distance. They’ve settled in already. Apparently, they get their bearings by flying backwards the first time that they leave the hive, to note where they are as they look back on it. They are remarkable creatures: they’re incomplete individually, but together comprise what is known as a superorganism. Each worker has her own task to perform and this changes over time as she ages, becoming finally a nectar- and pollen-gathering ‘forager’. The male ‘drones’ have their moment of glory, flying with the virgin queen to enable her to mate with several of them, before dying a gloriously sexy death (genitalia ripped right out of them!), or never doing anything until they are kicked out by the workers in the autumn so that they don’t deplete precious food reserves over the winter. I’m not a feminist by any means, but I can think of a few men whose families would benefit from similar summary treatment!

Because of the way in which they organise their lives and collaborate, bees have cropped up in art and literature from earliest times. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics feature bees; the early Greek writers celebrated them in song and verse. In more recent times, Alexandra Kollontai used the bee colony as a metaphor for life and love in Russia in the aftermath of the 1917 revolution, in her masterpiece Love of Worker Bees.

Bees are a joyful trouble. If they’re successful, they swarm, and the bee-keeper, in hot pursuit, has to shin up trees or plunge into thickets, hanging on precariously with one hand as he tries to trap them in a traditional straw ‘skep’ or a cardboard box. (You notice I say ‘he’ – this is emphatically not this beekeeper’s assistant’s job – though I know that there are many very skilled female beekeepers.) They suffer from a parasite called varroa mite, on which war has to be waged all the time if the colony is to flourish. Bees eat unconscionable quantities of sugar syrup during the autumn and often yield only a few small jars of honey per hive in return, but the benefits of their wider gifts to agriculture and the environment are incalculably great.

And I have to admit, in spite of all those expenses and troubles, now that the garden is once again a-buzz with murmuring bees, it feels as if the summer has begun in earnest at last.

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§ 12 Responses to The murmuring of innumerable bees…

  • vallypee says:

    Christina, you’ve just explained something that has been worrying me these last two weekends. I have not seen any bees on the lime tree in my garden yet. Normally, it is abuzz with bees when the flowers come out. Okay, they are late this year, and not fully open yet, but I have not seen a single bee anywhere. Maybe the Netherlands has also lost a substantial number of its bees. If so, that makes me very sad. My tree without bees is rather too calm and lifeless. I do hope they recover!

    • Their absence was noticeable quite early on, as usually they are visiting snowdrops and crocuses. It will take the efforts of beekeepers to boost their numbers again, but that will happen, I am reliably informed! 😉 My husband says that the scaremongers will be raising the profile of the neonicotinoid debate, which is not (I quote!) the reason for the lost colonies this winter (I fully expect someone to buzz in here and tell me otherwise, but I won’t be joining that debate as I am definitely NOT an expert and this blog won’t be a platform for that!). I believe that beekeepers are very adept at managing crises, as their response over quite a number of years to varroa reveals.
      I expect the Netherlands suffered similar losses (I don’t know!) as you had the same easterly air flow for weeks on end that we did. What I noticed as well was that the numbers of other bees (bumbles and solitary bees) and wasps are obviously well down too.
      I understand your feelings about the lime tree – there is nothing quite like the busy hum of it all under more normal circumstances. Everything crossed for recovery!

  • vallypee says:

    Everything is well crossed, and I am very glad to hear that beekeepers are good at managing periods of crisis! I know there is much talk about pesticides and their damaging effects, I have myself supported petitions to try and prevent their increasing use, but it didn’t occur to me this might be the reason for my lack of bees. It’s much too sudden, and you’re right, I haven’t seen any bumble bees either. I have virtually no knowledge of bees and rely on observation, so I put it down first to the late spring, but your explanation makes more sense. What Britain suffers weather wise, we mostly do too. I will root for their comeback and full recovery 🙂

    • Well, our new bees are bringing in lots of pollen and are obviously enjoying the sunshine and warmth. My husband has fed them with sugar syrup too, so that they will prosper. The picture is of one of them, taken this afternoon. It’s a fresh bee and looks the picture of health. 🙂

  • Julia says:

    80% is shocking Damned pesticides should be banned!

    I love bees, I was blessed by a swarm in my French garden and happily watched as they began to build a nest in my flowering current hedge, and then they suddenly rose up, formed a dagger-shape (well, almost) and set off in the direction of the local school, with me in hot pursuit shouting like a mad woman “Attention! Attention!”

    All was well, they settled in an old tree down by the abandoned lavoir

    I miss France 😦 but how blessed you are to have a bee-keeping hubby 🙂

    • I am delighted by your very pictorial anecdote, especially your part in it! 😉 I must admit to a complete love affair with France, which has plenty of wonderful memories for me. Interestingly, beekeepers there have another problem: the spread of the Asian hornet, which preys upon honey bees. There are fears that it may hop the Channel, though perhaps the appalling weather here may prevent their arrival! We watched them on holiday two years ago in the Loire valley, as they nested in the eaves of our gite – they looked formidable, but weren’t interested in us or our breakfast!

  • fcmalby says:

    A really interesting post. I have always been cautious around bees, having been stung at an early age. I have since discovered that my husband was an avid beekeeper as a child. What a beautiful photograph. The detail is amazing. We have no bees in Austria this summer, if you can call it summer, and with the bad flooding in Central Europe at the moment, I wonder how it will affect the wildlife in general.

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