Better tell the bees

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The buzzy mass of bees I spotted in a dog walk
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The victorious male mates with the queen

I was walking the dog this morning when a big, black, buzzy, mass of something fell from the air and plopped to the ground.

As I got closer, I realised it was a cluster of bumblebees all behaving rather aggressively towards another, larger, insect that was, at first, difficult to identify through the throng of yellow and black furry bodies. Several bees seemed to be attacking this creature, but because of the way they were all clinging on, I couldn’t really tell what was happening.

So I stood and watched a while, and soon, some of the bees flew off, leaving just one, and the creature beneath became visible. Only then did I realise it was in fact a rather large queen bumblebee, and the one remaining bee was not actually attacking her, but mating with her. That cheered me somewhat, as you can’t fail to be aware of the decline in our insect population. Bees are incredibly important for pollination, the very key to human survival, so I was delighted to see healthy bees doing just what they should in my little corner of North Yorkshire.

As soon as I got home, I looked up the mating habits of bumblebees so that I could understand what the ‘cluster’ behaviour was all about. Had all the bees mated with her?

A queen bee comes out of hibernation as the spring temperatures rise, having lived underground in the soil all winter. She will have survived on stores of body fat created by consuming large quantities of pollen and nectar during autumn. When she comes out, she looks for a suitable nesting site, which could be a hole in the ground, a bird box, under a garage, in a compost heap, or in any other dark cavity.

When she finds her home, she collects pollen to bring back to the nest and builds a kind of ‘pot’ from waxy bodily secretions into which she lays her eggs. She will incubate them for about two weeks by sitting on the pot and shuddering to keep them warm. They then hatch into larvae, and she continues to feed them with pollen. After another two weeks, the larvae spin cocoons around themselves as they develop into adult bees. This first batch of new bees are all female, and will either be worker or future queens.

The queen can then sit back and relax while her workers fuss around her, guarding and cleaning the nest and gathering pollen. She will produce more eggs that will become male bees, whose job, it seems, is merely to eat and reproduce. The male bees leave the nest, never to return, and live independently outside.

When bees mate, the males vie for the queen’s attention, and this is what I was witnessing on my walk. They cling on to her in the hope they will be the chosen one, until she decides which she will mate with.

Once a queen has founded her colony and reproduced then her work is done, and she will die, along with most of her colony. It is only the new, future queens who hibernate to emerge the following spring to start a new colony.

In his column from 23rd June 1979, Dad talks about some ancient superstitions associated with bees, particularly the custom of ‘talking’ to them. Apparently, if you had bee hives, you were duty-bound to inform them of any important family news, such as births, deaths and marriages. The bees were very important to the household in providing a ready supply of honey, which in those days was a precious and essential resource. If you didn’t keep your bees happy, they might desert the hives.

The bee keeper took the role very seriously, and could often be seen standing among the hives, solemnly informing the buzzing audience of the latest news, and this was called ‘telling the bees.’

This tradition forms the centre of a charming novel by successful York author Fiona Shaw called ‘Tell it to the Bees’, where a young boy shares his family secrets to the bees in his garden. The story has been turned into a feature film which had its worldwide premier in Toronto last year and, happily, is due to be released in the UK from July 19th.

So I think I might just be the first in the queue for tickets.

Read more at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times  on 21st June and the Gazette & Herald on 19th June 2019

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