A guest entry, graciously granted by Secular Humanist warrior queen Felicia of Life Before Death, with her own photograph.
As I start writing this post*, the air has an autumn tang to it, it is windy, and definitely not as warm as it could be in August. And yet, the bees are working. There’s something comforting about how their lives go on irrespective of what happens in the world of humans. All they care about is the turning of seasons, the treachery of weather, the health of their queen.
Around Stockholm, where we live, the bees usually don’t have anything to show for their labour at this time of the year. Most of the sources of nectar have already passed from flower to seed. Now, there is only heather, and a chance of honeydew — the sugary secretions of millions of aphids. Yes, bees can make honey out of that, too. This year, it seems as though the hives are actually still slowly filling up with honey. I hope the source is some poor tree somewhere, sucked dry of it’s life’s … sap. Harsh, but preferable to heather. Heather honey is Hell to extract; sticky and lumpy, it clings to the wax. The only really effective way to extract heather honey is to crush the combs.
But, all of this is really an aside. I have been a beekeeper for eleven years now, having sort of tagged along when my father first bought two hives and ever since helped** him tend the apiary. Although I like the taste of honey and am always ready to speak for its wondrous qualities as a spice and sweetener, it is really the bees themselves I am drawn to. There is something about eusocial insects that fascinates me, and honeybees, being so extraordinarily easy to get close to, have gained a special place in my heart. (I have on occasion captured an ant queen after swarming and tried to make her start a colony in a makeshift terrarium. It never worked.)
The latin name, Apis mellifera, means honey-carrying bee. This isn’t actually correct, as the bees gather nectar, from which they produce honey. An individual bee normally carries about 20-40 microlitres of nectar, which weighs a bit more than water, on its way home to the hive. During one season, a hive of bees can produce as much as 100 kilos of honey, or even more — how many foraging flights this requires I leave to the esteemed reader to calculate. And yet this isn’t all that bees collect. Apart from honey, they carry home pollen, the protein source for their larvae; propolis, a waxy tree-bud resin with which they close up cracks in the hive; and water, which they may sprinkle over the combs on a hot day, cooling the colony as the water evaporates. Young bees who have yet to leave the hive on these missions stay home and tend the young, feed the queen, build combs, fan the nectar (to evaporate the water, preventing fermentation), tidy up, defend the colony from predators…
It is an astoundingly intricate world of small individual units who all seem autonomous and independent and yet implacably dependent on each other. While ants often have morphologically defined caste systems, bees utilise a plastic division of labour, enabling them to react and adapt to changes in their environment. For example, a sudden increase in honey flow requires more combs, spurring more bees to enter the construction trade. The only individuals whose roles are fixed are the queens and the drones, who exist simply to procreate. At least that’s what the queens do — if the drones have a further role to play, we have yet to figure it out.
How the workers know what to do, I don’t think anyone knows, but it is bound to be a fascinating area of research. It would be nice if it turned out to be possible to condition bees not to gather certain kinds of honey, while we’re at it. Such as heather.
* Which took more than a month to complete, due to various circumstances.
** “Helping” in this case includes arguing a lot, as is bound to happen when father and daughter try to work together towards some elusive common goal of “good beekeeping”.