Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Work of the Honey Bee

 Mystic Times

A honey bee collecting nectar from a Helenium
 My aged auntie was a bit of a technophobe and she asked me for some help with a camera she was having trouble with. She'd inherited a Kodak Brownie box camera from her father and couldn't get it to work properly. The problem was that she'd shot a full film and the results were, to say the least, strange.

      "All the pictures are the same -they're of the mouths of two caves in a hillside", she told me.

      At the time, I was heavily into mysteries of the type theorised about by a bloke called Erich Von Danichen. He had a book published called 'Chariot of the Gods', which presented the idea that God was actually an alien spaceman who'd called in on earth to refuel or something (I forget the details) and we'd all got the God idea. He showed a picture of some ancient  Sarcophagus  which has a picture on it depicting, Erich said, a being in a space suit sitting on a rocket powered spaceship. In retrospect, the figure could just as easily have been a bloke on a motorbike, but we were avid then for something of mystery - a power from beyond which is greater than that of man who, at that cold war time, could only come up with the brainless promise of eternal warfare and probable nuclear extinction.

      Then there were the Nazca lines - markings on the ground in Peru which Erich reckoned had been drawn under the instruction of the spaceman in order that he'd have an airport to land at. Even I thought that this was a bit of a stretch, having been under the impression that spaceships went straight up and down, making runways a bit superfluous. Flash Gordon never needed one. However, my auntie's mysterious caves fitted well into this need for mysticism and I tried to look at it the way Erich would: was it a message from the universe, presenting a riddle that, if solved, would prove to be a blinding flash of enlightenment?, or maybe a hint that we should be heading for the air-raid shelters?
Demonstration hive. Spot the ghost cameraman.
      Church hierarchy warned about the danger presented by Ouija boards, which were also at their height around this time in the sixties, so of course, everyone had to have a go. There was usually some success in getting the dead to confer with us, probably because there was always some wag present who couldn't resist pushing the pointer to make out a message of love or death for someone. The thought crossed my mind that it may be worth consulting the vociferous dead about what the meaning of the caves was, but then I decided the more earthly scientific approach should be tried first and I went round to aunty's to have a look at the camera.

      It was one of those that you held against your chest and looked down into the viewfinder to frame your picture. I tried it and it seemed to be working right, although the system then of taking the film to the chemist and waiting a couple of weeks for the pictures to come back didn't enable me to verify that on the spot. Then I had a thought:

      "Show me how you take a picture with this please Auntie", I asked, and she duly got hold of the camera and demonstrated, squinting down at it with a frustrated manner.

      "The viewfinder doesn't work", she complained, "and I just have to point it in the vague direction of what I want to photograph".

      At this point all theories of heavenly intervention went up in a puff of celestial smoke.

      "That's because", I pointed out patiently, "you've got the camera upside down. All you're getting is a picture of your nostrils".

      Since then I've abandoned mysticism and contented myself with natural wonders. Nearing the top of the list is the world of honey bees. The hive is a wonder of cooperation. Each set of bees tend to their own tasks - sterile females (and they're all sterile except the queen) collect nectar, feed the larvae and even provide for when the queen grows old by creating some large royal cells. These they feed appropriately, in order to create her replacements .

      The job of the new queen is to mate with a male bee, then spend the rest of her life laying eggs. She only leaves the hive once in her lifetime, so makes the most of it by doing it with about ten males (drones) some 25 foot up in the air - the bee equivalent of the mile-high club. The sperm she receives is stored in her body and enables her to lay up to 1,500 eggs a day during the summer. Some are unfertilised and these always become the larger males. The number of males is dictated by the workers, who make the larger cells to accommodate them in accordance with the needs of the hive.

      Honey is made by the workers eating nectar, then regurgitating it and passing it to other workers who chew it and pass on enzymes which enable it to turn into the finished product. Don't want to put you off, but I suppose you could say that honey is bee puke. This they then put into the cells, cool it  by the fanning effect of their wings, and cover with a wax cap for storage until needed.

      The life of the drones looks pretty cushy because their role is to mate with the queen and most of them don't even get the chance to do that. However, the ones that do, die immediately afterwards. The fact that they die happy doesn't seem much of a consolation to me. The rest of the males all die at the end of the summer and the females and the queen live on in the hive, feeding on honey, so it really is a woman's world.

      Swarms occur around the end of May when young queens are coming out of their cells. Half the workers congregate at the entrance, carrying honey in body sacs, then, when she emerges, they clear off to find somewhere else to live. Usually they'll hang around in a tree, wall or some other suitable spot while scout bees check the estate agents for a new property. Occasionally they'll eventually settle in a hole in a tree but often they are collected by bee-keepers on the look-out for new colonies.

      Any consideration of bees has to include something about their dance: it seems that scout workers go searching for new sources of nectar then return to the hive and pass on the whereabouts to the rest of the colony by performing a dance. Amazingly, they can convey distance from the hive, type of pollen and its direction related to the sun, with a series of round dances and sexy waggling bottoms.
Beekeeper smoking bees to calm them down
      Beekeepers  keep the queen out of an area at the top of the hive so that they can collect honey without larvae in it. This is done simply by putting a 'filter' in: the workers can easily pass through but it is too fine for the larger queen. The workers don't realise this and, thinking the queen will be laying eggs in this area, fill the cells with honey to feed the larvae. Then we take it. Sneaky, eh?

      Obviously, it's nice to have honey, but the most important aspect of the bee's work comes about as it is collecting the nectar from flowers. It brushes past the anthers (male part), picking up pollen on its body and inadvertently transferring this to the stigma (female) organ of next flower it visits. In this way plants are fertilised and ultimately produce a large part of the food we eat.

      Worryingly, bees are dying out across the world. This has been attributed to a number of causes but probably the main ones are the use of a group of chemicals called neonicotinoids, which were introduced at the same time as colonies began to mysteriously die, together with the fact that huge areas of crops like wheat, which don't need them for pollination, create bee free zones. THIS IS SO IMPORTANT. If we don't want to lose a large part of our diet, like apple, pear, cabbage, broccoli, strawberry, cherry, plum, almond and a myriad other everyday foodstuffs, we should do what we can  by planting bee-friendly plants in our gardens and backing campaigns for the banning of damaging chemicals.

      There'll be no blog next week because I'm away on holiday. I know this will come as a great shock to my readers (both of you), but fear not because, as Arnie once said, I'll be back.

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