Bees special: Nature Notes for October with Malcolm Cox

A close view of the decorated hives in Slovenia
A close view of the decorated hives in Slovenia
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Something out of the ordinary for this month’s notes, a report from foreign parts. A brief explanation follows.

Thirty five years ago as a free and easy student rambling around Europe I spent time with an agricultural commune on the Austrian/Slovenian border. Among the strange things experienced (sheep dogs that were Alsatians crossed with wolves – yes, seriously) was my introduction to apiculture, bee-keeping.

Malcolm Cox at some multi-coloured hives in Slovenia

Malcolm Cox at some multi-coloured hives in Slovenia

Like anyone with an interest in the natural world, bees are endlessly fascinating. On hot summer days these creatures provide hours of free entertainment be they cultured honey bees or their wild, woolly humble/bumble cousins.

Stand quietly observing a fat hairy ball as it scrambles in search of nectar and pollen in a foxglove bloom. Listen to that amplified buzzing or enjoy the close observation of a bee as it sates itself on a floret-packed sunflower. Watch as it packs its pollen baskets and sucks up sugar, see its long proboscis (tongue) and those black, shiny compound eyes. Eyes that see the world as we cannot, watch as it cleans its antennae before flying to its nest or another flower. It is often said that by all the laws of aerodynamics bumbles cannot fly, yet they do. I confess to being something of a bee obsessive.

Continuing with this lyrical opening (bear with me reader there is plenty of science later) I am reminded of Gilbert White (The Natural History of Selborne) telling that strange tale of the “idiot boy who from a child showed a strong propensity to bees; they were his food, his amusement, his sole object. He had no apprehensions from their stings ... He would seize them and at once disarm them ... And suck their bodies for the sake of their honey bags.”

We hear so much these days about so called “superfoods”. I am not in fact all that fond of honey but Mrs Cox adores the stuff as many do. We read of honey being retrieved from ancient Egyptian tombs that remains edible. That is recommendation enough for me and is more a tribute to the preservative quality of the product rather than the skills of the ancient Egyptians.

Malcolm Cox at the entrance to the Slovenia bee museum

Malcolm Cox at the entrance to the Slovenia bee museum

On a lighter note, how many readers of my age will remember that diminutive Scouser, Arthur Askey, who sang “Honey bee, honey bee, honey bee, sting if you like but don’t sting me”. Musically we have Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” not to mention Benjamin Britten’s “The Wasp” (near enough?). There are so many more cultural references, ancient and modern but I guess I have made the point, our lives are interwoven with that of bees. Not just interwoven I suppose more like dependant on them.

And so for the scientific slant. To the casual observer, there are probably only two kinds of bees – bumble bees and honey bees – but there are actually some 250 different kinds of bees in the British Isles, including 25 species of bumble bee. Most of them lead solitary lives, without any sign of colony formation, but they all provide their off-spring with food in the form of pollen and nectar obtained from flowers. This is one of the main differences between bees and wasps, because all wasps feed their young on animal material. Leaving aside for now cultivated honey bees, let us consider wild bees, most of which are solitary and as they tend to emerge in spring their value as early pollinators cannot be over-estimated. Some of these early risers, for example those of the Andrena genus, could be mistaken for small honey bees.

These tiny creatures have over-wintered in holes, usually in sandy soils. Although solitary in nature they are often found near colonies but they are not truly social insects as, of course, are honey bees. Females or “queens” create burrows of several chambers in which a single egg has been laid. Each chamber is stocked with nectar and pollen. These chambers are then sealed. The queen’s job is done. Often taking a whole year to develop, the offspring will not emerge until the following spring, some however emerge in summer. These summer broods are obviously useful, the more pollinators the better. These solitary bees are sometimes parasitised by those of the genus Nomada. These invaders look more like wasps and having no pollen collecting anatomy they lay their eggs in the bees’ nests. Inevitably they are sometime known as “cuckoo-bees”.

Bumble bees (early texts often refer to “humble” bees) as we all know are large, hairy creatures. Blessed with long tongues they are able to probe endlessly for nectar. All bumbles are like honey bees, social insects building subterranean colonies where the inhabitants co-operate to the greater good of the colony as dictated by the needs of the queens. Nests are annual events with mated queens emerging in the spring.

The humble bumble bee

The humble bumble bee

New nests are “furnished” with grass and here the queen deposits that wonderful package known as “bee bread”, a concoction of honey and nectar upon which the new grubs (larvae) will feed when they hatch from the eggs. These eventually emerge as sterile females their tasks are to maintain the nest and feed any new grubs as they emerge, some as “drones”, working males some of whom may have the honour of fertilising new queens. Queens have that remarkable ability to lay parthenogenetic eggs, unfertilised eggs which will become new drones.

After just one mating the queen stores sperm to last the lifetime of the colony, eggs are fertilised as they are laid. This subject alone justifies an entire page, alas I am offering a mere resume. It seems that conditions within individual colonies determine the number of queens, a ratio between workers and larvae will decide this.

As summer fades and activity within the colony slows, more workers provide remaining larvae with extra food leading to more females developing. These will in turn seek new nests and as temperatures drop the colony perishes, the next generation now secured.

Bumble bees like their smaller cousins are similarly subject to the attentions of their very own “cuckoo bees”. These are of the genus psithyrus, closely resembling their hosts they enter bumble nests to lay their eggs. If the parasite eggs become established its hosts are doomed. It is worth reminding ourselves that only female bees can sting, this appears to be an evolutionary adaptation, and ovipositors found in many parasitic insects have become stings.

Malcolm Cox with Danijela Ambrozic inside the Slovenia bee museum laboratory

Malcolm Cox with Danijela Ambrozic inside the Slovenia bee museum laboratory

And so to honey bees. The honey bee (Apis mellifera) surprisingly is not native to the British Isles. We have all become so accustomed to observing these wonderful creatures via such devices as glass-fronted hives and, of course, endless TV documentaries on the subject that we are in danger of becoming blasé. When I ventured into the commune mentioned at the start of this report I knew very little about bees. I recall that there was much concern over the veroa mite which threatened bee colonies. Innovations such as spot marking individual queens have allowed us to observe intimately the life within hives. The extraordinary “waggle dance” performed by workers is believed to be a way of passing on information on suitable foraging sites to other members of the colony.

And so I guess to the nub of the issue, my reason for writing this article. And here I am lapsing into the cultural aspects again. Oldies like me will recall the 1970s and listening to Joni Mitchell singing “Big Yellow Taxi” which included that line, “Hey Mr Farmer put away the D.D.T now, give me spots on apples but leave me the birds and bees.” The subject of neonicotinoids is now again back in many of our minds. I mentioned this briefly in September’s notes. Even Big Eye wrote about it recently and, of course, programmes such as “Countryfile” have discussed the issue. My own interest in what we now call environmentalism goes back to well before that first foray into the hills of Slovenia from where I am completing this report.

I once had the dubious pleasure of teaching the science element of an A-level general studies course. It was something of a shock to learn that my students knew nothing of the pioneering work of Rachel Carson. Her seminal volume “Silent Spring” was a dire warning of the results of our abuse of the natural world. She suffered endless harassment and scurrilous attacks from the makers of what were to be known as organochlorine pesticides. All bird watchers will be familiar with the disastrous effects upon raptors such as peregrines as these chemicals worked their way up the food chain. Thankfully, the evidence was finally acknowledged and such chemicals were withdrawn. I believe that if restrictions on neonicotinoids are lifted with Britain’s withdrawal from the tighter controls of the EU the effects upon all our pollinators will be disastrous. Commercial bee keepers have voiced their concerns, will they be heard?

Here the array of multi-coloured hives is at first a bit startling set against all that lush summer greenery. Slovenia’s population is only two million and there are five bee keepers per one thousand residents. There are eight hives per square kilometre. In the UK we are lucky to find just one per square km. What is really impressive though is the way in which young people are learning the art of apiculture.

If any visitor still needs convincing they should – wait for it – make a beeline for the wonderful bee museum in the village of Radovljica (Čebelarski Center Gorenjske). We booked an appointment with the director, Danijela Ambrožič. Danijela, in perfect English, explained the whole business from start to finish for the princely sum of four euros each. Rarely can one expect such personalised treatment for so little.

Here the expert explains about the docile nature of indigenous (Carniolan) bees. Honeycombs crowded with countless insects are arranged safely behind glass. Danijela holds her hand within inches of this buzzing horde without getting stung, rather her than me I am thinking.

Apart from honey ,all sorts of products are available, api-therapy is taken seriously. Many sufferers of joint pain swear to the efficacy of sting therapy. I am convinced that most of us are truly concerned about environmental issues. There often, however, seems little that we can do in the face of lobbying from all sorts of vested interests. All we can do is absorb as much information as possible and make our concerns known.

I end, then, by reprising that Joni Mitchell song even if it does these days sound a bit simplistic, “…. give me spots on apples but leave me the birds and bees.”