Who knew a workshop on honeybees would also provide a lesson in girl power?
Yet that’s what happened when I took the kids off to learn about the importance of these little critters not only for honey making, but also on the small matter of global food supply.
Apart from my husband being allergic to their sting, we love bees in our garden.
One of the joys of spring and summer is seeing them buzzing around the blossoms doing their thing; supping on the sunflowers, borage and bean flowers and getting their fill deep inside the zucchini trumpets.
But when the kids started hitting me up with bee questions, I recognised a significant knowledge gap.
I knew bees make honey, collect pollen and pollinate flowers, but only vaguely. To be honest, I actually had no idea how they made the honey. (Warning! I found out and it’s not pretty.)
I’d heard of the global decline in bee numbers because of pesticide use on large-scale monoculture farms such as almond groves, which bees find particularly scrummy.
And I knew that without bees the variety of fruit and vegetables available to us would diminish.
Unfortunately, I also knew there was no chance of keeping bees at home given the danger of anaphylaxis. So I figured the next best thing would be to fill the garden with plants bees love to help them thrive and keep them busy in my vegetable beds.
As chance would have it I came to hear of a bee info session run by Inverleigh nature education group The Fox Guild, which gave me the perfect excuse to bone up on knowledge while simultaneously hoisting the kids on board.
Set in the productive back garden of hosts Bec and Tom, the kids and I were swiftly absorbed into the fascinating and supremely organised world of bees.
My biggest discovery was that bees form a matriarchal society.
For years I’d thought the queen bee ruled a harem of subservient worker males. But it turns out to be way cooler.
The drones, or boy bees, live for about a month and have one job: impregnating a queen on her virgin flight to start a new hive and colony. After that, they can while away their remaining days as they please – as long as it’s not in the hive. I also loved that the drones have larger eyes than other bees – imagine 80s-style Aviator wraparound sunglasses – the better to spot a passing queen.
The worker bees, then, are all girls. They live for about six weeks and, in that time, pass through all the important roles necessary to keep the hive functioning like a well-honeyed machine. Early jobs include keeping the hive clean, feeding the larvae and guarding the hive. They go on to learn the waggle dance, which is how bees share the direction of food, and are ultimately tasked with scouting out new sources of pollen and potential hive locations. The workers also secrete royal jelly, which is fed to the future queen larvae.
The queen fills her time eating honey and royal jelly and laying up to 100 eggs each day. She is about one third longer and also wider than the other bees and can live up to five years.
As for her royal descendants, the first larval queen to emerge will eat the other losers before swarming off with her worker bee posse to start a new hive (via a little drone dalliance).
These are the swarms you might spot in your garden in spring. Tom told us the bees are quite docile when clustered on a branch waiting for the scout to return with their new address. He said it was a good time to capture yourself some feral bees and start a backyard hive. I don’t think I’d be game. Particularly after Tom conceded being stung on 14 separate occasions. Something about bees smelling his fear pheromones in his beginner bee-keeping days.
So, in the interests of attracting bees to my garden from a safe distance, here are a few pointers.
Have you ever noticed dead bees floating in large bodies of water; say a backyard pond, swimming pool or jug of mojito?
The reason is that they are looking for a drink but have nowhere to land while sipping. And so they drown.
Create a bee-sized watering hole in a shallow dish with a few small rocks or pebbles for them to rest and drink.
Make it blue
Like the male satin bowerbird that decorates its love nest blue, female worker bees are also turned on by the colour. So blue to purple flowers such as borage, cornflower, lavender, sage, rosemary, oregano and thyme are massive hits with the bees.
Plant for pollen and nectar
Bees collect pollen and nectar to make honey and also protein-rich “bee bread”, which is fed to the larval bees. Anything that produces large quantities of this bee-loving combo is a winner. Think fruit trees that burst with blossoms in spring, and flowers such as sunflower and yarrow. A fun way to get started is to make seed bombs; little patties of mud and potting mix embedded with seeds to plant in spring.
Keep sprays non-toxic
If you use pesticides and insecticides, you’ll probably be killing bees. Simple as that. Always check labels or make your own simple natural sprays with ingredients like garlic, chilli, bicarb soda, vinegar, oil and biodegradable soap.
After the Fox Guild session I realised I’d forgotten to ask how the honey is made. But being a keen learner I did a little delving and now wish I hadn’t.
The not-so-delicious truth about honey
You might have heard about Kopi Luwak – the most expensive coffee in the world – where the beans are digested by the Indonesian civet cat and pooped out before being roasted and sold to bigger coffee snobs than myself.
Well it’s kind of like that.
The bees collect pollen and nectar, with the latter stored in a special honey stomach. When this nectar sac is full, the bee returns to the hive where the nectar is regurgitated from bee to bee until the moisture content of the partially digested mixture is reduced to about 20 per cent. This vomit – I mean honey – is then stored within the comb and capped with beeswax until needed.
So now you know, too. You’re welcome.
Enjoy your toast.
When the bee comes to your house, let her have beer;
you may want to visit the bee’s house some day.