As the mornings are crisper and the chill of Autumn engulfs us, the bees are preparing for winter. In the height of Summer the colony is 50,000 strong but that number needs to be reduced to ensure a winter survival.
It’s quite heart wrenching to observe two female worker bees dragging a large male drone out of the hive.
Drones make up around 10% of the colony and are reared for the purpose of mating with new queens
‘Keeping bees with no fuss or chemicals’ author, Joe Bleasdale, delights in reminding us that male bees have the largest genitalia in relation to body size, of any other species, impressive to see through the microscope according to other ‘bee team ‘ member Linda Parry.
Such a shame that such awe inspiring equipment is used only the once and is then separated from its owner, causing death as the remnants of this impressive male fall to the ground.
There’s little evidence to suggest that drones have any further use to the hive, however, mounting research discusses their ability to visit other colonies with ease and Jacqueline Freeman’s book ‘Song of Increase’ talks in depth about their role in connecting bee wisdom amongst colonies and the carrying of the DNA and therefore improving future generations, so why are drones dragged out of the hive at the end of the summer?
“…male bees have the largest genitalia in
relation to body size, of any other
To ensure survival through the winter months, the bees form a tight cluster within the hive, releasing the cluster on warmer, dry days for cleansing flights and maybe checking for any forage that may be available in the form of nectar. Last winter my rosemary was blossoming through November to February and on many a fine day it was covered in bees making the most of its medicinal nectar.
Whatever honey the bees have left in store within the hive has to last the colony until the spring dandelions burst through the grass, and if they’ve all been dug up or poisoned, then they need to wait until other spring crops blossom in peoples gardens or the hedgerows. Black and hawthorn are good early food sources, but dandelions really are the best as many florets in one flower head give the bees a feast without the need to travel to many flowers.
A large colony will need more honey to see it through the winter months, and if it’s a mild winter, but damp, then the bees won’t go into a full hibernation or ‘torpor’ when they would need less food.In this respect, a long cold winter can actually be good for bees.
Drones are substantially larger than the worker bees and therefore need quite a bit more nourishment to keep them going. It wouldn’t make sense for a colony to feed a large group of bees who are little more than lounging around waiting for the summer months when they can fly off and secure themselves a queen to mate with.
Nature has thought of this and so the bees turn on their male housemates and drag them out of the hive, or if they’ve left the hive on a flight, the guard bees refuse them re entry.
There has been much discussion and debate over the past hundred years on whether or not insects have feelings, but I have to say that observing solitary drones, expelled from the hive, seemingly looking for ways to sneak back into the warmth and security of the colony, they do look very sad and hopeless, unloved and with no hope of completing their single mission in life as the last of the queens would long have been mated. Despite their size, they tend not to put up too much of a fight, and without a sting, they are helpless to the turn from adoration from the worker bees. I have recently read The Bees by Laline Paul, a fictional tale of the life inside a hive from the perspective of a worker bee ‘Flora’. Laline gives a heart wrenching description of the possible events inside the hive as the colony prepares for winter and how the hormones inside the hive fluctuate to ensure the survival of the colony rather than the individual.
Following the ‘Learning from the Bees’ conference in The Netherlands in September, I have been pondering on lessons learned from the bees in relation to human life.How would the bees seemingly brutal ‘black and white’ tolerance of those that contribute, or don’t, sickness and disability, always putting the survival and health of the colony above that of the individual. Living as the only female with teenage sons and a husband I am often driven to think about the domestic balance, especially now that we are all working. As humans, the wife/ mother nurtures, provides and cares, expecting little in return. These days it’s not so common to expel any non contributors to our own ‘hives’, no matter how tempting!
Bee hive maker Matt Somerville caught a drone in the act of cleaning the base of a Freedom hive recently, could this mean that male bees are helping more around the home, like their human counterparts? Might this allow them a little more time inside the hive in future? I wonder if in this difficult time for bees they are considering alternative solutions…