It was standing room only in the Witney Museum on 3rd February 2010 as members of the Wychwood Project gathered to hear Shaun Morris, beekeeper, biologist and former director of Oxford Scientific Films tell “The History of Bees.”
Morris left his photographic kit at home. Instead he chose the role of story-teller and had the audience captured for ninety minutes with a vivid account of the evolution of the honey bee.
The bee split off from the other hymenoptera and “went soft”, choosing a diet of plants (as opposed to hunting) to support ecology by collecting pollen to feed its grub and make honey. Evolutionary pressure led these originally solitary bees to become social; males have half the number of chromosomes as females. Workers help the mother raise the next generation creating a social unit.
The structured unit in the hive has a queen which lives on average five years as opposed to her wild who lives twelve months. In the hive she has her coterie of attendants, drones waiting for the opportunity to mate and workers maintaining the hive environment. The queen never leaves the hive so is dependent on the hive being kept well maintained and at the correct temperature all year round. This requires sufficient stores of water and sugar to provide air-conditioning or central heating created by the wing movements. Honey which is nectar and water processed in the stomach is disgorged and is available as stores. The remainder tends to be judiciously raided by the bee keeper during the summer months.
The worker bee has a short life span; five weeks. During weeks two and three it lives close to the hive entrance, measuring up the world and taking training flights. Its final two weeks are spent foraging.
Bees have a distinct language. The waggle dance directs them precisely in direction and distance to the species even indicating the quality of nectar. They compete with other colonies so their scouts are careful to find the most economical routes and efficient food sources. As bees have evolved, flowers and their patterning have likewise.
As bees are part of a colony which may make 150lb of honey per season it seems reasonable that the sting as a form of defence has re-emerged in its evolution. It was a relief to learn there is one occasion when we are fairly safe from attack, which is when they are in a swarm; planning to start their next colony.
As we broke up for tea, Morris let us each sample his visual aid – an 80 year old pot of dark honey. Bee miles? Twice round the circumference of the world!