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Thursday, December 8, 2011

28) European Honey Bee

Apis mellifera

When I was at university I knew a girl who wore a vial of honey on a chain around her neck.  She wore it so that if she ever came across a bee which was starving and close to death she could feed the bee and nurse it back to health and vigour.

If this recollection makes the girl in question sound irredeemably twee then I hasten to add that when she wasn’t rescuing bees she was stridently opinionated, resolutely unafraid to voice those opinions, powerfully intelligent and with a deep and questing intellect, and also possessed of a robust sense of humour.  She also adored poetry, and perhaps her fondness for bee rescue sprang from the same emotional well.

From her I gained two things: the presidency of the Australian National University Poetry Club, and a predilection for rescuing bees myself.  I don’t wear a vial of honey around my neck, but whenever I come across a bee which is struggling to cling to life my soft-heartedness takes over and, provided I’m close to home, I rush to get a jar of honey and a spoon.

Admittedly, it’s not often that I come across a bee in such a state, but when I do it’s remarkably easy to identify: a bee in need of feeding is slow and lethargic.  It won’t fly, regardless of provocation, and its attempts to walk across the ground will be clumsy and stumbling.  It will look weary, and yet filled with that particular determination to keep moving, keep functioning, which is so distinctive of stricken or wounded insects.  When such a bee smells honey, its reaction is immediate.

If you’ve never seen a bee’s tongue, it’s worth feeding a bee just to get the chance.  The tongue is long and pointed and slides out of the bee’s mouth and towards a proffered dab of honey with such grace that it can be easy to forget that the creature is close to death.  The tongue is also pink, or dark red, and to the naked eye it looks remarkably human – a disconcerting, yet charming, sight on such an otherwise alien animal.  When a bee finds honey it will eagerly lap it up, the tongue darting in and out to pull the honey into the animal’s mouth.

Honey isn’t just honey, though.  My pantry usually contains creamed honey because I find it easier to manage, less messy than what I call “runny honey” – but the one time I tried feeding such honey to a bee, the result was disastrous.  The honey was far too thick for the bee, and the poor creature got its tongue stuck in the blob I placed before it.  It tried with what strength it had left to pull its tongue from the honey, and in its efforts it got a leg also stuck in the blob, and then another leg.  When, watching the creature’s efforts and full of remorse, I intervened to try to somehow brush the honey away from the bee, I of course only made matters worse; when dealing with such a small-scale disaster the clumsiness of human movements is magnified tenfold.  Eventually the bee was completely consumed, trapped in the honey just as ancient insects were once trapped in amber.

I’ve learned my lesson since then, and these days I keep a jar of runny honey in the pantry in addition to my preferred creamed honey – not just to rescue bees, mind, but also – mainly – because it’s easier to cook with.  It’s not often that I encounter a weakened bee; it’s even less often that I find such a bee close enough to my house, and my pantry, for me to attempt a rescue.  Since I graduated from university in 2002 the number of such bees I’ve come across can be counted on one hand.  The most recent was just a few months ago:  it was a Saturday morning, overcast and cool but not cold, and I discovered the bee struggling across the asphalt of a driveway a few doors down from my house.  I went back home, got the honey, and drizzled some with a spoon on the ground just in front of the bee.  As they always do, the bee investigated the honey briefly and excitedly with its antennae before proceeding to lick the honey up with that long, remarkable tongue.  I had a train to catch so I didn’t wait to see if my efforts successfully recuperated the bee but when I returned several hours later the bee was gone, so I took that as a sign of success.

It wasn’t quite as straight-forward as that, though.  I realise that rescuing bees is not a normal thing to do, and I realise it to my detriment: because when I rescued that bee a few months ago it wasn’t as immediate and spontaneous and unthinking as I made it sound in the above paragraph.  Quite the opposite: a great part of me was deeply reluctant to go to the bee’s aid, and though part of me also recognised both instinctively and consciously that saving the life of the bee was the right thing to do, I had to struggle with myself for a few minutes – only a few minutes, but an agonising few minutes – after I got home before I got the honey and returned with it to the bee.

I had a train to catch.  I do volunteer work every Saturday morning and I catch a train to Footscray, in Melbourne’s inner west, at the same time every week to get there.  It’s my only commute of the week, and if I miss the train I risk letting down people who are relying on me.  I like to sleep in as much as I can so it’s always a bit of a rush to get to the train, and it was sorely tempting to use that as an excuse to rationalise my way out of helping the bee – but the train station is only a couple of minutes from my house, and I had about ten minutes between finding the bee and the time when the train was due to depart.  The bee was only ten metres from my house.  There was ample time to rescue it.  Even with my dithering, trying to simultaneously persuade myself to rescue the bee and not to rescue the bee, I still had at least five minutes in which to feed the insect.

So though a part of me would very much have liked it to be otherwise, the deadline of having to catch the train played no part in my reluctance to rescue the bee.  Rather, what gave me pause was a familiar fear, one that always paralyses human action: the fear of social ostracism.

There’s nothing quite so unsettlingly judgemental as the front window of a house.  It’s all too easy to imagine people watching the world from the dark privacy of their front rooms, silently taking in and lending private criticisms to the behaviour of neighbours and passers-by – if only because it’s something we’ve probably all done ourselves.  Certainly I know I have, on numerous occasions, watched, or eavesdropped upon, some argument or loud discussion outside my house, and formed my own ruthlessly biased opinions about my fellow human beings.  So when I was debating with myself whether to rescue the bee or not, I was acutely aware of what I imagined to be the silent, scornful observations of my neighbours.  I’d lived in the neighbourhood for about a year at that stage, and though a year is ample time to become settled in a house it’s not really enough time to start feeling like a true resident of the community around that house.

Still, I’m glad to say that my conscience got the better of me, and I went to the bee’s aid.  Yet, amid all this self-reflection and (eventual) self-congratulation, there comes a troubling thought: perhaps it would have been better if I’d let the bee die.  We tend to think of the European Honey Bee as just “the bee” – but of course it’s just one species among many.  People living in the Northern Hemisphere will be familiar with the Bumblebee (Bombus spp.) – but Honey Bees and Bumblebees are barely even a glimmer of the total diversity of bee species: worldwide there are more than sixteen thousand species of bees, and although the European Honey Bee has a particular and long-held place in human culture, when it comes to the broader environment it’s interchangeable with any number of species.

Bees are found worldwide, and Australia has around 1500 native species.  In recent years there’s been growing concern about the impact of the introduced European Honey Bees on those native species: it’s been posited that native bees are outcompeted for food and for nesting places by the more aggressive introduced animal. Although honey bees are not exactly a domesticated animal, they can still go feral: having been introduced to Australia, and to many other parts of the world, solely to be tended by humans, inevitably European Honey Bees have struck out on their own, establishing hives in the wild which remain unmolested by people.  And of course, even non-feral honey bees still venture out into the wild to find flowers.

However, the evidence for the adverse impact in Australia of European Honey Bees – feral and managed alike – turns out to be fairly equivocal.  A report on the website of the Australian Federal Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population, and Communities states, while noting that there have been few adequate studies so far conducted, that feral honey bees occupy only a very small proportion of available tree hollows.  Influxes of honey bees into an area may have an impact on the population of native bees, but it’s hard to tell from the data so far available.  The impact of honey bees on the feeding behaviour of honeyeaters – which, like bees, feed on the nectar of flowers – is sometimes notable and sometimes is not.  European Honey Bees may be a problem in Australia, but perhaps in our day-to-day life it’s best to assume, at least for now, that they’re not.

For what it’s worth, the bee that I rescued a few months ago was almost certainly not a feral bee.  Late last year, shortly after I moved into the street where I live, I was chatting with my next-door neighbour, and I happened to mention that I’d seen a large number of bees in the alley off the street the day before: a hive, swarming as they do when they’re relocating.  My neighbour assured me that it was nothing to worry about: one of the residents of the street, only a few doors down from my house, keeps bees.  In winter this year I bought a jar of honey from the shop around the corner from my street.  The honey was sold under the shop’s own brand, and it’s tempting to imagine that it was locally produced – perhaps even by bees which are kin to the one I rescued.  It’s a fanciful thought, true, but a pleasant one to have in mind.

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