Websailor's Wacky Wildlife World

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A quirky look at wildlife. To be taken with a pinch of salt, but with more than a grain of truth!

'Hi, Honey, I'm Home!'

I have just ordered ten jars of honey for myself and a friend from our friendly local bee-keeper. In doing so I breathed a sigh of relief that he still had sufficient supplies even before the current season gets going. I shall no doubt give in to temptation and share a little bit with our badgers who would do anything for a taste of honey, as would many animals.

However, honey lovers in America may not be so lucky. The queen bee in many bee colonies, waiting patiently, is unlikely to hear the worker bees returning after a foraging trip and giving out signals the bee equivalent to 'Hi, Honey, I'm Home!' Millions of honey bees across America have abandoned their hives and flown off to die. They have
left the queen behind with a few young bees but a colony cannot survive without its queen. Those bees left behind are seriously diseased. The reason is not yet apparent and beekeepers and fruit and vegetable growers are facing a bleak season if there are no bees to pollinate the flowers to produce fruit, vegetables and honey. So far some 24 states are believed to be affected in addition, to parts of Canada.

We take so much that wildlife does for granted and it is quite a shock when something goes seriously wrong. To me it is strange that the bees fly off, not dying in the hives. At least the problems experienced in the UK with the Varroa mite, over the past few years, were identifiable and treatable. Without prompt action by the beekeepers' associations it could have been a great deal worse.

Honey has been a much-prized resource for countless indigenous peoples for thousands of years, and there has been a resurgence of interest in its health-giving properties in the developed world in recent years. Specialist honeys such as Manuka honey from New Zealand are being used to cure and soothe, and there are Australian honey preparations being used to heal wounds and kill infections in hospitals here in the UK. As a food it contains traces of copper, iron, silica, manganese, chlorine, calcium, potassium, sodium, phosphorus, sulphur, aluminium and magnesium and many other ingredients, all elements beneficial given the poor quality diets many have now. It is a very good food
preservative, and makes a very potent drink called mead. I have never forgotten the effects of Cornish mead on my honeymoon! Very appropriate, too!

In about 2,600 BC there was evidence that people had begun using hives instead of enduring the risky business of collecting honey in the wild. It was a sacred substance and a valuable trading asset, along with beeswax. The romantic novelist Barbara Cartland called it 'the elixir of life' and certainly many other people believe it to be so. It is still harvested at great risk by many tribal peoples the world over.

The blended honey so often sold in supermarkets is an artificial 'blend' of assorted honeys from around the world, and should not be confused with monofloral, polyfloral or multi-flowered honey where the bees do the blending work themselves. There are tastes and textures to suit every palate and pocket. Honey is infinitely better than
refined sugars or 'sweeteners' as it doesn't put weight on if you are on a diet, which is of paramount importance to me!

Antiseptic, a mild laxative, energy booster, sleep enhancer, antidote to hay fever, soother of nerves, migraine, coughs and colds — the list is endless. So the loss of so many bees in America is a cause of great concern beyond the monetary loss. At present it appears to be the 'domesticated' honey bees that are most affected, but it is quite possible that it could spread to wild populations.

In America the huge agricultural plantations are served by mobile apiaries travelling cross-country to pollinate major crops like oranges. Many such apiaries have apparently lost as much as 90% of their bees recently. Much of agricultural America has the same season as here in the UK so in the US and the UK right now the bees waking from hibernation. So it seems our breakfast orange juice could be in jeopardy.

The honey bee Apis mellifera is responsible for the bulk of the pollination in the US. Something like one and a half million colonies, each colony usually occupying one hive are operating in the US. Big beekeeping organisations have been forced to import millions of bees from Australia! Nothing like it has been seen before with
several strange things happening. Apparently the pattern of die-offs is similar to those that have been seen in more isolated cases in Louisiana, Texas and even Australia. The latter should cause questions to be asked on the advisability of importing Australian bees to fill the gap.

Strange features of this die-off include:

  1. The bees are leaving the hives to die elsewhere. The deaths took place over a period of about a week. Do they know something is seriously wrong?

  2. The remaining bees (queens and young bees) in the hives were found to be carrying as many as six viruses.

  3. A dying colony usually attracts raiders from other colonies who carry away the surplus honey and pollen but this is not happening, so again do the bees and other insects know that something is seriously amiss? It seems to me that they do and research has apparently shown similar behaviour in ants. We ignore insect, animal and bird intelligence/instincts at our peril.

Colony Collapse Disorder, as it has now been called, has happened before in the 1960s, reason unknown, but usually there is a clearly defined cause as with the Varroa mite. An invasion of African honeybees in 1990 caused havoc, but again the cause was known and controllable though wild honeybees were badly hit.

It appears that the biggest losses this time have occurred in travelling colonies. Now it seems to me with my little knowledge gained from our friendly local beekeeper that bees have a range and will take pollen from anything suitable in that range. If a specific, single-source honey is required they must be placed in an area which has sufficient for their needs without travelling further. Now if their 'homes', ie hives, are constantly being moved it must have an effect on their 'homing' instinct, and the fact that these travelling bees have to be given supplementary feeding is cause for concern.

Almond, apple, blackberry, blueberry, cherry, cranberry, cucumber, orange, peach, pear, pumpkin, raspberry, soybean and strawberry pollen in quick succession is a pretty heady mix, with protein supplements and syrup fed in between. To me this seems excessive. A bit like over-feeding cattle or chickens for quicker yields of meat.

A fungus, virus, or a variety of microbes? Maybe! Then there is the additional worry of the effects of pesticides and herbicides etc. on the health of the bees. Some very dangerous chemicals have been, and still are used. Yet so far no conclusions have been drawn. Bees have been known to travel on cargo ships from continent to continent
causing havoc with indigenous populations so it is essential that all countries protect their own honey bees against incomers.

Honey making is now taking second place to pollinating as an industry in America yet it is growing in other countries like New Zealand, Australia, and some Latin American countries and certainly honey production in the UK seems to be thriving.

About 75% of flowers, fruits and trees need pollination, so the next time a bee lands near you, please don't wave your arms frantically and shoo it away! Our honeybees are a very necessary part of the natural world, beyond price, more valuable perhaps than some prettier species. Quite apart from anything else it would be such a shame if 'Yummy
Honey' disappeared from the menu. My friends' two young sons would certainly have something to say about that.

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