Love is in the air... so are bees

11 February 2020

Interview with 

Steven Poyser, Cambridgeshire Beekeepers Association

Bee in a pink flower

Bee in a pink flower

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With the love hearts decorating shop windows, and meals for two advertised in restaurants - you’ve guessed it, Valentine’s Day is around the corner! Katie has this report...

Katie - If you think your love life has it tough, spare a thought for the humble honeybee. Romance is hardly the buzzword when it comes to bringing new bees into the world. So, perhaps, it's rather surprising that allegedly Valentine's day and bees share a few things in common.

Stephen - One of the patron saints of beekeeping is Valentine. The word honeymoon is believed to come back from the ancient German, specifically used for the feeding of honey to the groom at the time of their wedding for one month or one moon cycle in order to build their strength up to produce a strong and healthy family.

Katie - Bet you didn't know that! That was hobbyist and expert beekeeper, Stephen Poyser from the Cambridgeshire Beekeeper's Association. He told me all about how honey bees find love.

Stephen - This time of year, being February, there are no males at all in the UK. The males are only created when the colony requires some males, so they won't produce any until March or April. They are produced from an unfertilized egg. So there is no father to a male. Queen lays the eggs 24 days later in the hive. They hatch, they then wait a little while to build up some strength. They're lounging about. They don't do anything in the hive at all. They don't process honey. They don't collect nectar. They don't collect pollen, they don't feed any bees, they don't make any wax. They do absolutely nothing in the hive. Just eat and lounge about just waiting for their time to become sexually mature in order that they can then become what their purpose is.

Katie - In the meantime, what are the females doing?

Stephen - All the workers are females and there is only one queen. A bigger bee being the queen is fed better food in a larger cell in a vertical position to become a queen, and if it's only in a worker cell, it will become a worker. If for the first three days of its life, the queen is killed, the colony can convert any one of those young larvae and they can produce an emergency queen.

Katie - Hmm. Doesn't sound like female honey bees get the best deal. Chances are you'll be a worker putting in all the effort, whilst the males just slob around. The queen once sexually mature, exudes pheromones and then flies into a crowd of sexually mature male drones and they chase her. The fastest flyers get the privilege of mating about four or five per flight, maybe for three or four days. Mind you, being a male honeybee isn't exactly a picnic.

Stephen - Unfortunately for the males, the ones that are successful and catch the queen, when they mate with her, their genitalia explode and they drop to the ground dead. Uh, it's a one off experience for the male! And when the successful males have mated, the ones that are unsuccessful basically then go back to their own hives or to other hives because they are allowed in and they recuperate. And then, off they go in again in the next few days.

Katie - Ouch. And what about the queen and all this?

Stephen - When she's in full production, she could be laying 2000 eggs a day. In the spring, each one will be fertilised. So those will become workers, which is why within a beehive you can have some bees that are slightly gingery, some that are black and some that are a bit more stripy because although they've got the same mother, they may have a different father. The queen will live for up to three years. All of those eggs that are fertilized are with semen that she has collected during her mating flights at the start of her life. That is a phenomenally long time and it is a huge number of sperm that she actually holds, which is why the period of mating is so critical for the bee because if you get bad weather, then they can't fly, they can't get mated, and colonies are in trouble. And that is a major issue with bees at the moment. The, uh, reproductive ability of the queens seems to be declining. They are not living quite as long and not producing as many bees because if they are unproductive, the workers will actually replace her with a new queen and get rid of the old one.

Katie - Charming. So perhaps honey bees won't be cast as Hollywood romantic leads anytime soon, but at a time when pollinators are feeling the pinch, what can we do to spread the bee love this Valentine's day?

Stephen - The best thing that anybody can do if they don't want to keep bees is to provide them with food, and most bees can find food during the summer. Spring is the critical time. So anybody who has a small area of land, if they can plant something that's going to produce pollen in particular for January, February or March, that is the critical thing for bees. They can store nectar in the form of honey through the winter to keep them going in the spring, but they can't store pollen as well. It's the protein they need in order to build up their young larvae.

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