Musings of a Magpie Mind

(Bits and pieces of history, travel and trivia, collected over the years by Bill Greenwell)

Bees, bees, bees…..where would we be without them?

When our garden stirs from its winter sleep and the crocuses peep out to carpet the ground, it’s not long before my favourite characters wake up and personally prove that spring is in the air. All it takes is a hint of warmth in the lengthening days and there they are – fat and fuzzy, ponderously shuffling from plant to plant, rather like dumpy dowagers making their social round among the gentry in Downton days.

I’m talking of course about the bumble bee, that eternal optimist who seems to ignore the fact that sunshine is always fickle at this time of year and a warm promise can be quickly broken. An unwelcome cold snap invariably sends these little guys back into hiding until they decide to gear up and try again. Scientists tell us that while they can absorb heat through solar radiation, they need to get their wing muscles up to 30 C before flight can take place. Cleverly, they can increase their muscle temperature by "shivering", so that within five minutes they’ll start flexing their wings for flight, even though the air temperature around them is a mere 13 C. So while honey bees stay home, the humble bumbles sally forth to perform their role in welcoming the new season; the vanguard of the Earth’s astonishing bee population which every year is bent on pollinating the world around us and providing a crucial benefit that often goes unappreciated.

I like bees, always have, and I realized early in life that who they are and what they do is so remarkable that they might need some help from people like me, so I wanted to look after bees and in my own small way, be a bee keeper. And that’s indeed what I am, though not a proper apiarist, with a row of hives and the protective gear to harvest honey. That wouldn’t be practical for our lifestyle, so instead, I’ve gone the easier route. Let me explain – but first a little history.

Bees have been around a lot longer than humans, some 40 to 60 million years apparently, but ever since we started raiding their wild colonies in our days as hunter gatherers, they have represented a vital role in our subsequent agricultural initiatives. And being entirely mobile, they know no boundaries. They propagate wherever they find what they’re looking for – precious nectar.

In 7th century Ireland this natural wanderlust created some hard feelings among land owners, so they introduced a legal right called Bechbretha which stated that a bee that sipped from a neighbour’s flowers was guilty of tairsce, which translates more or less as "grazing trespass". It was therefore decreed that after three years of ownership, a new apiarist had to forfeit one of his swarms to whichever neighbour was most affected by the bees’ encroachments. Every year after that, further forfeits had to be made to other neighbours. Despite the many useful tasks that bees can perform, they can’t be trained to respect boundary lines, so bee keeping soon flourished throughout the country.

Honey bees of course are famous little navigators. Day or night, without recourse to compass or global positioning systems, they’re able to find their home hive from miles away and still have sufficient energy to perform a little dance to tell their chums where they’ve been and how good they found the foraging.

Bees are industrious, democratic and efficient. They work as a team, so no wonder they’ve captivated the interests of those who look upon beekeeping as livestock management at its most cerebral.

Back in the first century the naturalist Pliny the Elder observed "Bees belong to neither the wild nor the domesticated class of animals. Of all insects, bees alone were created for the sake of man."

But for me their greatest endorsement comes from my boyhood hero Sherlock Holmes, who after ushering out his last client from his digs at 221B Baker Street, retired to a little farm on the South Downs, where the great detective didn’t devote his days to chess, crosswords or other challenges of the mind. Instead, fiction’s finest brain was absorbed in tending his hives, a far-fetched finalé perhaps, but perfectly understandable to those of us who view these marvellous little insects as one of Nature’s wonders.

That’s why a while ago I built three very different hives and positioned them on tall posts around our property. And every year a new bunch of bees emerges from each of them. They’re smaller and though not nearly as colourful as their honey-producing cousins, they are much superior propagators. That’s why our blue orchard bees are always welcomed by fruit growers here in the Valley and everywhere else where these crops are harvested.

The orchard bees are workaholics and require little supervision to perform their life’s work. So I enjoy much satisfaction in helping them do just that, and am always pleased to see my new workers emerge from their winter hibernation and watch them whiz away to start their short busy lives.

Alas, all is not well in the world of bees. Despite our reliance on them to contribute their vital role in the food chain, colonies across the western world are collapsing at an alarming rate, with climate change, insecticides, diesel fumes and even cell phones contributing to this decline. The outlook is grim and never has it been so important for us and our governments to take

action and save this precious form of life and help it flourish again. For thousands of years our bees have delivered so much for so little effort on our part.

The time has come for us to follow their industrious example and to launch an effective global initiative to save these little providers from extinction.

(Bill Greenwell prospered in the ad agency arena for 40 years. He retains a passion for medieval history, marine paintings and piscatorial pursuits. His wife Patricia indulges him in these interests, but being a seasoned writer from a similar background, she has always deplored his weakness for alliteration. This has sadly had no effect on his writing style, whatsoever.)

Cowichan Valley Citizen