I always used to be terrified of yellow and black insects that buzzed and had a sting. Growing up in England, wasps were a constant menace in the summer invading picnics, walks, sunbathing sessions or flying through an open window and buzzing angrily around the house.
I still have vivid memories of unlocking the door to a hotel room in France and finding three hornets (and they can really sting, and multiple times) flying around. Even after the concierge had dispatched them to the next life with several applications of spray, I felt compelled to check there weren’t more of them hiding under the bed, under the pillow, in the cupboard or down the loo. And on holiday in France in 2003, there was a swarm of wild bees in the attic above my room. Although it was unlikely they would drop through the beams and descend on me in the night, I found it hard to relax with the intense humming-kind of sound going on above me. It was all a bit too reminiscent of one of Roald Dahl’s Tales of Unexpected.
I’ve got much less hysterical about wasps which is just as well as I get as many in my Melbourne garden as I did in London or Oxford. And I’ve recently learnt a lot about bees and developed a great respect for these magnificent creatures – thanks to my friends Felicity and Marc in Anglesea. Felicity is a writer and illustrator and she is currently working on a marvellous children’s book, Bye Bye Honey Bee. Check out her website at http://www.felicitymarshall.com.
I returned to Anglesea last weekend and visited Felicity and Marc’s beehive for the second time. What a deeply humbling experience it is to get up close and personal with bees and to observe how they work as a community, every member doing their bit for the whole. And, needless to say, it’s the girls who do all the work. In a typical colony there’s one queen bee, approximately one thousand male drones whose only job is to inseminate the queen, and about 60,000 female workers who are responsible for all the feeding, cleaning and nursing jobs and for defending the hive – unlike the boys, the girls do have stingers. Go girls…
Before I visited the hive for the first time back in May, I underwent an induction into the world of all things bee-related. Incidentally, there isn’t an adjective that describes or relates to bees. There’s apiary meaning a collection of beehives or apiarist meaning a beekeeper but no handy world like apian to sit alongside feline (beeline being already taken), canine, leonine, avian etc. Anyway, back to the story. Felicity and Marc lent me two fabulous documentaries: Queen of the Sun by Taggart Siegel (the director of the Real Dirt on Farmer John) and More than Honey by Markus Imhoof. There’s so much to learn about bees and their role in food production and the health of our environment. Sadly, the bottom line is that bees are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to environmental Armageddon. But before I get too bogged in the problems of industrialised farming, let me take a minute to wow you with some amazing bee facts.
Did you know that:
- One third of all food wouldn’t exist without bees
- Correctly stored, honey never goes off. Sealed honey vats found in Tutankhmun’s tomb were STILL edible despite being buried under the sand for over 2,000 years.
- Bees have to visit approximately 2 million flowers and fly 55,000 miles (approx 88,500 km) to make one pound of honey.
- Worker bees perform a waggle dance which is a figure-eight dance that indicates to other bees in the hive where and how far the best sources of nectar are. If I had to choose a favourite bee factoid it would be this one: it’s so clever, it’s like a ‘beeline’ GPS system.
But, and there is a big BUT, bee populations are declining due to human interference, the practice of mono-culture and industrialised farming and the spread of viruses (particularly a parasitic mite called Varroa that attacks honey bees). Bees are dying out and colony collapse where some kind of disturbance in the hive leads to the abrupt disappearance of all the worker bees is on the increase.
In China the land has become so degraded by pesticide use that there are no bees left and therefore no pollination. To overcome the problem, migrant workers are shipped in by the truckload to pollinate the plants with brushes. You might think this sounds like a scene from some futuristic novel but it’s actually happening, and on our watch.
In California the annual almond harvest is worth big bucks and bees from all over the US are shipped in every year creating an intermingling of bees from different regions and an unhealthy exchange of diseases. The narrator of More than Honey comments that we’ve over-tamed bees and made delicate poodles of wild animals by manipulating nature. Some of the large scale producers in the US fly queen bees in by Federal Express and introduce them into a colony, rather than letting the bees self-select their queen.
So what’s to be done? If you ever get the chance to visit a beehive, take it. There’s nothing like donning a bee suit and mask and getting to lift out a frame and look at the brood – which is the eggs, larvae and pupae that will become fully-grown bees. The brood is laid in honeycombs and as the larvae grow, the worker bees cap the brood with a wax cap. The hive I visited was dripping with honey and capped with white wax. I got to taste some of the raw honey and it was exquisite. The honey you buy in supermarkets has been heat treated, processed and lost all its goodness.
If you want real, nutrient-rich honey, go to an organic store or farmers’ market. Or track down a roof-top bee keeper. It’s heartening that roof-top beekeepers are springing up from London to New York, Sydney and Melbourne. Let’s do our bit for bees and the environment by supporting small scale beekeepers and keeping the delicate poodles at bay!