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Why a bee is not really as “busy as a bee”

Given fine weather, with a little rain to refresh the flowers, June is the peak month for honeybee activity. The queen in the colony may be laying up to 2,000 eggs a day. Most of them are destined to develop into infertile female worker bees but a few hatch into drones, male bees.

Open up a hive and you see thousands of bees apparently engaged in useful tasks. And there are many jobs for them to do. While the older bees are out foraging, house bees get rid of rubbish, warm the hive, build new comb, feed the grubs, pack away the nectar and reduce its sugar content to make honey, store the pollen, plug gaps in the nest with sticky propolis, guard the hive against intruders and of course feed and care for their precious queen.

However, their reputation as obsessively industrious – “busy as a bee” – is not borne out by the facts. Take the foraging bees, which fly out to prospect new sources of food. It would not be efficient for every available bee to be doing this, every day. Far better for most of them to stay in the hive, conserving their energy and awaiting the call to action. Soon, no doubt, a more energetic scout bee will arrive and excitedly dance on the comb to show her sisters where to go for a new source of nectar or pollen. And the less active bees are the ones who live longest.

Honeybees are particularly useful pollinators from the human point of view because any particular bee will focus on just one plant at a time. So the owner of an orchard can be sure that the bee he sees flying from flower to flower will be carrying pollen from apple to apple and not from apple to plum.

This behaviour seems illogical, however, from the point of view of the bee. The nectar is all good, so why not visit all the plants that are in flower?

But honeybees evolved in sub-Saharan Africa where the year is not divided into seasons as it is here. Instead of there being a season for dandelion blossom, for example, when all the dandelions are in flower, one particular tropical tree in a vast forest may come into bloom for a short time. So complex bee behaviour has evolved, to give geographical directions to find that tree. And evolution cannot go into reverse, so we still get bees excitedly telling their sisters exactly where those lovely dandelions are – although to us it is obvious that you cannot move a yard from the hive without encountering a yellow sea of them.

But we should not criticise the bees for a lack of intelligence. They do pretty well with a brain smaller than a pinhead.

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