Cold

Spring, the fiend, lulled us into the mistaken belief that the coldest days were behind us. After a week of the girls throwing their hot water bottles out of bed in the middle of the night followed by a few nights of not wanting them at all, I put them into storage, thinking I wouldn’t see them again for ten months. I kept mine out just in case, although I hadn’t used it in the last few weeks. I did, however, remove the wool blanket from my side of the bed and for a couple of weeks we woke most mornings to a dry boat, with no condensation dripping from the hatches and walls. It became easier to get out of bed, despite the dark. The mornings were warmer and I wasn’t huddling close to the kettle while it boiled the water for the day’s first cup of tea. Some days, by mid morning I was in sandals and short sleeves, gradually layering up again as the sun moved across the sky and the heat went out of the day. (When Carina’s on the east – Spanish – side of the river, as we are now, our mornings are colder, but our evenings warmer, as we get the benefit of the westward passage sun for longer).

Lambs and kid goats in the fields, blossoms on the almond trees, flowers in bloom, house martins returned from Africa busily feeding their chicks, bees a-buzzing. Ah spring, you tease. Suddenly, the north-westerly wind funnelled its way down the river valley, with blasts of cold air and gusts of 37 knots or more. Boats creaked and jolted and bounced on anchor chains and mooring lines. Hailstones fell and the girls ran into the cockpit to pick them up before they melted.

I got the hot water bottles and the blanket out again, the girls were back in fleecy pyjamas for bedtime, and we dressed in hats, scarves and gloves for the short dinghy trip to school. And then came the coldest morning of all, when we awoke and struggled to get out of bed, only to find Carina covered in a layer of frost, her spray hood and bimini hard and crisp, Julian’s trousers, left out overnight, frosted white and brittle to the touch. I dug out my merino wool thermal vest and longjohns, the girls went off to school dressed for an ascent of Everest. The north wind whipped down the river, laughing at how it fooled us.

In the afternoon a bee landed on my arm. It too had been fooled by the early spring. It was weak and tipsy and even the sugar solution I prepared failed to revive it. It staggered around and a gust of icy wind blew it away. It struggled and died and later I found one of its comrades on the foredeck, a victim of spring’s treachery.

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Buzzy bees

I gaze through the glass, mesmerized by the activity inside. There are hundreds, maybe even thousands of bees, all moving – the proverbial hive of activity. ‘What’s going on there?’ I ask the tall, grey-haired gentleman beside me, pointing to one bee laboriously carrying its comrade against the force of gravity, up through the hive. ‘It’s removing a dead one’, the man tells me. He explains that fastidious bees carry the dead from the hive and he shows me the drawer that he clears of dead bees on a regular basis.

This is an ingenious set-up giving people like me a rare glimpse into the lives of bees. The hive is encased between two panes of glass and the bees have access to the outside world through a long narrow drainpipe. But because of the pipe, the dead cannot be completely removed by other bees alone, so the bee-keeper lends a hand by collecting them in the little bee-cemetery and removing them regularly.

The woman in the Glasshouse is worried about the bees, but the bee-keeper assures her they’re looking good. There was an unfortunate die-off last year and she’s hoping the same won’t happen again. But the bee-keeper tells her if he sees any sign of trouble he will capture the queen, creating a swarm and the start of a new healthy colony.

‘How do you know which one is the queen?’ I ask, expecting him to say that she’s bigger. Turns out she’s not noticeably bigger. She has a white mark on her back. But it is the behaviour of the other bees around her that distinguishes her from everyone else. The others clear a path around her, don’t get in her way. I reminded me of the way everyone maintains a respectful space around Usain Bolt! We try to find the queen, our heads close together, our noses pressed to the glass. I think I see her, but I’m not sure.

It seems bees are everywhere these days. And they’re not. The more they disappear from the world the more they are part of the zeitgeist. One of the libraries I visit has an entire bee section, with books such as A world without bees by Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum, about one of the many crises currently faced by honey bees, and Sean Borodale’s moving book of bee-keeping poetry, Bee Journal.

There seem to be a profusion of bee-related activities in the places we’ve been visiting all summer – libraries, museums, art galleries all devoting space and energy to educating people about bees, nurturing children’s enthusiasm for bees, providing information about how to revive tired bees. There are wildlife organisations and activitists devoted to and campaigning for the protection of bees, television programmes focusing on the importance of bees and the threats they face, and artists inspired by bees. Even Sainsbury’s, the big supermarket chain, is singing the praises of bees, encouraging customers to install bee hotels in their gardens to encourage the solitary bees so necessary to the pollination of garden plants.

Wandering around rural Spain and Portugal and suburban England this summer I could have been forgiven for thinking that bees are doing just fine. On the hillsides along the Rio Guadiana the buzzing of bees fills the air, the land is awash with wild flowers, and beehives pepper the slopes. In the English Midlands, the constant buzz of bees around lavender and jasmine, honeysuckle and clover fills the air. The sight of fat round fuzzy bumblebees (there are 13 different species of bumblebee and 260 species of solitary bee in the UK alone!) flying from clover to clover always causes me to stop and smile.

But the reality is bees are in serious trouble. And because bees are in trouble, we are in trouble. One-third of everything we eat is pollinated by honeybees.

Do you eat any of the following foods? Kiwi, onion, celery, mustard, broccoli, rapeseed, cauliflower, cabbage, anything in the pepper family, coffee, coconut, anything in the melon family, tangerine, coriander, cucumber, pumpkin, lemon, lime, carrot, oil palm, fig, strawberry, sunflower, apple, mango, alfalfa, avocado, most beans, cherries, almonds, peaches and related fruits, pears, blackcurrants, redcurrants, raspberries, blackberries, sesame, aubergines, cocoa (i.e. chocolate), blueberries, cranberries, tomatoes, grapes. Yes, they all rely, to a medium or major extent, on pollination by bees. And do you wear clothes made from cotton or linen (flax)? They too are pollinated by bees. So, without bees, or with much reduced bee populations, many of the foods we eat and clothes we wear cannot be produced.

There has been a sharp decline in bee populations over the past decade. In some instances bee numbers have declined by more than 40%. Colonies are collapsing, queens are dying, foraging behaviour is changing. Mass deaths are related to stress and disease. One of the biggest problem facing bees comes from neonicotinoid pesticides, used on arable crops and, in some cases, on household gardens. A ban on their use in the UK was recently lifted despite expert scientific evidence supporting a continued ban. Bee numbers have gone into spiralling decline, linked to these pesticides. Bees are also threatened by loss of habitat as meadows and wild flowers are displaced by monoculture and as home owners decorate their gardens with non-native plant species incompatible with the feeding habits of local bees. And a warming climate has made bees more susceptible to parasites. In combination, that’s a lot of stress for such complex creatures.

All my life I’ve been interested in big animals – dogs, polar bears, whales, elephants. But this summer I’ve developed a great respect for and awe of bees. And with that comes a great concern that these magnificent animals, with their fascinating life cycles, means of communication and sensory perception are in deep deep trouble. And if being awestruck with wonder at their very existence is not enough (although it should be), then we need to remember that our survival depends on their survival.

Forty years ago we were called upon to Save the Whale. The whale zeitgeist – the books, the films, the love poetry to whales – brought about a sea change of action. Today, many whale species are recovering from the ravages of 150 years of commercial whaling, with some sub-populations being removed or down-graded on the IUCN Red List. Perhaps the current bee zeitgeist will lead to a similar upwelling of action, that our growing awareness of the importance and wonder of bees will help us to open our eyes, change our habits and give these more intriguing of creatures a chance to survive.

The Royal Horticultural Society has a useful information page, with ideas what we can all do to nurture healthy bee populations.