In ‘What on Earth Happened?… In Brief (the planet, life and people from the big bang to the present day)’ by Christopher Lloyd, I learned that bees descended from wasps and emerged at the same time as the first flowers. Bees switched from dining on other insects to a diet of pollen and nectar. I had no idea that there are 20,000 different species of bee alive today. Some of these, especially honey-bees, bumble-bees and stingless bees form highly social groups that offer a deep insight into how nature’s civilizations work.
Bees are eusocial creatures and divide up jobs between themselves. They pass knowledge and learning on from one generation to another, care for their youngsters and even, in certain circumstances, sacrifice lives for the benefit of the group. Such characteristics were for a long time thought to be unique to mankind when it first organized itself into tribes and eventually cities and states.
But, as any beekeeper will tell you this is not so…
In her book ‘The Morville Hours’, Katherine Swift, who is a beekeeper, shares many interesting snippets about bees. One thing she mentions is that bees are now threatened by Varroa which is a parasitic mite endemic in most countries. It arrived in the UK in the mid 1990s. The mites attach themselves to the bees and weaken their bodies’ immune system. This is easy to treat in domesticated bees, but not in wild bees and if left untreated, it can lead to the extinction of whole colonies.
In a recent article in the National Trust magazine, Emma Hill, the head gardener for Dunham Massey, explains how the bee keepers at Dunham Massy deal with the virus by using icing sugar to treat it. The sugar is sprinkled onto the bees through a fine mesh. This encourages the bees to groom which removes the mite.
Emma also tells us that the keeping of bees in hives dates back at least as far as the ancient Egyptians and that a bee society is predominantly female.
Emma has been studying bee behaviour and has observed that when their stomachs are full of honey they are happy and emit a low hum, whereas a high pitched hum means that they are angry. Bees have two stomachs; the extra one is for storing honey.
Worker bees can fly up to two miles to collect, nectar, pollen, propolis and water. They perform their figure of eight waggle dance to indicate to other bees where to forage.
On my recent holiday to Northumberland I visited a honey farm where I was able to see the bees in action and see how the honey was prepared for distribution to the public. I was also able to sample the products and was tempted to purchase a jar of Heather Honey which has a delightful taste.
I say long live the bee.