Between lunch and some rugby match last Saturday afternoon, Duncan and I got up close and personal to our bees for the first time this year.
Up to now, we had just left the two colonies to their own devices over the winter, checking the food from time to time, but making it patently clear to them that they were on their own. When we put them to bed in the Autumn, both colonies were in good order- Brexit with its expensive Buckfast queen, Theresa, and Remain with its feral European Dark Queen, Angela. As far as we know, both are still alive, and both will start the process of laying up to 2500 eggs a day once the days lengthen a bit more. Certainly, they were all quite feisty when we checked their food.
It’s hard to overestimate the statistical thrill of it.
The egg that Theresa lays, say, on March 1st, will hatch out on March 4thas a larva. She (for the vast majority in this sisterhood are ‘shes’) will be fed quantities of honey and pollen for five days until she is sealed in a cell with a porous capping of beeswax. On March 16th, and about 2000 times larger than she was on March 1st, she will have chewed her way through the wax capping and will join her brothers and sisters as a fully-fledged honey bee.
She will probably live only until the end of April, by which time she will have produced the grand total of one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey- about 8% of that spoonful you put on your toast this morning.
To do this, she will have flown about 200 miles, and visited around a million flowers. Aggregated, her colleagues and her will fly 55,000 miles and visit 20 million plus flowers to produce that pot of honey on your breakfast table.
For the first two weeks (until the end of March) she will be a nurse to her new half sisters. After that, and until mid April, she will be a guard, fending off wasp attacks and the unwanted attention of other colonies. For the last two weeks of her life, she will be a forager, flying out five or six times a day from dawn until dusk until, with wings shredded and all energy consumed, she will die, probably in flight and then drop quietly un-noticed into a field somewhere.
This summer, one out of every three bites of food you take will have been pollinated by her or her colleagues.
So this. Although beekeeping as a hobby is thriving (44000 of us are doing it these days), there are 75% less hives around than there were 100 years ago, and 75% less honey bees. And that is before you count the solitary and bumble bees, most of whom have declined, and two species of whom have been driven into extinction since 1940.
As with all environmental stories, it is not all bad, but we are struggling to understand what is happening to them, and their numbers are continuing to go down. You can help tomorrow, by doing something a small as leaving the ivy on your wall (it’s the last blossom of the year), as easy as planting a few bee friendly plants in your garden this Spring, or as magnificently exciting, like Duncan and I did three years ago, as getting your own hive and becoming part of the solution. No garden is too small, no life too busy.
Saturday 27thApril sees the Wisborough Green Beekeeping auction at Brinsbury College, one of the biggest and most comprehensive in the country. It’s the cheapest way of getting started and you’ll be surrounded by every expert in the South of England.
At least consider it.