Colony collapse


Harry and Meghan

Harry the honeybee and Meghan the leaf-cutter bee

Oh dear, trouble is brewing in the Royal Hive.

It had all started so well. Harry the honeybee drone was born in the hive, living a life of luxury being fed larval jelly by the worker bees, his accident of birth requiring him to do nothing except produce an heir to the Queen, then die. Living in an echo chamber of etiquette was restrictive, spent obeying the hierarchy, with an occasional glimpse of the outside world whenever the hive was wrenched open and the honey collected. Admittedly he did spend some time defending the hive, but the lack of a sting meant his role was reduced to buzzing loudly from behind the frontline. Harry was lonely, feeling he could have a more fulfilling role in the outside world.

Then one day he met Meghan, a beautiful leaf-cutter bee. She led a life of independence, having carved out a career as an actress in a television series. She captivated Harry with stories of being able to buzz when she liked, of choosing to live in any hole she wanted, and of making her own honey. Meghan was strong and she had a global vision – the empowerment of solitary bees.

It was love at first sight and the insects in the park were excited that Harry had finally found happiness. They had memories of his mother being cast out from the hive, hounded by paparazzi flies and then swatted to death. But it hasn’t been easy for Harry and Meghan – they are constantly peered at and surveyed, photographed for reference and their movements tracked on national biodiversity recording websites. And it was hard for a solitary bee to adjust to living in a hive.

So they have decided to step back from senior hive duties and fly out on their own, issuing a self-indulgent statement on Insectgram and disappointing the Queen bee. They want to be financially independent of the honey-making machine, build a nest on the other side of the world, make sponsorship deals for their own brand of Royal Jelly and live a celebeety lifestyle as ‘influencers’.

A lot of the insects aren’t happy. The bees’ privilege of being voted the most important beings on earth has irked many who go about their vital work unrecognised. They are angry the Queen was disrespected, demanding the couple is stripped of their common names, and calling for a refund for the luxury boutique bee hotel the insects paid for so the pair could have some privacy. The more conservative-minded insects are calling it a constitutional crisis and are worried that the colony will collapse if they left. Whereas the republican insects, always moaning about much honey the Royal Hive makes, along with reports of the thousands of bees working for minimum wage, are rubbing their legs together at the thought of more pollen for the masses.

There are more important things to worry about…

No more honey bees, please

The recent chatter to encourage more bee hives in our cities is somewhat alarming to me. I wouldn’t want to be a honey bee – spawned from a hybrid queen sent in the post, brought up to live a life of domesticated soviet-style drudgery, drugged up to the wing tips on pesticides, plagued by viruses and under attack from mites and fungus, worked too hard, often on a monoculture diet, continuously smoked out of their homes to have the fruits of their labour wrenched out beneath them, then left in the winter with barely enough food to eat. All in the name of having something sweet to spread on our morning toast. No wonder they are such moody insects and no wonder their colonies are collapsing.

A honey bee having a rest from the drudgery of pollen collecting

A honey bee having a rest from the drudgery of hive life

I am being cynical. Of course honey bees are important. ‘The economic value of honey bees, and bumblebees, [note the add on and why not just ‘bees’] as pollinators of commercially grown insect pollinated crops in the UK has been estimated at over £200 million per year’. (The British Bee Keepers Association). All well and good but I see there is no mention of the other economy – the sale of honey – which I see as a bigger problem and rarely seems to be included in statistics. And we are being misled – honey bees only pollinate 30% of our crops. Which leaves me to wonder why we need them in our cities? The only ‘crops’ we have in cities are allotments and orchards and pollination of these is easily done by our other pollinators – solitary bees, wasps, flies, hoverflies, beetles, bugs, butterflies and moths. And its these we need to be focussing our energy on.

Mason bee Heriades truncorum collecting pollen

Mason bee Heriades truncorum collecting pollen

Research has shown honey bees maybe infecting bumblebees with diseases, but we don’t yet know what the effect of honey bees have on our other solitary bees. Viruses and mites brought in by honey bees, often imported, surely must have an impact, as well as the pesticides to control these. Much is made of colony collapse but how long before we see a collapse of all our insect societies due to measures taken to preserve the lives of honey bees. Less hives, especially in cities where habitat is at a premium, would allow our native bees to flourish and restore their populations which are on the decline. But we need varied and healthy habitats to ensure the survival of all our insects, not just bees. To consider preserving and encouraging the plants that naturally occur in an area – local planting feeds the local insects. Even the current trend for wildflower meadows in parks to ‘attract pollinators’, though commendable, is rather worthless if stuck in the middle of a large swathe of lawn with no shade or allowance for nesting habitats. They are also costly and time-consuming to manage. Far better to distribute those wildflowers amongst other planting, or scatter a few seeds next to a wall. Or even just ‘let it go wild’! The area left unmown in Warwick Gardens is a good example of allowing the natural growth of local plants – after 3 years we are seeing crops of clover and mallow flourish, creating a carpet perfect for grasshoppers to hide in and flowers for hoverflies and butterflies to feed on. The yarrow, loved by beetles, has also expanded its range. Yes sometimes we do need to manage it but at a much lower level – pulling up the odd fat-hen plant that has run riot is maybe not a bad thing! We often forget we have to allow for some of our pollinators that feed on other insects and this is rarely mentioned in plans when considering planting. Some solitary wasps stock up on sap-sucking shield bugs and aphids to feed their young, and the inclusion of plants and grasses to accommodate these is vital. Meanwhile, all these insects will be pollinating the beans and peas you are growing on your allotment.

Thick-legged beetle Oedemera nobilis covered in pollen

Thick-legged beetle Oedemera nobilis covered in yarrow pollen

So why do we need hives in our cities? Education? Studies of beekeeping for ‘unruly’ kids has benefits, especially around respect and responsibility. I can’t argue with that but a big part of me would prefer to promote the life of our solitary bees. Watching mason bees and leafcutter bees building their nests in a bee hotel is not only fun, it also teaches us important lessons about the fragility of life. Solitary bees have to defend themselves against cuckoo bees and parasitic wasps without the back-up of an all-stinging all-waggle dancing army. Their life is harder and more hit and miss. All the more reason to treasure them.

And the other reason for hives? Honey. Honey should be a speciality food, like truffles, expensive and hard to come by. I worry that the current trend for all things ‘olde and crafty’ will see a rise of pop-up hives, hipster honey and mead. The air in our city is pretty grim so I can almost see a diesel flavoured honey appearing on the shelves, along side a bottle of mead with a ‘hint of carbon monoxide’. And all the while the poor little honey bee is working itself to death to put that sugar hit on your toast. Harsh, I know. But ideally I would put a ban on hives altogether until the honey bee has had a chance to recover, and allow our other pollinators to take the credit for all the hard work they do.


High rise living

The chronic need for housing in London is big news at the moment. Land is at a premium and house building has to fight for space amongst the fancy office blocks and shopping malls that are littering our city. There is talk of building on the green belt, extending suburbia, despite legislation making that impossible; our brownfield sites are being handed over to build yet more supermarkets, and soon people will be able to build in their gardens. Add to that the loss of front gardens to parking the ever increasing sales of cars, contributing to flooding and chokingly high levels of pollution. All this erodes our green spaces – valuable both to wildlife and our health and sanity. We need to utilise the thousands of houses that stand empty, heavily tax the people who buy just for investment, and build upwards. Tall housing is a win – multiple occupancy for humans and opportunities for living roofs offering high rise meadows and other wildlife friendly habitats. Couple that with some living walls and solar panelling we could start to restore the lungs of our city. Simple really!

Woodworm holes,

Beetle holes, Yellow-faced hyleaus bee and Chelostoma campanularum bee

The solitary bees and wasps of Warwick Gardens have utilised the empty beetle holes in one of the tall standing totem poles. There is a whole community of tiny bees buzzing with all the fervour of living in a multiple occupancy block of nests. The main occupants – Hylaeus and Chelostoma sp – spend a lot of time out and about in the park collecting pollen to store for their young, zipping back to their nests every so often, while the parasitic wasps lurk around waiting to lays their eggs in these nests. Today as I watched a bee go into her nest a Gasteruption jaculator wasp was also watching… when the bee left the wasp stuck her oviposter in the hole and laid her eggs. On hatching they will feed on the grubs of the bee as well as on stored food. These dainty fairy-like wasps do have a dark side!

Gasteruption jaculator checking bee hole,

Gasteruption jaculator checking bee nest, preparing, and oviposting

Also living in the tower block is the tiny mason wasp Microdynerus exilis which is new to Warwick Gardens. She is nesting higher up the block. I am excited to find this wasp as it is a Notable B species and thus uncommon, only found in the south of England. I first saw one wrapped around the stamens of a buttercup in early June, so it is good to see it nesting in the park.

Microdynerus exilis

Microdynerus exilis

The penthouse is occupied by the wool-carder bee, Anthidium manicatum, one of our largest solitary bees. At the moment they are busy feeding on the black horehound, with a characteristic darting flight pattern – the males are fiercely terrirtorial, defending their territory vigorously against other males and insects and will fly at intruders to move them on. Nests are constructed in existing aerial cavities like beetle holes. Our bees are nesting in the top crevice of the totem pole with nests made of the shaved hairs of plant stems.

Wool-carder bee

Wool-carder bee

All is good in this high rise block of hymenoptera and its great to sit and watch all the comings and goings. Though lurking in the shadows are the dark things… the walnut orb spider sits and waits for the moment a bee flies into its web. Just like a moody landlord waiting for the day you can’t pay the rent…

Walnut orb spider

Walnut orb spider