Much has been written about the wonderful honey and natural goods our resident bees produce. Now, we turn our attention to the bees themselves
Apart from a few bees entering and leaving the base of the hives, all was still and quiet during another sunny Algarve afternoon. With my camera ready and preparations complete, there is just enough time for one last deep breath. Then, as the first hive lid was slowly removed, it began. Even when wearing a sting-proof suit, the feeling of being in the middle of a swarm of bees for the first time is far from pleasant, but if l wanted the shots, then l had to get close, really close.
Feeling tense and nervous about buzzing insects flying around our heads seems to be fundamentally instinctive to humans and this led me to ask João, my very experienced beekeeping host, if the bees can sense this. The answer was a definite yes. I have now come to learn how these amazing, sensitive little creatures have their good and bad moods, react to climatic changes, fan the hives during hot nights to regulate the temperature and charge into defence mode when they feel threatened or are roughly handled.
The first ancestors of today’s bees existed many millions of years ago alongside the flowering plants of the Cretaceous period when dinosaurs reigned the Earth. Over time, evolution has fine-tuned their behaviour, communication skills and instincts to an incredible level. Individually, each bee knows its precise role in the community and collectively they form a social structure as strong as the famous hexagonal tubes in their hives.
I was curious as to why their life spans are so short, at only a few weeks or months, depending on their role, species, and other factors. Part of the answer is that, surprisingly, bees do not sleep, so there is no recuperation of vital energy. There is an important interplay with food supply and an insistence on system efficiency. More nectar availability means harder work for the bees and their energy runs out quicker, leading to a shorter life, and once an individual’s role has been fulfilled, it is simply replaced with a new one. And this is exactly what the queen bee provides, laying up to 2,000 new eggs every day. This puts a big question mark over the value of their lives, being so quickly dispensable, but with a quick turnaround of the workforce, the number of bees in the hive is adjusted according to needs and conditions.
The Algarve’s honeybees are an African species, named Apis mellifera, that has adapted well to the region’s climate, and the wild plants that they depend on are found in protected rural land areas where building is mainly restricted. With an estimated 100,000 registered hives, there are plenty of them. However, all is not perfect in the land of milk and honey.
Back in 2004, hives in the north of the country endured an invasion of killer Asian wasps that decimated entire colonies although, fortunately, they did not reach the south.
Another assault came from the use of a particular pesticide that apparently caused high levels of stress that affected the bees’ navigational instincts.
Climate change has also taken its toll, with The National Federation of Beekeepers reporting that, in some cases, climatic disturbances during the flowering season led to a drop in honey production of up to 80% in the past three years, although thankfully this year will see a recovery.
The land destroyed by forest fires in recent years and the continuing rise in the theft of valuable hives are contributing factors, but there is a far greater threat to be dealt with – enter a nasty little mite called varroa.
Varroa is an ectoparasitic mite that infests colonies of bees that includes the Apis mellifera species, and they cannot reproduce anywhere else. By sticking to the bee’s body and weakening it, they suck its blood and spread a disease called varroosis. This can lead to the new bees being born wingless. Naturally, they die, and this is causing significant economic impact on the beekeeping industry. No genuinely effective solution has yet been found.
One of the many interesting things to come to light when researching was the name of Aristotle, who apparently was the first to scientifically investigate bees’ behaviour and record his findings. I would not be alone in thinking about whether the study of insect colonies and how they function with such efficiency had any influence on the shaping of the modern western world by the Greek philosophers of his time. Maybe it was also inspiration for the idealism of communism and the rejection of such rigid social orders gave birth to the individualism that is absolutely not allowed in bee society.
Then again, it could simply be that Aristotle liked honey.
With an eye to the future, alarm bells have been ringing throughout the world for many years, warning us of the decreasing numbers of bee populations and some writers predict an ecological breakdown as a result. Clearly, the continuing decline in bee numbers is of great concern, especially if the reported estimation that one-third of all the food we eat is a direct result of bee pollination is true.
But before we get carried away with negativity, we should also consider another factor. Bees are one of nature’s great success stories, they have been on Earth a lot longer than us, and something tells me that there is a resilience and adaptability built into their DNA that will keep them going for a long time to come.
If the future says otherwise and the prophets of doom are correct, then maybe we will still hear the countryside buzzing with the sound of thousands of mechanical robotic bee drones doing the same work with GPS systems. A sad thought, but at least we won’t get stung.
João and his partner Ana were a great source of information and together they run the Apicultura company, Bees in Tube, in the São Brás de Alportel area.
By BOB TIDY