In the beginning, there was Buzz

On a wet Spring afternoon this year, I noticed our family dogs’ ears pricked in interest at something in the corner of the kitchen. Stampeding clumsily across the laminate flooring, their claws providing little leverage on the smooth surface – they bulldozed their way to the source of the commotion before skidding face first into the unit drawers.

Intrigued, I followed. Amongst the yapping and whooshing of wagging tails, I heard the unmistakable drone of bee wings. Pulling the dogs away, the buzzing spluttered and spat to a halt to reveal an all-together defenceless looking thing hunched sorely on a cold floor.

Placing a teaspoon down next to Buzz, named so for the purpose of the story, she obligingly crawled into the bee-sized space ship. Upon closer inspection – I noticed that she didn’t have the usual distinguishing black and yellow fuzzy stripes we all know and love. Doubting my judgment I turned Google, swiftly identifying Buzz as a solitary bee and myself as a budding entomologist.

A bit more research and, as it turns out, there are 240-odd UK species of bee. 240 types of bee? The only one I could confidently pick out of a line up would be the humble bumblebee, distinguishable only by its adorable fluffy bum and tendency to appear as a motif for all things summer.

Unlike bumblebees, who enjoy life under the reign of a single, egg laying queen bee – solitary bees lay their eggs in individual cells. During Spring, the mum-to-be hatches from her own cell and heads out into the world seeking an appropriate birthing suite. Depending on the species, this could come in the form of a snail shell, a woodworm hole – or a small nook in the side of the cliff. They’re quite amenable little things, homemakers, I like to think. When mother-bee-to-be has chosen the perfect spot, she lays a single egg. After tucking in her newborn grub with a parcel of pollen and nectar to sustain it for months to come – she’s off again to repeat the process. She’ll do this around 20 times throughout her short lifespan of just over a month. Behind her, she leaves a legacy of growing grubs who will never meet their mum. It’ll be one year until they emerge as bees, the following Spring, where they will continue their lives much as their mum before them.

It’s quite a feat, I think, to spend a year growing in a hole and then just one brutal month in British weather, before dying. These bees have no time for games, they’re real troopers.

It seems tiny Buzz on the kitchen counter couldn’t have been out of her cozy nest for more than a week or so. The urge to give this bee a second chance during her pitifully brief visit to the big bad world overwhelmed me. What if she was out collecting sustenance for a tiny grub stashed away safely in the back garden? Will her babies ever get to see the light of day? It became my mission to send this bee back to the flower patch with full flutter control.

Fortunately, it seemed there was a sweet and simple solution to our problems. Literally – a sugar solution. I couldn’t face sending her out into the sheeting rain straight away and hours later, Buzz was still struggling to fly more than a few inches. For the next 3 days, Buzz’s home would be an air hole punched Tupperware box. Providing flowers to act as flying practice launch pads and a coke-cap of sugar water, I found myself silently praying for her life. Over the next few days, rushing downstairs to check on Buzz, the fondness and fear grew as I anticipated her seemingly fateful demise.

On day 3, I opened that box to see Buzz cleaning her wings enthusiastically. Outside, the rain had stopped – now offering a clear flight path. I stood in the garden (dog-free at this point), peeled back the lid and watched Buzz swiftly zoom off with all the vigour and enthusiasm of a cartoon.

Buzz had started something. She made me realize that, whilst considering myself an avid animal enthusiast, I’ve given little thought to the humble bee. The only thing I could tell you, like anyone who hasn’t been living on a technologically desolate island for the past two years, is that bees are in trouble.

I knew this, but had done little to act on it. You’ll see no make-shift bee hives in my garden, nor lavender on the doorstep. But Buzz’s plight brought the issue right to my kitchen. She became my own symbol of the demise of an invaluable, extraordinary and intriguing creature many of us take for granted.

Thanks to Buzz, I’m off on a journey of bee discovery, meeting the bee-centric beekeepers, behaviourists, ecologists and conservationists of the South to find out just what it is that makes bees so incredibly important.

Chris Slade Beekeeper

Chris the Bee Man

What’s the obvious first port of call when it comes to bees? A beekeeper of course! Last week I met Chris Slade, the self-proclaimed bee man with two decades of experience in the game.

With instructions to ‘drive until you run out of tarmac’, I made my way to Toller Porcorum, a quaint, curious village in West Dorset. There was Chthumb_IMG_8085_1024ris, a brilliantly British beekeeper in khaki trousers and practical boots. The hives we were to visit sat snugly at the top of a picturesque paddock home to three over-friendly sheep. Peeling back the fencing put in place to protect the hives from pesky badgers, “one of the bee’s worst enemies”, Chris informs me, I’m a little dubious about getting so close to these sting-bottomed creatures without so much as a pair of gloves. “The bees are in a good mood today,” Chris tries
to comfort me. Hmm. “Oh, but you really shouldn’t stand just there.”
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The tall hives are weather-worn and seemingly desolate but as Chris lifts away each frame, he tells me: “This is my favourite colony, they’ve got a lovely disposition. Every colony, you see, acts as one unit and has its own distinct personality. These ones are very good tempered and gentle.” Even so, in the absence of protective gear, I’m a feeling less than calm.

I’m instructed to keep my movements slow and deliberate. Like many creatures, if a bee detectsthumb_IMG_8141_1024
erratic movement, they may be inclined to release a pheromone warning the rest of the colony to the presence of a potential threat. Although a bee is responsive to fast movement, it has an intriguing way of perceiving the world around it. The humble bee is one of an array of species that can see a broader spectrum of light than the human eye is capable of. Ultraviolet light, for example, uncovers colours and patterns which draws bees to sources of pollen and nectar invisible to the human eye. This ability pairs beautifully with its primary food source – flowers. Flowers have an alluring ultraviolet landing strip that allow them to stand out from darker-looking leafy backgrounds.
thumb_IMG_8128_1024Finally arriving at the centre of the hive to find a dense colony of sleeping bees, one by one they begin their ascent into daylight. Incredibly, a few brave flight despite gale force winds.

Chris lives and sleeps bees – but what is it about them that’s keeps him trudging out to the hives in all weathers? “Most people
assume it’s just about honey and money. They’re wrong – honey is just a sticky embarrassment.” Already my perceptions of a beekeeper thumb_IMG_8217_1024have been blown out the water. “In 1977, I got some equipment together and by the may of 78’ I found a swarm on a gateway a quarter of a mile from here, and that set me up, I was hooked. Bees are addictive, you see.”

Throughout the afternoon, Chris talks me through his history with bees; how he’s fallen in love with their organised, peaceful world, how he sings to them, how their behaviour fascinates him, the techniques he’s learnt to keep them most active and content. “After all, it’s not what your bees can do for you,” he says, “but what you can do for your bees.”