A bee in my bonnet

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(This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 6th July, & the Gazette & Herald on 4th July 2018).

When I was small, I was terrified of the bumblebee, as I knew it could sting and it seemed so big and buzzy. One day my dad caught one on his finger and I couldn’t believe he was so calm while this dangerous and threatening creature contemplated its moment to strike his bare flesh.

I recoiled as my reckless dad then began to gently stoke its furry little back, as if it were a tiny cat. Instead of wreaking its stinging revenge, to my surprise, it sat quite happily there showing no signs of aggression. Dad explained that bees actually had very docile temperaments and would only sting you if they felt threatened.

From that moment, I lost my fear of bees, and know that if they do fly close, they are probably drawn to a bright colour I’m wearing, or to a sweet scent they have picked up nearby. They’re not out to get me, and if I stay still, they will fly off when they realise I’m not a source of pollen. I know many people who get into a tizzy at the mere sound of a buzzing insect and flap their arms crazily about their head like they’re trying to stop a bat landing on it. Honestly, unless you suffer from anaphylaxis, get a grip! By doing that you are more likely to get stung anyway and, more importantly, harm one of our precious bees.

As most people today know, bees are not faring very well, with 13 species in the UK already wiped out, and 35 more under threat of extinction. If bees were allowed to disappear, its effect upon the the planet would be catastrophic. The decline is due to a combination of things, such as a reduction in flowering meadows (97% lost since the 1930s), pesticides, disease and invasive species. Bees are the most productive pollinators in our food chain, so without them, we’d lose the plants and food crops they pollinate, and then all the animals that rely on those plants and food crops, and then, food-wise, we humans would be up the creek without a paddle.

With that in mind, doesn’t it make you think twice about the bees that come within arm-flapping distance? Why not take a few minutes to familiarise yourself with our fascinating buzzing fraternity, so you know the difference between a harmless hoverfly and an angry wasp. There are many websites around that can help you with identification, although one of my most trusted sources (naturally, inherited from my dad) is Collins’ Complete British Wildlife photo guide. In there, you’ll see that certain hoverflies are similar in colouring to wasps, but hoverflies are generally smaller and have a flatter body shape. And they hover. And look like flies.

One organisation doing its bit to educate us about bees is Buckfast Abbey in Devon, famous for its tonic wine and, once upon a time, for its honey. In his column from 8th July 1978, Dad talks about a visit there, and was impressed with their entrepreneurial spirit, the monastery having been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries of its existence. Having started from very little, the Benedictine monks had established a thriving cattle and dairy herd, a pottery, a stained glass workshop and an excellent café.

They were at the time famous for their apiaries and their honey, thanks in the most part to a monk called Brother Adam Kehrle. The monastery had been making honey for a long time, but early in the 20th century, 30 of the abbey’s 46 colonies were wiped out through a virulent disease called Acarine. What Kehrle noticed was that all the bees that died were native British black bees while those of an Italian strain survived. He then set out on a mission to come up with a disease-resistant strain of bee that would be perfect for keeping. After many years of study, travel, experimentation and dedication, he managed to breed a bee that was a good pollen-gatherer with a mild temperament and, most importantly, resistant to Acarine. It was, and still is, known as the Buckfast Bee and is now a recognised species.

The monastery emphasis these days has moved away from commercial honey production and now concentrates on what is termed ‘gentle’ bee keeping with a focus on education and conservation to raise awareness of one of our most precious insect friends (Sources: buckfast.org.uk, bbc.co.uk).

Visit my blog at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug.


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