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Professor Ratnieks' Talk, The Amazing Honey Bee - Review by Stella Bahin

Published: 25th April 2012 13:10

Professor Ratnieks' Talk, The Amazing Honey Bee, Café Parisien, Portsmouth. Review by Stella Bahin

Francis Ratnieks, Professor of Apiculture, connected with Portsmouth via both his own and his father's former work, is a confident speaker: 'As George Orwell said,' he jests, 'All animals are interesting, some more interesting than others.' Before the honey bee won Ratnieks' devotion: 'How they navigate, how their eyes work, how they organise their colonies, how they deal with conflicts...' he was interested in all insects, particularly, as a child, in butterflies and moths.

That the honey bee is peculiarly intriguing is attested to by the standing-room-only attendance of this month's free Café Scientifique laid on by University of Portsmouth's PR Officer, Maricar Jagger. Seated by me, Gabor, a frequent delegate at these educational events, suspects the extraordinary attendance is because of the presence of members of some Portsmouth bee keepers' society. I smile, look around - hard to tell - shrug: 'That's not me.'

Our relationship with honey bees goes back as far as prehistoric man robbing wild colonies, we hear. Although we have substitutes for honey and beeswax in current times, we still need bees' pollination which we once took for granted, now, worryingly, in decline. Ratnieks asserts that bees are common still, with 253 species in Britain, 20 of them bumble bees, and 1 species alone our honey bee. Whilst the honey bee is native to Britain, a practically blonde bee has only recently colonised our south coast, possibly imported, now likely to be seen feeding on Portsmouth's flowering ivy, particularly in September, but only for the past 10 years. Honey bees and bumble bees are distinguishable by the giveaway pollen baskets on their hind legs, the honey bee slender in relation to the chubby bumble bee. A bee hived at the centre of Portsmouth is able to feed anywhere on the island, we're told.

And that scientists would still study bees even if it weren't for their human usefulness, to glean answers to broad questions about their social behaviour, how their colonies work, self-organised, how their society is organised, as it is, without a single leader.

'If you want to study bees', Ratnieks advises, 'you must get used to getting stung, not be afraid'. Scientists keep bees in glass-walled hives with a tube, to observe the bees' 'beautiful secrets', which is a tool 'like the telescope to the astronomer, or the microscope', for noting how the queen bee lays all eggs, up to 2000 each day, while the other females forage, build, defend, and raise; how, if a worker bee lays an egg, the other workers kill it, eat it, in crime prevention; how the honey bees' powerfully communicate via scent, especially, queen substance, and via their sophisticated dance, in a side-on figure-of-8-shape, like a pair of ovals - 00 - touching centrally, following the sun to convey the specific site of flowers, water, or tree resin. Yes, fascinating!

Stella Bahin 3:08_

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