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The Rhyme of Bees

Our irreplaceable fuzzy friends in winter

By Khushvita Singh

Photo by Shelby Cohron on Unsplash

Various old Scots tell tales of witnessing bees leaving their hives and swarming the snowy scene on Christmas morning. Farmers used to put sprigs of holly on their beehives whilst preparing for festivities. Early texts also state that Britain was known as the “Island of Honey” and that the Beehive was an example of orderly British society.

According to Sussex tradition, bees are said to sing in their hives at midnight to welcome the birth of Jesus on Christmas Eve.

Their pouncing on each petal is like a loud rhyme during the summer, but the garden has no buzz in the bitter cold, so the bustling bees wilt away like the golden marigold. Bees in the winter are like an ancient tribe owning a gorgeous escapade from the gloom in winter, hustled in their hive, sipping the honey they guard like treasure. Alas, bees have been a part of festive celebrations for a long time.

As Christmas approaches and people around the world occupy themselves with preparations for the Christmas day feast, let’s look at the bees that contribute to our celebration in a myriad of ways. Originally, ancient Britain and other northern Europeans made loose hanging wreaths (basically just a bundle of greenery tied at the top and hung them from the walls of their homes) to warn off winter spirits. Key items used in wreaths include common holly, which is pollinated by Honey Bees and Andrena Mining Bees.

You may be surprised to learn that turkeys need bees to exist. Turkeys in the wild are omnivores feeding on a variety of seeds, fruits and invertebrates, which rely on bees and other insect pollinators for the growth of plants at the base of the food chains. Stuffing typically contains onions, herbs and spices and they are all pollinated by bees.

While all other kinds of bees and insects spend winter hibernating in the ground, honey bees are awake and active. The UK is home to more than 250 species of bees, including 24 different types of bumblebees. But they don’t all behave the same way in winter. Some species of solitary bees spend the winter as adults protecting themselves from the cold in a process called overwintering. They then emerge in spring to make the most of early blooms. Other species, like the mason bee, spend the winter as pupae and have an annual lifecycle that ends after they lay their eggs in autumn.

Since the queen doesn't lay eggs from early October through to mid-February and the workers don't have any larvae to feed on, they're all on the colony's only vacation: Christmas. The workers exchange gifts, which include mutually feeding one another honey that they mix with water in a process called trophallaxis. They also feed the queen at this time. In turn, the queen gives them a sense of security and that all is well in their world since she is alive.

The bees are found in the hive clustered with the queen in the centre during the winter period, always keeping her warm. In the winter, bees alternate between being toward the centre and on the edge, so they all keep warm. Honey Bees produce large amounts of honey to fuel the colony and store surplus honey for winter. The rhythm of life in the Honey Bees hives during winter goes on as it has for at least 34 million years; the oldest bee fossil being 100 million years old.

Sadly, bees are disappearing; however, they are undoubtedly essential for our food-production system. Honey Bees pollinate £15 billion worth of food crops, and one-third of everything we eat comes from insect pollinators like bees. There are more than 20,000 species of bees, but bee colonies around the world are vanishing due to a multitude of environmental factors. The recent European Red List for Bees reported that nearly one in ten species of wild bees are facing extinction. Historically, the most rapid rate of pollinator extinction is associated with changes in farming beginning in the 1920s. Since the 1930s, we have lost an estimated 97% of our wildflower meadows in the UK, which provide habitat and food sources for wild pollinators. Fortuitously, the latest research suggests that Royal jelly vaccines may help to stop the decline of bees.

The real threat to bees comes from habitat loss, not honey harvesting. Planting wildflowers in your garden and buying organic vegetables (to reduce pesticide use which can poison bees) makes a big difference. Enjoying all that the bees will give us this Christmas, why not give a little back and think about planting your garden, window box, or balcony with some flowers to save our fuzzy flying friends from extinction.


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