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.