A bee colony is a great example of a perfectly organised community. From birth till death each individual member performs tasks appropriate to its age and gender and all directed towards the health and wellbeing of the community. Deformities and weaknesses of any kind are not permitted and are dealt with in what we would consider cruelty. The products of the beehive, principally honey and wax, are well suited to local community based enterprises. Research at UCD has shown that Irish heather honey is of better quality (more antioxidants) than Manuka honey. Indeed honey marketed as local, using the locality as the brand name, commands a premium price. Though beekeeping has been practised by mankind for centaury’s, domestication of honey bees as we know it is only about 100 years old.
4 Key Takeaways:
- A bee colony must get all its resources from within a 5km radius and deal with global threat’s.
- A bee colony is a society where the individual needs are directed to the common good.
- “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live”, A quote attributed to Albert Einstein.
- One teaspoon of honey is the life’s work of 12 bees.
About Patsy Cahalan:
Patsy Cahalan is a hobbyist beekeeper and lives in Claregalway, Co. Galway. Claregalway never fails to get a mention in the AA traffic report every morning. I am also a keen gardener, growing a variety of vegetables for our own use and for bartering with the neighbours for whatever they have, like eggs or cakes. I also love to spend weekends walking in the hills of Connemara. Helen is my queen bee and we have 3 adult children now living in Sydney and Dublin. We volunteer in local community groups such as our local drama and agricultural societies.
Contacting Patsy Cahalan:
By Patsy Cahalan
Mankind has been fascinated by the workings of honeybees and beehives since earliest times. Engravings of bees as well as honey have been found in the tombs of the Pharaoh’s in Egypt. Here in Ireland St. Gobnait was held as the patron Saint of honeybees. Place names sometimes have a basis in beekeeping such as Corcog, meaning beehive, the first hill in the Maamturk range in Connemara.
Virgil (70BC to 19BC) saw bees as providing the model for a perfect society, where the bees loyalty and selflessness can be seen as a model of the co-operation on which security and survival depend. He gave wonderful poetic praise to the communal organisation of beehives.
They alone hold children in common: own the roofs
of their city as one: and pass their life under the might of the law.
They alone know a country, and a settled home,
and in summer, remembering the winter to come,
undergo labour, storing their gains for all.
Lets take a quick tour through the lives of bees to see why this high regard is so deserving.
The motto of my own club, Tribes Beekeepers Galway is the Irish seanfhocal ‘’Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine”, literally “In the shadow of each other, we live.”
This says that in a community we all depend on each other, and the cooperation and help of our neighbours.
We need to help the bees face the challenges of globalisation and climate change and they will reward us in many ways.
Honey was once the only medicine available. It was used to seal wounds as it gave an airtight seal. It was the original sweetener and preservative and used to make the drink mead. It was a valuable commodity and given to newly weds to aid fertility for their first weeks of marriage, their honeymoon!
Beeswax has been used since earliest times for candles, waterproofing and cosmetics. In the days of smallpox, ladies covered their facial spots with beeswax. If it melted and people stared, they would say testily, ‘mind your own beeswax’!
We have a unique strain of bee in Ireland, the black bee, apis mellifera melifera. This bee is ideally suited to our climate in that the black colour attracts the heat and the bee being small is very frugal with its winter stores.
Each hive is a separate independent colony or community, headed by a queen. The members of this community have a unique smell or pheromone, which they get from their queen. This is how the guard bees at the entrance recognise their own and allow entry. The majority of the members of the hive are female, who do all the work. The males bees, the drones don’t do any of the normal hive duties such as collecting nectar or rearing the young. Neither do they possess a sting. Their only purpose is to mate with virgin queens and in pursuit of this they fly out everyday to drone congregation areas to await passing queens and compete to mate, after which they die.
At peak season the hive can have as many as 60,000 bees with the queen laying up to 1,500 eggs per day. The primary purpose of honeybees is to pollinate plants, and in so doing provide an essential service to mankind. For this they are rewarded by the plants with nectar and pollen. It is said that were bees to die out mankind would die within 3 years. Only wind pollinated plants such as wheat would survive.
The bees convert the nectar to honey by a collective process of evaporation and regurgitation. A forager bee collects nectar and on returning to the hive passes it to a younger house bee before setting off again to gather more. The house bee swallows and regurgitates the nectar approximately 70 times, holding it on its tongue each time to evaporate the water before storing it in the honey comb. The nectar is approximately 80% water in its initial state, and when it is reduced to 17% water it is stored as honey and sealed in the airtight honey comb cell.
Pollen attaches to the hairs on the bees body when she alights on a flower. She scrapes all this on to the knees of her hind legs for transport home, hence we say the ‘bees knees’. The different colours of the pollen reflecting the colours of the flowers are visible on the bees as they enter the hive.
This sight is reassuring for the beekeeper as it indicates the queen is laying and brood is being reared. The pollen is mixed with honey by the young nurse bees who add enzymes from glands in their heads to this ‘bee bread’ that is fed to the larvae before the being sealed while they pupate.
The worker bee emerges 21 days after egg is laid. Her first task is to clean the cell from which she has just emerged to make it available for the queen to use it again. For the next 3 weeks she will perform a series of age related tasks taking her closer to the hive entrance. She will feed young larvae, clean the hive, be an undertaker, feed and clean the queen, be a construction worker constructing the honey comb, accept nectar from forager bees for conversion and storing as honey.
Final hive job will be as a guard bee, a bouncer who will guard the entrance. Here she will with her sisters do other tasks such as fanning air into the hive to provide air-conditioning, giving off alarm pheromones to warn her sisters of danger and giving out a special homing signal to help guide her sisters to the hive entrance. No wonder we say a ‘hive of activity!’
At 3 weeks old she will take a series of flights in ever increasing circles around the hive to help her position the hive in her internal GPS. She is now a forager bee and will work to bring in nectar, pollen, water and propolis. Propolis is a resin collected from tree bark and is used to seal the hive. It puts ‘No More Nails’ to shame such is its strength. Her flights could take her up to 5km from the hive and she can navigate her way back home. She will collect one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey during her lifetime before dying away from the hive if at all possible after a lifetime of service.
Bees have a highly developed system of communication through the use of various smells or pheromones. The queen is the only fertile female in the hive and her presence calms the bees. She also emits a pheromone which suppresses the ovaries of the worker bees ensuring the best genetics are past on.
The forager bees communicate information on the best sources of nectar to their sisters though the use of the ‘Waggle Dance’. Here a bee dances in a figure of eight while shaking her abdomen. The angle of the dance tells the bees which angle in relation to the sun to fly on leaving the hive, and the vigour of the waggle the distance to fly. That’s where we get the term ‘to make a bee line’! She also passes out samples of nectar to the watching bees so they know what to look for when they arrive at the destination. There are several waggle dances going on at any time in the hive and the bees decide through tasting etc. which one they will go to.
The summer season is obviously the busiest time in the hive as the bees store supplies for the winter. During this period the workers lifespan is about six weeks from egg till death. In the winter, with no brood rearing and little foraging winter bees live for about six months and rear the new bees in the springtime. When the weather gets cold the bees huddle together in a cluster and flex their flight muscles to generate heat. The cluster protects the queen and it moves slowly across the comb where each bee gets the chance to feed and get warm before going back to the outside of the cluster.
Our modern beehives with removable frames are a huge improvement on the original skeps made from straw and mud. The honey is stored in a separate compartment to the brood nest so may be harvested with less disturbances to the bees. Frames with wax foundation are provided for the bees to construct the honeycomb. Though the frames are rectangular the bees still construct in hexagonal shapes which give the best use of space in an irregularly shaped space such as a tree hallow. The use of the hexagonal also give great structural strength. The individual cells are sloped upwards at an angle of 16⁰ to the horizontal to prevent raw nectar spilling out.
But not all modern developments in beekeeping have been positive for the bees. Importation and cross breeding have had negative effects. There are diseases and threats now that didn’t exist in less than 50 years ago. The varroa parasite is the biggest single imported threat. It has come in from Asia where the local bees have evolved a method of grooming to clean the mite from the bees bodies. Our Irish and European bees evolved over millions of years without the presence of this parasite and so are now facing a struggle for survival. To combat varroa we have to use pesticides which are not natural to the bees.
But there is hope and some evidence that the bees are beginning to learn to cope with varroa. We are also beginning to appreciate the value and importance of our pollinators, and that offers great hope.
We associate bees and hives with peace and humming contentment, with pastoral images of the early monks in the abbeys who understood the value of ‘brother bee’ and its place in creation. My own favourite image is from Yeats and the Lake Isle of Inishfree;
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow…
So, can we glean anything from the life of the honeybee to benefit human society? I mentioned Virgil at the beginning. He looked to bees and their values as a model of society at the end of a civil war in Rome, and asked this question.
Could communities cooperate and pool resources to deal with existential threats from larger forces?
Bees are dealing with threats posed by the large chemical corporations, who argue they are aiding food production for an expanding human population.
I hope you’ll join with me in discussing this in Cong.
I’ll sign off by giving the advice of a honey bee for happiness and peace;
Create a buzz,
Sip life’s sweet moments,
Mind your own beeswax,
Always find your way home,
And stick close to your honey.