Everyday seems to be dedicated to something. In Portugal today, May 20, it is National Navy Day, St Bernard’s Day, World Meteorology Day, European Sea Day and World Bee Day.
However, it is the bees that I want to write about. There exists a quote attributed to Albert Einstein that claims that “if bees disappeared from the world, mankind would only have four years of life left”, but whilst there is no evidence that Einstein said this, it is true that if bees disappeared, the world would be severely affected.
Other insects and animals play an important role in pollination, but the small unassuming bee is responsible for pollinating over 80% of the world’s plants, with one third of our fresh food coming from bee-pollinated crops, which are economically produced by farmers thanks to the bees’ hard labour. A study by Reading University in the UK found that, each year, bees contribute £651 million to the British economy. Wow, that is a lot of responsibility for the humble bee!
If bees disappeared, in just six months many farmers would have to convert their bee-pollinated crops to others, such as wheat, because human-assisted pollination is too labour- and cost-intensive.
Without bees, the plants that rely on their pollination would die out as would animals that rely on bees for their diet. For instance, the colourful bee-eater birds seen around the Algarve base 70% of their diet on bees and wasps.
Did you know that there are over 20,000 species of bees, each having evolved to better collect nectar and pollen from their preferred flowers? In the Algarve, alone there are over 700 types yet, sadly, many bee species worldwide are under threat due to habitat destruction and the use of pesticides which influence their ability to breed and navigate. Warmer winters are also influencing the plants’ growth thus confusing bees who normally cluster together in their hives during the colder months.
Bees have three pairs of hairy legs which make them good pollinators. They have five eyes, one on each side of their head and three smaller ones located on the top so they can see UV light and, like most insects, they can see all the colours in the spectrum apart from red. They have two stomachs, one for food digestion and one where they transport nectar and water, so honey is basically regurgitated matter!
A bee colony consists of the queen, the male drones whose sole job is to mate with the queen so she can lay up to 2,500 eggs a day and the all-female sterile worker bees who collect the nectar and pollen, feed the queen, drones and larvae and keep the hive clean. That must be where the expression ‘busy bee’ comes from! As a result, worker bees live for around six weeks in comparison to the drones’ eight weeks and the queen who can live up to five years. When a new queen bee hatches, they will fight until only one remains alive to rule. Each colony has its own scent, so bees recognise their hive and know when an invader arrives.
Bee’s larvae are fed nectar and pollen, and honey is produced to sustain the bees throughout the winter months. The bee wax is made to build the honeycomb, which are hexagonal cells with perfect 120° angles and are used to store the honey, water and pollen. Royal jelly is specially produced to feed larvae at the early stages of development and to determine which become queen.
When a hive becomes too crowded, bees swarm and break away from the ‘mother hive’ and it is at times like this that you might see them all together on a tree waiting for the scout bees to find a new home. They can smell fear and will only attack if they feel threatened.
Although bees do not sleep, they can get exhausted and if you find one ‘collapsed’, put it near a spoonful of sugared water to help it recover. In one single trip, a bee can visit up to 100 flowers and in its lifetime will produce just one twelfth of a teaspoon of honey. This makes me appreciate even more my generous spoonful of honey on toast, now that I know how hard the poor bees worked.
We are lucky that in the Algarve there are many beekeepers who sell their honey in the local markets, small grocery stores and agricultural shops. I know four of them and their honey is wonderfully rich.
The flower type determines the honey’s colour with the dark ones having a stronger flavour. During orange blossom season, Algarve beekeepers temporarily place hives in the orange groves to produce the well-known Algarvean orange blossom honey, although other popular local varieties are obtained from rosemary and lavender.
Commercially produced honey may be cheaper, but it is heat processed to remove the pollen and to prevent it from crystalizing. This destroys the antioxidants, enzymes and vitamins, and so commercial honey loses its anti-viral, anti-fungal and antibacterial nature.
So, if you buy honey that is crystalizing, you can be sure it is natural and contains high levels of antioxidants and anti-bacterial properties, making it perfect for cleaning and healing wounds as well as eating.
Even before beekeeping officially began 4500 years ago, mankind had been stealing honey from the hives and the Romans and Greeks viewed it as a symbol of love, although you do not see many lovers nowadays giving each other jars of honey instead of flowers or chocolates, but I would not mind!
Bees have other uses too. In Africa, hives are used to prevent elephants from entering a field and destroying crops, and in Croatia bees have been trained to locate hidden unexploded mines by associating their explosive smell as food.
So, bees give us honey, wax, royal jelly and can be used for protection, but in some countries, they are also consumed by humans. In Indonesia, you can order ‘botok tawon’ bee larvae mixed with shredded coconut, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed to be accompanied by rice. Larvae are a useful source of phosphorus, copper, potassium, zinc, magnesium, iron and selenium, but I will pass, thank you!
Bees hate garlic and peppermint so both are effective to keep them away, but everyone can help to preserve this incredible species by planting wildflowers, herbs and fruit trees to provide new habitats for their dwindling numbers. Right, it is time to get out in the garden …
So now you know …
By Isobel Costa
Isobel Costa works full time and lives on a farm with a variety of pet animals! In her spare time, she enjoys photography, researching and writing.