Bees are one of the lynchpins of our life on Earth. Almost 90% of wild plants and 75% of leading global crops depend on animal pollinators. Bees are important pollinators and, given that 1 in every 3 mouthfuls of our food is pollinated, we need to care for our bees. Quite apart from being crucial to us, they are sophisticated, fascinating insects.
Marzipan production is an example of why we need bees and how we are making life difficult for them. The climate in California is ideally suited to almond trees and produces 80% of the world’s commercial almonds. In September the trees are mechanically shaken and the almonds lie on the ground for a few days before being vacuumed up. The ground around the trees is therefore kept bare to facilitate efficient collection, so there no other plants for miles around. This means no food for the bees and other insects necessary to pollinate the almond blossom. In order keep production going a huge bee-moving operation takes place every February. More than a million bee hives are transported on special trucks from all over the US, like a vast military exercise. Without the bees there will be no almonds and without almonds no marzipan on your Christmas cake.
When choosing plants for my garden I select those that are useful to insects, such as this Knautia Macedonia. This has made a huge difference to the numbers of pollinating insects in my garden – and watching them gives me great pleasure.
Humans, with our limited knowledge, are too quick to categorise other species according to whether they are a help or hinderance to us. Bees, however, have been in the ‘helpful’ category for a very long while. Honey is well known but beeswax is also precious to us. In Greek mythology Daedalus and his son Icarus fled Crete using wings made of birds’ feathers and beeswax. Icarus failed to recognise his limitations and flew too close to the sun, melting the wax, and fell to his death in the Icarian Sea.
The candles burnt in a Christian service symbolize the Light of the World and only the purest wax could be used. Traditionally they made of beeswax because until the 1700s it was thought bees were celibate.
Today beeswax is a popular beauty product, just as it was was for Popparea, the wife of the Roman Emperor Nero. It is also known as E901 and is used as a glaze for fruit, nuts and food supplement pills to make them look shiny.
In 1973 Karl von Frisch won the Nobel Prize for his work on honeybees. He discovered that bees perform a complex dance to tell the rest of the hive where they can find the source of nectar. The honeybee dances in a figure of 8, waggling its rear and vibrating its wings in different parts of the dance. The speed communicates the distance and the direction of the dance identifies where the flowers are in relation to the sun. The language of the dance of bees is now well studied and very interesting to see – I have watched bees through a viewing section in the Natural History Museum in Oxford.
The first picture is a honeybee on a Liatris Spicata, otherwise known as Blazing Star. It’s a prairie plant and I planted it because it is loved by insects. I can’t identify the bee in the second picture with confidence, as my knowledge is fairly limited. My joy at watching them, however, is great. I do know that the plant is an Echinops Ritro, also known as a Globe Thistle.
Sometimes insects look like bees but are something else. This one has the glorious name of the Marmalade Hoverfly and they move like little helicopters.
These fragile-looking insects leave the UK every autumn to cross the Channel and spend their winters in Southern Europe and the Mediterranean. In spring the Marmalade Hoverflies make the journey northwards to the UK where they lay their eggs and start the life cycle all over again. During this extraordinary migration they climb to high altitudes to make use of the tailwinds which take them to their destination.
Scientists say that 4 billion Marmalade Hoverflies arrive in Britain every year, making them the second most important pollinator after bees. They help the gardener by eating aphids and provide food for birds.
I learnt much of this information from Extraordinary Insects by Anne Sverdrup-Thygeson. She writes in an amusing, very accessible style and the book is full of truly extraordinary insect facts that make you interrupt someone else’s reading to say “Just listen to this…”!