A Symbiosis Between Bee and Man – Part 1
Past and Present
Take and No Give
Today, we’ll be exploring the Symbiosis Between Bee and Man. For thousands of years man has stolen honey from bees and given very little in return. We’ve all seen nature programmes where native peoples have risked their lives, climbing to improbable places and enduring multiple bee stings in order to plunder bee colonies’ honey reserves. Programmes like this have always fascinated me and I’m sure they’ve been, to some extent, responsible for me wanting to keep bees myself and enrolling on a beekeeping course.
The traditional relationship between man and the honey bee has therefore been one of take and no give. In 1900 there were 1 million honey bee colonies in the UK. This is now down to 230,000 and virtually all these colonies are being managed by beekeepers. Without man’s active management it’s a fair assumption that the numbers would be hugely lower than this.
In today’s heavily managed landscape there are far fewer suitable sites for a natural brood to develop. Gone are the ancient forests with natural cavities in old trees, large enough to house a summer colony with enough strength to sustain itself through the winter.
In some parts of the country, intensive farming provides a feast of nectar for a few short months and a famine for the rest of the year. Beekeepers actively moving hives around are essential for sustaining the colony in these areas. The area where I live and hope to keep bees (once I feel sufficiently confident to do so on my own*) is just north of Dartmoor and surrounded by improved grassland for cattle grazing. Whilst the grassland itself is low in nectar and pollen throughout the year, there are ancient managed hedgerows and a long strip of mature woodland alongside a large stream. Both should provide plenty of sources of natural flowers.
A mile away is a cider orchard which, in May (weather permitting), should give a boost just when the colony needs it. The nearest village is less than two miles away as the bee flies and gardens now provide a valuable source of flowers for most of the year – so if there isn’t enough nectar nearby (I’ll come back to this another time) then hopefully the bees will find their way to Broadwoodkelly and Winkleigh village gardens!
Dartmoor, just a few miles away
One of the main things I’ve taken from my time in the beekeeping realm is that the passion beekeepers have for their own bees has been almost palpable. These beekeepers aren’t looking to simply ‘exploit’ their bees, they are ‘nurturing’ them. They perform an essential service in looking out for the health of their bees and protecting other colonies from the spread of potentially devastating pests and diseases. By controlling the levels of varroa mites, looking out for foulbrood and even sacrificing their own bees and hives, albeit with a heavy heart, they prevent it spreading to others. On top of this, they will vigilantly look out for Asian hornets and other new pests to try and prevent them establishing in the UK.
It’s fair to point out that man’s molding of our countryside has made it harder for honey bees to thrive, but we are where we are, and now honey bees rely on man for their shelter, their food and their health. So, although honey bees in the UK now rely on man, today at the club we considered what impact our bees have on our lives.
This is the first of two posts about the symbiosis between bee and man. We’ve had a quick look at the history of the relationship and how it’s changed from ancient times to now. Next time, we’ll look at how bees change our environment and how we may need to alter the attitudes of the general population to make sure they have every chance to thrive.
Concluded next Monday, 15th April 2019.
*Confidence was inspired by my local beekeeping association and I am now the proud owner of my very own home apiary!