Honey Bee in Marigold – Sunday August 6th, 2023

There are many honey bees about the garden. In the hollyhocks, around the globe thistles and deep in the penstemons. Though, you often see a bee head into a flower and immediately back out and go to another. They have smelt an earlier bee in the first flower, and know that there will be little nectar left, and so don’t waste their time. I suspect, if there was little option, say at the end of the season with few flowers remaining, they will overcome their qualms and take what they they can get.

Bees are important pollinators of flowers but not the only ones. Many insects, including flies, butterflies, mosquitoes and wasps also pollinate flowers. They are all seeking the nectar which is a dilute solution of sugar (fructose, sucrose or glucose in varying proportions). Bees take pollen too which is a food for their larvae.

Honey bees stick to flowers, not so wasps. They’ll go for sugar wherever they can find it, which is why they are annoying at our picnics as they dive into our beer, soft drinks, ice cream and jam. They are a prime example of opportunism and have had millions of years to perfect this.

Wasps first appeared in the fossil record in the Triassic around 180 million years ago. Their fossils are mostly found in amber which is solidified resin from conifers. The whole body is preserved in this medium in incredible detail. Though, not the DNA which has long since decayed, no matter what you saw in Jurassic Park.

During the Triassic, there were no flowering plants and the early wasps were nearly all predatory, feeding off other animals or their corpses. About a 50 million years later, in the Cretaceous, bees had developed from wasps. Around this period, about 130 million years ago, flowering plants appeared, and so bees had an immediate food source.

Flowering plants aren’t, of course, offering nectar and pollen for nothing. It is in exchange for bees and wasps taking away pollen on their bodies to fertilize other flowers of their kind. Should a bee go on to a different flower species, the pollen from the last plant won’t work, which is why flowers produce so much pollen.

Bees and wasps belong to the order of insects hymenoptera, which also includes ants. Most bees and ants are, in fact, solitary and don’t live in large colonies. We tend to think of them all as social insects but this is only because the colonies are much more conspicuous.

The sting of the bee and wasp developed from an ovipositor (egg laying tube) which is why only females sting. The drones (males) have only one purpose in life and that is to mate with a queen. If they do so, they die as their phallus stays in the queen, ripping away the drones abdomen as they try to separate. Drones can’t forage, so live off what the workers collect. When it gets cold the workers (their sisters) force them out of the hive or nest, and they die of starvation.

It’s a rough old family life in the hive. The single queen is an egg-laying machine, the drones hang around in the hope they can fertilize a new queen, while the workers, a 100 to every drone, do all the work: maintaining the hive, the nursery, collecting pollen, nectar and water.

On a positive note, a farm, near Salford, is growing bulrushes to be used as jacket insulation instead of goosedown or plastic foam. Its seeds fluff up like feathers, and have much less environmental impact than synthetic fillers and goosedown, which is sourced from abattoirs. We could offer our single bulrush, though it takes around 20 to fill a coat. A pair of gloves then?


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