Bee Wise!

All of us know by now that bees are essential to us humans; they pollinate our fruit and veg crops, they ensure we have food on our table and honey on our toast. In fact, they work tirelessly to make our lives better.

We thought we’d write a little homage to other reasons bees are awesome and how we can help them on a daily basis.

One of our team keeps bees and always refers to the hives as a single entity rather than ‘the bees’. The term ‘hive mind’ is an apt one – bees are unparalleled communicators and the perfect example of a mass community living and working together in harmony to ensure survival and maximum living conditions. In short, they are amazing!

Our first ‘awesome fact’ about bees is that it’s not the queen that dictates what happens within her swarm it’s actually her large, all female, band of worker bees. It’s the worker bees who are responsible for every event that happens within the swarm. They instruct the queen when to lay drone eggs, when to lay queen eggs and they’re responsible for feeding, cleaning and providing water for the swarm as a whole. They also maintain a constant internal hive temperature and ‘stop up’ any breezy gaps within the hive with propolis which they make from tree resin.

Through the winter all the bees in a swarm are female. Drones eggs are laid by the queen in the early spring so they mature in time for the mating flights. The clever worker bee ladies decide how many drones they think the swarm needs and when they want the queen to lay the eggs. When they think the time is right for the queen to lay a drone egg they construct a slightly larger hexagonal brood chamber than those used to hatch out the female worker bees. When the queen crawls over it to lay her eggs she can feel that it’s larger than the other brood chambers and deposits an egg without sperm into it. These eggs all hatch into drones.

Come the end of the summer, when the bees have finished their mating flights and swarmed to new homes, the worker bees decide it’s time to throw the poor old drones out of the hive. A drone’s only role in life is to take part in a mating flight (or several) and, if his lucks in and he’s a fast enough flyer, to mate with a queen, aside from that he fulfils no useful function. He does eat a lot of honey though and this is why the worker bees kick them all out at the end of the summer. They worker bees need to maintain the hives honey stores to make sure they survive the winter with enough food so the poor old drone gets booted out and, inevitably, without the protection of the worker bees and a ready supply of food, he dies. It’s safe to say that drones really did get one of the evolutional short straws. On the positive side they live a life of absolute luxury until autumn!

Something else to bear in mind about the Honey Bee; it will only sting you as a very last resort – if it thinks you’re threatening its life or the integrity of the hive. If a Honey Bee stings you it dies a horrible and very painful death – it leaves its sting in your skin and this pulls its innards out leaving it to die. Bear this in mind if a bee lands on you – it really, really does not want to sting you! If you do get stung, keep your cool, find the little black stinger and flick it out of your skin. When a bee stings you it doesn’t immediately deposit the poison that causes the pain into you; this is done by a tiny sac of venom (that you’ll be able to see if you look closely enough) so if you flick the stinger quickly you’ll get rid of most of the venom.

So we’ve given you a couple of awesome facts about honey bees but what about the UKs other favourite buzzing friend the Bumblebee? It’s also an important pollinator and we shouldn’t overlook it because it doesn’t make honey!

We’ve got 24 species of bumblebee in the UK. They prefer to live in burrows in dark, shady spots rather than en masse in a large swarm. They only nest in the same spot for one year so if you do have a Bumblebee nest in your garden that’s constantly inhabited it’s likely to be because a new queen has picked the nest spot each year!

Only female Bumblebees will sting you. This is because a Bumblebees sting evolved from a female bees ovipositor; the one thing that’s lacking in male bumblebees!

By all accounts Bumblebees should not be able to fly – they just don’t have the figure for it! Aerodynamically they are entirely the wrong shape and the fact that they can fly at all is a miracle of nature. In order to get their tubby little bodies off the ground they expend an enormous amount of energy and, like every active, living thing, they have to eat a lot to ensure they don’t starve themselves to death. A bumblebee is said to be only about 40 minutes from starvation on any one day.

Did you know that Bumblebees have smelly feet? All bees are covered in an oily film in order to keep themselves waterproof. When they land on a flower they leave traces of oil and it’s chemical ‘scent’ on each flower. This means that another Bumblebee can smell if a flower has already had its nectar taken and won’t bother landing on that flower.

As we come into warmer weather it’s a common site to see bumblebees (& indeed the odd honey bee), sitting very still and not looking very well, either on the ground or on a windowsill. You’ll find that they’re usually dehydrated, tired and hungry. Rather than picking them up and putting them outside or near a flower give them a quick drink of sugar water first. You’ll need to mix sugar with warm water and then leave it to cool for a while before putting it close enough to the bumblebee for it to drink. If you’re lucky you’ll see the bees long ‘tongue’ come out and suck up the sugar water.

So there you have it – a few interesting facts about a truly fascinating, and very valuable, member of our ecosystem. We all know how important bees are to us as pollination experts; so much of our food supply would be lost if it weren’t for them. Perhaps we can all do our bit to keep bees and bumblebees thriving.

Alex Oates