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April 30, 2018 | by  | in Environment Opinion | [ssba]

Give Bees A Chance

I’m watching bees collect nectar from the teeth of dandelions in my neglected garden. Swift as tigers, the bees hum with clumps of pollen cradled behind their knees. There is something mystical about bees. In Celtic law, they are messengers of the dead. Karl Marx propounded bees as a perfect model for human society. My mum believes that the honey they make is the magic cure for everything.

I found the local hive a couple of weeks ago. It sits in a glade in the Botans, with a view of the whole big belly of Wellington sky. White bells of clover lie strewn through the grass, but few bees were on collection. Most had been driven inside by the bad weather. The five tiered white box seemed to vibrate, alive with quiet industry.  

Bees live in a harmonious society, despite no politicians, no police, no lawyers.

Within the white walls of the hive, the society is divided into three castes. The Queen (God save her) is the only reproductive female in the hive. Having chewed herself from her cell at birth, the queen’s first act is to use her sting to kill the squirming queen rivals. She then takes her nuptial flight with a swarm of drones — the few hundred males in the hive and the only bees to lack a sting. The queen mates in midair and only once. The drone dies instantly. Honeymoon over, the queen returns home and begins to lay 2000 eggs each day. By expugning certain chemicals, she inflicts sterility on all other females, and keeps her subjects calm and content.

The hive buzzes with thousands of genetically similar females — the worker bees. They busy themselves with constructing honeycomb, cleaning, feeding the queen and young, and guarding the hive. At times, the bees function as a single organism, with emergent properties. The bees fan air into and out of the colony entrance in distinct inhalations and exhalations. On cold days, the entire colony will warm the swarm by vibrating their wings. After three weeks, the genetic expression of the worker bee changes. They are promoted to foragers, who voyage out from the hive to gather pollen, nectar, and water. For her ceaseless work, a worker bee will make 1/12th of a teaspoon of honey in her six week lifetime.

There is a haze of uncertainty surrounding the status of honey bees. Some sources claim a precipitous decline in the world’s bee population. Others claim it’s not so bad. Regardless, it is undeniable that certain areas have been struck by declination.  In southwest China, where wild bees have vanished, farmers laboriously hand-pollinate pear and apple trees with brushes. Closer to home, beekeepers close to Nelson are sweeping up piles of dead bees. The cause of death is mysterious and complex.

Science has linked bee mortality to the world’s most ubiquitous kind of insecticides, neonicotinoids. Used by the agriculture sector globally, neonicotinoids enter the plants composition, becoming part of the pollen and nectar. When colonies survive on this poison laced pollen, the bees become deranged. Unable to recognise flowers, to navigate, to eat, to produce healthy young, the hive perishes.

Another killer is the Varroa Destructor. First detected in New Zealand in 2000, this vampirish pin-sized mite feeds on the blood of bees and larvae, spreading disease.

Other causes of death include not enough blooming flowers, and the usual culprit — climate change.

What to do? I’m not sure, and neither are scientists. Hope for a ban on neonicotinoids and a shift towards more ecological farming. Hope for a cure for Varroa Mite to be discovered quickly. Hope for real action on climate change. In the meantime, scatter some wildflowers.


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