This article about bees and beekeeping is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert.
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About the Expert
Bianca Nogrady is freelance science journalist who writes for national and international publications on everything from climate change to obesity to native foods to supernovas. In any one week, her work spans the length and breadth of science, medicine, and the environment, and she’s never met a piece of research she didn’t find fascinating.
The Reality of Bees
From the fuzzy friendly bumblebee of children’s tales to the killer swarms of the silver screen, the honeybee and its family have long inspired both fear and favour in our hearts.
The reality of bees lies somewhere in between. At its best, we have a quasi-symbiotic relationship with Apis mellifera – the European or western honey bee – and its many relatives: we provide them with homes that protect them from the elements and meet their needs, and we benefit from their honey and pollination services.
At its worst however, our modern relationship with the honeybee is exploitative and destructive; an extension of intensive factory farming that is probably contributing to the worldwide collapse in bee numbers.
In reality honeybees would do fine without us. The world is full of hollow trees perfectly sized to house a bee colony. But backyard and amateur beekeepers such as myself like to think that we help new swarms by giving them the perfect home and thus increase their chances of survival.
The Original Hive Mind
Bee colonies are the purest expression of group-think. There’s a reason why the ‘hive mind’ is so called; a colony of bees operates less like a collection of individuals and more like a single multi-faceted, multi-functional entity capable of separating itself out into tens of thousands of independent components.
It’s a concept that speculative fiction writers are regularly drawn to when imagining alien species – Alien, Starship Troopers, Star Trek’s the Borg, Doctor Who’s Cybermen – possibly because it’s so fundamentally different to our own, individualistic social structure.
We generally picture these alien species as hierarchical, led by a queen (usually) who communicates instantaneously with her subjects across time and space, and whose every command is obeyed without question.
In reality honeybee society is even more complex and wonderous. Thomas D. Seeley, author of the marvellous book Honeybee Democracy, likens a bee colony to the collection of neurons that make up the human brain.
“[They] achieve their collective wisdom by organizing themselves in such a way that even though each individual has limited information and limited intelligence, the group as a whole makes first-rate collective decisions,” Seeley writes.
Honeybees are actually more democratic than popular fiction gives them credit for. The queen is indeed the most significant figure in a colony – her scent is what keeps the colony together – but her main function is basically to lay eggs by the thousands.
Worker bees are all female, and their job is to tend to the colony, defend it with their stings and lives, build comb, look after the grubs, groom the queen, and forage for pollen and nectar. Younger worker bees stay in the hive, while the older workers bees are the ones who leave the hive on the far more perilous duty of finding food and water.
Drone bees are male and far fewer in number than the worker bees. Their only real job is to fly out and mate with other queens from other colonies, thus propagating their own colony’s genetic material. The rest of the time they don’t serve much purpose, as far as we can tell, which may be why most drones are killed off at the end of summer.
When Bees Swarm
Bee swarms are perceived as terrifying but they’re actually when a bee colony is at its least threatening. Swarming is a fundamental part of honeybee reproduction: it’s a bit like when your kids have grown up and they finally leave home to find their place in the world, except in the case of honeybees it’s the mother that leaves the home and her offspring behind.
We don’t really know exactly what triggers bees to swarm, but it may be related to the colony finally reaching full capacity inside a hive or there being such plentiful food available that it’s judged a good time to set up a new colony somewhere. Swarming generally happens in spring, when new growth and flowering means there are ample food supplies around and the weather is warming.
The process starts when the worker bees build what are called queen cups along the bottom of the comb. These are peanut-shaped wax cells into which the queen lays eggs and the workers add royal jelly to turn those eggs into baby queens. When the baby queens are almost mature, the queen mother and around 60% of the worker bees gorge themselves on nectar to get into peak condition, and take off.
A bee swarm on the wing is like a huge cloud of bees. They don’t usually travel far –a few to a few hundred metres from the original hive – before they cluster like a big buzzy beard around something like a branch, tree trunk, fence, wall or even on the ground. This is the swarm that most people encounter.
Because there’s no comb or honey or grubs to defend, swarms are pretty harmless if they’re left alone. Somewhere in the middle of the football-sized cluster of bees is the queen, pumping out her unique chemical scent to keep the swarm together. Wherever the queen is, the bees cluster, which is how some adventurous beekeepers are able to get swarms to cluster on their arms and bodies (don’t try this at home!).
A swarm hangs around for a few hours up to a few days while the decision is made about where to resettle. This is a truly democratic process in which groups of scout bees, who have been scouring the area for suitable new homes, have a sort of debate about which is the best home, each arguing for their favourite until they convince the others or are convinced otherwise.
Bees are very particular about the dimensions of a home – it can’t be too small or the colony won’t be able to build enough stores to survive winter, and it can’t be too big because they won’t be able to defend it or keep it warm.
Once they’ve reached a decision, they ‘tell’ the rest of the swarm, and off they go.
From a beekeeper’s perspective, catching a swarm is the best way to start a new hive. They’re healthy bees, not only because they have the energy and numbers to swarm, but because they leave behind any diseases or pathogens in the comb of the old hive. And they’re actively looking for a new home, which we can provide.
Inside a hive
The expression ‘a hive of activity’ gives some idea of the inner workings of a bee colony. There is wax comb to build and maintain, using wax flakes secreted from glands on bees’ abdomens. There is ‘bee bread’ to make; pollen grains that are mixed with salivary enzymes and packed into wax cells to ferment into an edible protein-rich food source. There is nectar to collect, concentrate and ferment in wax cells before being capped with wax when it reaches the desired state we know as honey. There are intruders and robber bees to deter. There are bee grubs to be fed and tended to, and a queen who needs constant attention and affection as she pulls her swollen abdomen around the comb, depositing eggs in empty wax cells.
And there’s dancing. Not the John Travolta-style disco moves, but the famous ‘waggle dance’ by which foraging work bees communicate the location of their discoveries of pollen and nectar sources to other foraging bees.
Foraging worker bees are the ones seen on flowering plants and trees. They collect nectar or pollen but never both at the same time. The pollen collectors are easy to spot from their ‘pollen pants’; clusters of coloured pollen on their back legs. The ones collecting nectar sometimes have fatter, glistening abdomens from all the nectar they have collected in their crop – also known as their ‘honey stomach’ – and can carry up to their own weight again in nectar.
On a hot sunny day, the activity of a hive can be heard from many metres away, and if it’s been a good season, you can smell the honey from that distance. It’s an intoxicating scent; floral, heavy, seductive, and utterly delicious. But amateur beekeeping is as much about the simple joy of sharing space with these fascinating creatures as it is about enjoying the sweet fruits of their labour.
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