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Where are all the honey bees?

  • 23-06-2010 5:13pm
    Closed Accounts Posts: 6,093 ✭✭✭

    A VISITOR from yesteryear, now walking over whatever remains of our pristine countryside during this amazing June, might be tempted to ask: where are our honeybees? That is the great unasked question of Irish life today. We can be reasonably sure that the catastrophic collapse in the damson crop across Ireland in the past two years was because of the rapid disappearance of the honeybee, which would usually have pollinated the springtime blossom.

    Later in the flowering season -- namely now -- emerges the clover bloom, the head of which consists of scores of florets, each containing at its base a tiny capsule of nectar. The honeybee, with her tiny, searching tongue, can extract the nectar and bring it back to the hive. There, worker bees gather round the droplets of this floral sugar solution and, whirring their wings, create a warm draught that evaporates water, and creates the distillate that we call honey.

    The bee will also gather protein-rich pollen in pouches on her legs for her fellow workers to eat, and these shopping expeditions will help fertilise the many flowers the bee visits. In a single journey, a bee might sup at 1,500 flowers. Not merely has she special eyes which can see ultraviolet colours that are quite invisible to us, she has two smell-detecting forward-looking antennae on her head, that can identity possible sources of nectar. When the smell signal is equally powerful on both antennae, the bee is heading directly for the source.

    The meadows of Ireland now reek with the heavy fragrance of unmade honey as the clover waits in vain for the honeybee to feast at its tiny little pores of nectar. Only the cumbrous bumblebee, and the strange aboriginal black bee, apparently survive to do the pollinating duty as uncollected sugars ferment in their sacs.

    A honeybee hive would be responsible for 45,000 foraging trips a day, totalling a quarter-of-a-million miles. Yet this is apparently no longer happening. This is a unique and terrible change. So, is the Irish honeybee dead? And if so, what plants that depend for the arrival of the bee to procreate now face danger?

    The manufacture of honey was probably a prime reason for the choice of location for medieval monasteries. When St Malachy invited St Bernard's Cistercians to Ireland, they brought with them not just the new rites, but also the habits of monastic economy at Cîteaux, including bee-keeping.

    Bees had earlier been tamed by Benedict's monks at Monte Cassino. Little surprise that monks should have established a great house at Mellifont, the "spring of honey", or Franciscan friars should later have raised a house at Clonmel, the "meadow of honey". The location of some of the great religious houses of Ireland was probably due in some measure to their suitability for the cultivation of bees.

    No one who contemplates the bee is failed to be moved by her, the miracles of her community, and the meticulous order of her hive. The breaking of the code of silent bee-speech by the great Karl von Fritsch was surely one of the great triumphs of semiotics. His hypothesis was as beautiful as it was absurd: a returning bee performed a dance in the hive which told other bees where she had found nectar. Not merely could she inform them what kind of flower she had found, but also where it was, relative to the position of the sun in the sky, even allowing for the time that had elapsed since she had been there, and the movement of the sun thereafter.

    THE bee is one of the most examined and revered beasts in the entire animal kingdom, and an obsession with her sublime and hierarchical complexity is why her researchers are so indefatigable. So her apparent death is a natural disaster that is almost impossible to comprehend. Needless to say, I cannot say for sure that the honeybee is gone for ever, merely that she is no longer evident in the meadowlands of Wicklow and Kildare. The hillsides are now rich with the drowsy fragrance of on ocean of ungathered honey, and the torpid black bee and the humble bumbler -- who are rather modest in both their personal industry and in the scale of their communal projects, a Tanzania to the Japan that is the honeybee -- have the meadowlands to themselves. Will they be able to fertilise the clover enough for it to prosper?

    This of course is not just an Irish problem. In the United States, the collapse of the bee population has prompted near panic amongst fruit-growers, who import thousands of lorry-borne hives for the duration of the flowering season. Then the beehives move on, like the old-fashioned vaudeville. Is the phenomenon that has nearly wiped out the American bee the same as that which causes Irish clover to lie on these June days, the scent of its fermenting nectar filling the air? Who can say? What we can say for sure is that there has never been such a bee-less summer as this one. Has the bee gone the way of the now-extinct wych elm? And if so, does some ecological disaster await us?

    - Kevin Myers

    Irish Independent

    Is he right? I haven't seen any honey bees yet this summer - just wasps and bumblebees.


  • Registered Users Posts: 17,399 ✭✭✭✭r3nu4l

    Colony Collapse Disorder has affected honeybee numbers very badly globally. However, only today my wife told me that a large swarm of honeybees were gathered in a tree in our garden but have since left, before the local beekeeper could catch them. I've only seen two swarms in the last two years but have seen plenty of honeybees (and other bee species) in my back garden already this year so there may be hope (in England at least) yet :)