Everyone has something they love more than anything, and for me that would be the Honeybee. Today is the day I have been waiting all winter for … the arrival of the Honeybees.
My fruit trees have been covered in blossoms for more than a week now, but in a way they have still been dormant – until today that is, suddenly, without warning they all arrive – thousands of individuals but all as one. One minute not there, the next a deafening sound descends upon my small orchard. I have a picnic table under the huge apricot tree where I can sit and listen and look at the wonder around me, so loud there are no other sounds that can penetrate, the industrious wonder of the Honeybees who give so much to the continuum and beauty of this planet.
In New Zealand the day that officially takes the title of the first day of spring is the 1st September, but for me today takes that title.
Bees may be solitary or social. They feed on nectar and pollen, and play an important role in the pollination and survival of many flowering plants. New Zealand has 28 native and 13 introduced species of bee. At least three native bee species have a basic social structure, a bit like the introduced Honeybee and Bumblebee. The rest are solitary, although they may make nests close together. Native bees pollinate many native plants. They also pollinate kiwifruit and apple orchards and some vegetable crops, and are important pollinators in horticulture.
The photos I have taken today in my orchard are from the Apis mellifera species, introduced into New Zealand in the 1830’s.
There are many species of Honeybee in the world. All of them build nests with hexagonal combs for brood (their babies) raising and food storage. All of them use dance language as their primary means of recruiting nest mates to valuable resources.
Honeybees do their dance on the vertical plane of the comb and indicate direction by transposing the direction of the sun to the direction relevant to gravity using a straight upwards direction to be equivalent to flying towards the sun. In all species the vigour with which the bee dances is directly correlated with the richness of the resource indicated, while the length of the straight run, or its omission are indications of the distance to be travelled to the resource, this need not be a straight line but may involve flying around some natural obstacle such as a small mountain.
Honeybees pass on additional information to their hive mates concerning the taste and odour of the food resource by means of one bee regurgitating from its crop some of the nectar it has collected and feeds it to another bee, when this is happening it looks like they are kissing, and before long there is a string of bees all ‘kissing’ each other as the food gets passed around. Recruitment to a site is strengthened by returning foragers passing on the location to more of the colony.
The down side is that humans found yet another form of exploitation, exploiting the honey that the Honeybees make for their use in the cold months of winter. The honey is stripped from their hives and a substitute replacement (sugar syrup) is put in it’s place. The sugar syrup is not the Honeybees natural food and is a poor replacement for their own food, especially through a very cold winter. Commercial beekeeping practices are there for profit and not the welfare of the bees. Commercial beekeepers are restricted by timeframe and requires the beekeeper to grab as much honey in the shortest possible time, therefore by not being careful many deaths occur to Honeybees that are sitting on the rim of the hives and through the shock to the colony, Honeybees are seen in their commercial value with no intrinsic value of their own. It must also be noted that many colonies can perish through mis-management; hives not being checked through the winter as cold winds and rain can kill a whole colony if the top cover is not secured; for sufficient food – remembering that we have taken their precious winter honey store and the Honeybees are then totally reliant on a beekeeper making sure there is plentiful food. Honeybees do not venture outside the hive during the cold winters for long periods, only for their toilet duties – yes, that’s right, they do not go to the toilet inside.
In the wild a small part of an existing hive along with a new virgin Queen will swarm, the ritual of mating where many Drones (males) will mate with the new Queen and she will find a new site for her new colony. The sole purpose and desire of the Drone is to mate with a virgin Queen, his life role being accomplished he will then pass away, no doubt with a smile on his face, and definitely with dignity. Nowadays the favoured method is artificial insemination involving the death of the Drone in a most disgusting way, the sperm is obtained by pulling off his head causing an electrical impulse to the nervous system which causes sexual arousal, the lower part of the Drone is squeezed to make him ejaculate, and then collected in a hypodermic syringe and fertilisation of the new virgin Queen is done. No swarming, no virgin flight, no mating, no dignity in death. Nothing short of slavery really.
I leave you with one final photo – the picture of life eternal.