I was recently a part of a very special walking experience with a few of my fellow rangers. There were jaffles, a Half-collared Kingfisher nest, a Greater Honeyguide, bees; it was a nature experience in its purest form and one that I definitely won’t forget in a hurry.
My only disappointment, which is unjustified, was that we were unable to extract any honey from the hive for ourselves and the Honeyguide; she had led us all this way and we were not all that keen on testing out the myth that the next time she calls will be to lead us into some form of danger such as the jaws of a lion as punishment for not paying her, her due. After much discussion, however, our justification of it all was that we had not actually partaken of the prize and so were not able to reward the bird that had led us here. Gotta love a loophole!
But this whole event had me pondering on bees for the rest of the walk. What are they all about, these bees that, for the most part, conjure up so many negative connotations and such fear? So, I dived a little deeper into the world of these fascinating social insects…
Starting with the most obvious and pertinent question; where had they gone all winter? That hive that we had been led to must have been one of the first hives to “re-activate” as the summer arrived. We are coming out of a harsh winter by Londolozi standards, with temperatures having plummeted to a two-year low of -2°C (28,4°F) and it must’ve taken some doing for these tiny creatures to have survived that.
It turns out all they did was, just like us, get a little shivery. But a lot of little shivering bodies, all huddled around the queen at the core, can generate a significant amount of heat. Enough to stave off the cold for a while. And sure, during the serious cold snaps, they probably shed the outer few layers of the huddle, but bees aren’t in it for the individual; they’re the ultimate expression of altruism in nature, survival of the whole at the expense of the self. They just tighten the huddle and keep shivering.
Another winter at their backs, what now for the hive?
Expansion is the answer. Grow, build, flourish. The first smatterings of rain have caressed the Londolozi landscape and have been soaked up. The land is thirsty, desperate for the summer deluge to come, but for now it makes do with what it can, and with these first few millimetres of rain, spring arrives. The grass patchily flushes green, and the first few brave flowers put forth their petals.
The bees are ready; they pour forth from their winter fortress, seeking the succor of the provided combination of nectar and pollen. Specialised leg structures allow the bee to gather up pollen which will be used at the hive to create food stores for the larvae as they hatch, while nectar is essentially pure sugar that provides the energy to the individual bees as they travel far and wide gathering that pollen.
Obviously, the benefit to the flower is that as the bee buzzes from one plant to another and digs around in amongst the petals, they cross-pollinate these flowers and allow them the genetic diversity that is so crucial to survival in nature. Various adaptions have formed in both the bees and the flowers as they have co-evolved over millennia but one that I find particularly fascinating is the concept of the UV runway lights that form on the flower’s petals.
Flowers “know” that bees see in the UV spectrum and are able to essentially signal if a bee has recently visited by dimming the veins of UV running through their petals. A dimmed flower likely has less pollen and so the bee will rather by-pass and move onto the possibility of a more bountiful flower. These are the things I find the most fascinating, these almost imperceptible adaptions and intricate relationships that make up the natural world and make it work in such harmony. One day we will be a part of that again.
And so, the hive will thrive; it will grow as large as it can through the summertime in preparation for next winter when it will go through the whole cycle once more. I can’t wait to watch this and see summer explode onto the Londolozi landscape, to watch the bush come alive again, and to watch the myriad miracles happen around us as this place that is so special to us all laps up the life-giving summer rains.