As I write I am surrounded by the hummings of a dozen bumble bees. The large patch of comfrey where I’m sitting is covered in flowers and buzzes with bees from first light until twilight. They love it! I look more closely to see if any other kinds of bees are feasting on the nectar here. There are several hundred species of bee in Britain and I can make out a few varieties here. But no honey bees.
All bees are under threat. We have read a lot about this in the press recently and a two year suspension has been placed on one of the possible culprits in the decline of bees and pollinators, the Neonicotinoid pesticides. But there are other threats – monoculture (apparently it is now impossible to keep bees in certain parts of Devon, as there is not enough year round forage). Mobile phone masts and wi-fi signals may affect their ability to navigate. And in the case of the honey bee, some say there is an additional problem: the beekeeper! Man has since ancient times stolen from bees – before hives and in the early years of beekeeping, man would destroy the whole nest in order to get at the prized honey to be found there. Nowadays we assault bees in other ways: we transport bees hundreds of miles to pollinate single crops, we douse them in chemicals to try to prevent losses from diseases like varroa, we clip the wings of queens to prevent swarming (a natural and healthy impulse of the bees), we destroy the male drones who we in fact rely upon to bring healthy genetic diversity. We feed them inferior sugar to replace the honey that we take. We open the hive up to ‘inspect’ them – this has been likened to opening up a womb (unthinkable!) causing extreme distress and allowing all the warmth out – a hive operates at 33 degrees even in the coldest weather - and lowering the vitality of the bees. Bees work as a community, each taking time to serve in the many roles needed to ensure the future of the swarm.
Rudolf Steiner, this modern Renaissance man, predicted in 1923 that if man continued to meddle with the natural processes of the hive, we would, within eighty years, witness the mass disappearance of the bees. His prediction is unnervingly accurate.
The Queen is not the Ruler of the Hive. She is the Mother of all the bees and her whole purpose in life (and she can live up to 5 years) is to ensure the successful future of the swarm. Bee ’keepers’ should perhaps consider whether they are in fact prison wardens - inspecting and running the hive to their own rules and advantage, or guardians of the bees – supporting them in the most natural way and allowing them to behave as they would in nature, only intervening when needed.
We need to get back in touch with bees in the same way that we need to with all creatures and the Earth. If we are sure they really have enough to share, we can take a little honey – it is such a precious and valuable substance. But never take it for granted. Each teaspoonful is a miracle. The foraging bees who created it will have travelled the equivalent of 3 times around the earth to produce one jar of honey.
The very best thing we can do to help ensure the survival of bees is to plant the flowers they need to nourish them. Herbs are wonderful if allowed to flower; for example, comfrey, a small patch of traditional wild flower meadow, any open-petalled flowers (some hybrids are inaccessible to bees). Ivy provides the last pollen of the year when all other flowers are gone. Look (and listen) for bees and see what they enjoy. Notice the trees that flower in spring providing early pollen sources. Bees also love crocuses. Notice the pollen sacs on their tiny legs – see the huge range of colourful pollen they carry there, back to feed the young in the hive.
One of my favourite bee quotes is from those keepers who talk to their bees, and who say; don’t tell the bees it’s Christmas, tell them that you know it’s Christmas!
Bees have survived 19 million years – we must not let them die out: the repercussions are enormous. A third of our food depends upon pollination by bees. Our plates would look very different without this invaluable ‘creature of light’ playing her part.
So next time you see a bee, relax and observe her. Next time you taste honey, think of the 2 million flowers visited to create that one jar. And enjoy!
by Kate Denning, parent