How will Man repay his debt to the Bee?

Bees have done mankind a lot of good, but the feeling may not be mutual.  Yielding honey and pollinating the plants that feed us are just a small part of the legacy of a creature that has been part of the earth's history for at least 100 million years.  Amber showing the first known bee identifies wasp like features which "supports the theory that pollen-dependent bees evolved from their meat-eating predecessors, the wasps", according to George Poinar, a professor of zoology at Oregon State University and international expert in the study of life forms preserved in ancient amber.

The first known bee, preserved in amber
The evolution of the bee may directly have made possible the development of flowering plants, thus shaping the future of life on earth.  "Flowering plants are very important in the evolution of life," Poinar said. "They can reproduce more quickly, develop more genetic diversity, spread more easily and move into new habitats. But prior to the evolution of bees they didn't have any strong mechanism to spread their pollen, only a few flies and beetles that didn't go very far."

Meanwhile mankind has worked with bees for only 5,000 years, and in Ireland arrived on this soil well after the bee had established itself post ice age, about 14,000 years ago.  Respectfully bee-keeper Bob McCutcheon acknowledged this debt when he began a series of talks on bee-keeping in Clonakilty with "the wonders of this amazing insect".

Bob McCutcheon Bee Keeper
"Bees are still wild creatures" Bob told members of the South West Cork Bee Keepers Association, and despite mankind's efforts have "never been domesticated".  Even in the past decade knowledge of the bee has expanded.  So while he gave the association members some tried and trusted advice on how to manage a hive of bees to maximize honey production, he warned that text books are still fallible - after all "the bees don't read them".

Member's learnt in particular how the mating cycle of the bee differs astonishingly from that of humans.  A single queen mates with ten or more drones just once over a few short days, giving her enough sperm (5,000,000 plus) to produce thousands of young bees over the next three or even four years.  And while colonies of bees maintain strength by cross-mating with neighbouring colonies, a colony splits by swarming to produce a new hive. With caste bees it is the descendants of just one of the mating drones, a group of half-sisters, who collect to make the new colony.  Drones meanwhile have six times the eyesight of worker bees to be able to see the queen during mating, but are driven out later in the year once their usefulness is over.  The levels of cooperation and complexity of tasks of a colony of honey bees makes them, Bob said, a super-organism - greater than the sum of its parts.

But as Deborah Dolen writes, although this superorganism 
"got through the Cretaceous period of wide mass scale extinction of reptiles and later dinosaurs, as well as global impacting events such as the ice age (and more than one of them.) ..and  have been here long before we have and survived many a global scale natural disaster ...and a few volcanic eruptions that covered the global atmosphere with ash that hid the sun for years" 
mankind still appears to be a greater threat to the bee than all of them.

Home made bee equipment used by Bob McCutcheon
Since the advent of man-made pesticides, deforestation, mobile phone signals, the spread of the veroa mite and now the major climate changes which have caused West Cork weather to give summers that are almost continually cold and wet, Bob McCutcheon estimated that while two thirds of bees in the region used to be wild, only 10% of bees are now wild (and most of those descendants of kept bees) and bee-keepers' yields of honey have fallen from 200 plus pounds per year to less than 10 in many cases.

So a man made series of disasters for the local bee has done more damage than 100 million years of evolution, meteor showers and major climate changes.  Now man needs to think hard about how exactly to save the species that has made life on earth as we know it possible.  Without the bee, as Einstein observed, we will soon lose the plants that are essential for us to live.

If you would like to learn how to keep bees Bob's talks continue in O'Donovan's Hotel Clonakilty at 8.00pm for the next four Monday evenings.  All welcome.  A useful "introduction to understanding honeybees, their origins, evolution and diversity" by Ashleigh Milner is available here.