Seven years ago, I became obsessed with keeping bees. It was a powerful calling that came out of nowhere, the like of which people might get to be a nun or a priests; but with better outfits. I wanted my own hives, from which I would pull oozing, golden frames of honey, which we would then eat straight from jars, or dripped and spread onto fresh bread and eaten in reverential silence.
Honey was a big part of my Italian childhood. Used as medicine for sore throats, when great globular spoons of it would be married with lemon in hot water; drenched on heaped domes of struffoli (traditional southern Italian fried balls of dough) making them into honey mountains; even dotted onto the occasional wound. Honey has remarkable antimicrobial properties and, on contact with human skin releases hydrogen peroxide to inhibit bacteria. Then I found out that my grandfather was a beekeeper and it all made sense; perhaps there was some genetic memory buried deep within me.
I had big plans for bees, but in the end, I didn’t keep them. What attracted me also scared me: their wildness. They are not like cats or dogs, or even birds, which can be made into pets and taught tricks and tamed in some way. Bees just aren’t interested, they don’t want to be your friend, they don’t need you, they make their own food. At best you can try to understand them, predict their behaviour, and that’s it.
But bees are magical. They have entranced big brains such as Virgil, Aristotle, Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, whose father was an eminent bee author. A great part of bees’ behaviour is now understood, but bits of it are still secret, and not known.
I like that.
Unlike solitary bees (such as the big fat bumble bee) honey bees work together as part of a super organism of 40-60,000 bees in a hive at full swell, for the good of the community, communicating via that great entomological language of pheromones. The majority of the hive is female. There is the queen who is, like them upstairs in Downton Abbey, quite incapable of looking after herself. All she does, during the warmer months, is lay eggs: 2-300 a day.
Unlike her workers, who live for just 4-6 weeks in summer, the queen will live for up to five years, leaving the nest just once to mate, with up to fifteen drones in a speed dating extravaganza. (The great irony of us talking about the ‘birds and the bees’ as a euphemism for sex is that worker bees are chaste and queens do it only once.) The queen will store the sperm gathered on that single mating flight, inside her, for the rest of her life. The workers, all aunts and sisters, do all the other jobs. They will build the wax honeycomb, look after the larvae, forage, guard. Or, they will become the estate agent of bees: scouter bees. These will scour the area for a new home when they need to swarm, and when they find a potential new site they will measure it up by walking around it, calling on other bees for a second opinion, before marking it with pheromones so they can find it again, and finally leading the queen, with her entourage, to their new home.
Then, there are the short, fat, big-eyed stingless males: the drones. These do nothing but eat and have sex, the latter pursuit their downfall as it snaps them in two. The queen controls the entire hive even though she may never meet all her workers, by emitting pheromones. When the hive gets so big that the workers can no longer detect her scent in sufficient concentration, they will prepare other queen cells to ensure the continuation of the hive, and leave forever, to swarm to a new home (this is when the scout bees do their bit). When the queen gets too old or weak to emit sufficient pheromones to calm and control the hive, her workers kill her – as long as there is a new queen cell. Sometimes a queen will kill her own daughter-queen or vice versa. Stinging does not kill the queen as it does the other bees, so she can kill repeatedly. It’s a soap opera.
Although honeybee colonies have existed for 20 million years, it is only for the last ten thousand that we have sought to formally keep them. The Egyptians were big fans, so were the Romans. In the Middle Ages people kept bees high up in trees, which made honey gathering a bit precarious. In fact, they were onto something, bees will naturally make their nests higher up off the ground, it is modern man who has brought the hives down to earth to make harvest easier. Bees gave folk sweetness and candles, in a time before refined sugar and electricity. Even if, back then, they thought bees magically appeared from the beaten up, rotting carcass of an ox in something called bugonia.
Honey is bee-spit, which doesn’t look quite so good printed on a label, and made from sucrose, glucose and water (bees need ready access to water as well as plants). The honey is made from nectar gathered from flowers. Pollen is also collected and is a valuable protein source for brood food – to feed the bees. To increase pollination (although pollination is a secondary and accidental act to pollen gathering), bees tend to stay faithful to one flower on each flight although they may visit as many as 10,000 plants on a good day. They carry the pollen back home on their legs.
The nectar is the energy giving carbohydrate and is swallowed and held in their honey sacs, to be spat up back at the hive, given to another worker on arrival, who then again spits it into a cell. Enzymes in the saliva help to thicken it and then the other worker bees will flap their wings to evaporate the water content until the honey is just the right consistency for storage. Then, each cells is capped off with wax and stored for the winter months. That is if we don’t take it first. It’s sobering to think that in her entire life, a bee will produce less than a quarter of a teaspoon of honey.
The various jobs in the hive are done by the female workers according to their age, their progress moving to jobs outside the hive the older they are. New borns start work immediately – the original child labour – cleaning out their cells. They move on to feeding the larvae, packing pollen into cells, making the honeycomb before graduating to becoming foragers, scouts or guards.
Bee keepers will talk about the different personalities of their bees – some are aggressive, some more docile, some so laid they can scarcely be bothered to make (much) honey, others so prolific the honey drips off the combs. The more aggressive ones tend to be the most industrious honey makers. A study in 2012 showed some individual bees have distinct personalities that predispose them to different jobs. The ‘thrill seekers’ were more likely to be scout bees, which make up less than 5% of the colony.
The Austrian zoologist Karl von Frisch spent a lifetime studying bees. He discovered the waggle dance and won a Nobel Peace Prize for it in 1973. A bee which has found a particularly good source of nectar, will communicate the source to her hive-mates. Like Beyoncé, bees are very good at shaking their bottoms: the waggle dance involves them vibrating theirs to detail distance (a waggle of two seconds indicates a distance of a little over 1km) and the direction they face when they do the waggle dance shows the flying direction in relation to the sun. And they do all of this in the dark.
Bees will also shake their bottoms if danger is near. They will do this to communicate collective intent. For example: a hornet threatens the hive (the hornet will be after the protein rich pupae). A hornet can sting many times – and is much larger than the little honeybee. The two are, on the face of it, ill-matched adversaries; just thirty hornets have been known to take out an entire honeybee colony of 30,000. So what do the bees do? They will ‘ball’ the hornet, completely surrounding it and vibrating their bottoms to raise the internal temperature to 117C, one degree under what they themselves can withstand. Hornets can take temperatures of only up to 115C. The bees cook the hornet to death.
Urban beekeeping has taken off in recent years. Despite thinking that maybe a concrete jungle is a hard environment for a bee, urban bees actually have a more diverse diet and, dare I say it, may make tastier honey. This is because our countryside is now largely taken over with monocultures, so there is a lot of oil seed rape, but few meadow flowers. Wild flower honey seems to be the holy grail of beekeepers and certainly once you’ve tasted it, it blows borage or oil seed rape honey right off the toast. But in cities, there are more flowers – in domestic gardens, public parks and on balconies. (Although be aware that honey made largely from rhododendron honey is toxic to humans.) And the season is longer because cities tend to be a few degrees warmer, which makes for a longer foraging season. Bees need temperatures of at least about 12-13C to fly.
Although bees have been buzzing around in the background forever, in the last decade, their plight hit the public consciousness with news of colony collapse disorder. This was when bees just abandoned hives full of honey overnight. For a domestic beekeeper this was heart-breaking and confusing, for commercial beekeepers it was hugely worrying: the pollinated crops industry is worth billions. In the last decade, north America and Europe has lost over a third of its managed bee colonies. This was when we started reading bee-armageddon ‘facts’ such as ‘if the honeybee dies out the world dies with it’.
The reason for CCD is not fully known; theories put forward involve the use of pesticides, and loss of habitat. In the spring of 2012, a study out of UC San Diego showed that even a small amount of crop pesticide (neonicotinoids in particular) turned bees into fussy, reluctant foragers and waggle dancers. Although some scientists doubted this was the cause, three types of neonicotinoid pesticides were banned in the UK in 2013. The other bee nemesis is the varroa mite, which was discovered in the UK for the first time in 1992. It has been responsible for millions of bee deaths, by spreading viruses and causing deformities.
Although you don’t really get people tweeting pictures of a cute honeybee, this plight did bring the bee to the attention of the general public. Five years ago (2010), in New York, the ban on keeping bees (it had coe under the keeping wild animals act), was lifted. Previously you could be fined $2,000 for keeping a hive. The number of urban beekeepers exploded. One man was said to keep a hive on his fifteenth floor balcony – bees can fly up to a mile high.
We had no such ban here, but the British, too, took to keeping bees. The more traditional wooden Langstroth and WBC hives were joined in 2009 by the comes-in-colours plastic Beehaus made by Omlet, the company who helped urbanise chicken keeping with its plastic chicken houses: Eglus. You could buy bees by post. Bee keeping courses got booked up. When I tried to get on one I was told to ring back, by a rather stuffy old gentleman, next year. Forget Hermes handbags, there was now a waiting list to learn about bees.
Honeys are enjoying the sort of attention to detail coffee, then chocolate, did a few years ago. It’s no longer just honey, its properties are now – rightly – celebrated. You can get manuka honey (famous for its super charged antibacterial properties), costing £50 a jar and single estate honey in supermarkets, alongside the squeezy cheap bottles of the stuff. Places like Harrods and Fortnum and Mason keep hives on their roofs and sell the honey in their stores.
If you want honey for all its magical, marvellous qualities the best thing to do is find a local beekeeper who will sell you a jar for about a fiver. Be suspicious of anything that costs less than £4 a jar, proper honey isn’t cheap; it shouldn’t be. Local bee-keeper honey will likely be raw, although it won’t say so on the label, so ask. If it’s been heat-treated much of the goodness will have been cooked out of it. Good honey will also be coarsely filtered to retain some of the pollen. A real super food. Cheap honey is little more than a sweetener and often nothing more than honey flavoured syrup – it is the presence of pollen that makes it honey.
Organic honey? Bees forage for up 2-3 miles, so although it’s theoretically possible they may only have stuck their proboscis into organic flora, it’s unlikely. No one tells the bees where to go.
This essay was originally published in Do Not Disturb magazine, issue 10, the Spring 2015 issue which came out on 1 April 2015. DND is a really great little magazine, given out free in certain hotels. But it only has a tiny circulation and no website. This is the only chance, here on this website, that most people will have to read my essay on bees.