Honeybees Face A Number Of Challenges But Are Surprisingly Resilient - 27 East

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Honeybees Face A Number Of Challenges But Are Surprisingly Resilient

Number of images 3 Photos
A honeybee on borage. LISA DAFFY

A honeybee on borage. LISA DAFFY

A honeybee lands on a digit.  LISA DAFFY

A honeybee lands on a digit. LISA DAFFY

A honeybee lands on a digit.  LISA DAFFY

A honeybee lands on a digit. LISA DAFFY

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The Accidental Beekeeper

  • Publication: Residence
  • Published on: Sep 1, 2022
  • Columnist: Lisa Daffy

Small hive beetles, varroa mites, bad decisions and lousy luck. This has not been a good year for my bees. At this point, my best hope is for my one remaining hive to make it through the rest of the year and emerge from next winter strong and ready for a honey-filled 2023.

While I was contemplating the current state of all things apian — OK, drinking wine and feeling sorry for myself — I recalled a story from last year about a beekeeper in the Canary Islands whose hives survived a devastating volcanic eruption.

When the Cumbre Vieja volcano blew its lid in September 2021, residents fled the rivers of lava and massive clouds of toxic smoke and ash that rained down on the area.

Nearly two months later, when the volcanic activity had finally begun to ease, a beekeeper from one of the hardest-hit villages returned to find five of his six hives alive and well, just 2,000 feet from the cone of the volcano. Buried under as much as a meter of ash, the bees had sealed most of the hives’ openings with propolis, a kind of super-glue they make from tree sap, wax and saliva. And because the eruption occurred before the beekeeper harvested the summer honey, they had enough honey and pollen stored to get them through until their keeper dug them out. In a further bit of good luck, the ash that fell on that area was exceptionally porous, allowing enough air in for them to survive.

These volcano survivors are only one example of the remarkable resiliency of honeybees. In 2019, Paris’s Notre Dame Cathedral was gutted by fire. In addition to being a world-renowned architectural beauty built in the 13th century, Notre Dame is also home to three beehives, which have lived on the roof of the sacristy since 2013. For nearly six months after the fire, the status of the bees was in question, as the structure was too unstable to permit the beekeeper to visit. When she finally did, she found all three hives in excellent condition, going about their business as though nothing had happened.

Although the fire didn’t touch the area where the hives were, the heat and smoke from the fire certainly did. But the bees were able to wait it out, once again surviving on the honey they had stored. Unlike people, who have an unfortunate tendency to suffocate when their lungs fill with smoke, bees have an anatomical advantage. They don’t have lungs, so smoke doesn’t pose the same risk to them. In fact, beekeepers have used smoke for centuries as a tool for calming bees during hive inspections. Nobody’s absolutely sure why it works, but one plausible theory is that smoke interferes with the alarm pheromones bees emit to warn their hive mates of a possible threat.

Bees have been around for probably over 100 million years, and people have been collecting honey from them for at least 15,000 years. At least 5,000 years ago the Egyptians began keeping bees, even transporting hives as the seasons changed so the bees could have longer access to flowering plants.

The life of a honeybee isn’t an easy one, but they have triumphed over adversity many times. I’m just hoping that my one remaining hive can do the same.

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