‘Let’s go down to the hives,’ says Mario.
I’m feeling bullish about the bees. I’d remembered to bring my tracksuit, but I can’t help being apprehensive. Getting stung is like an injection: the worst part is when the doctor’s assembling the hypodermic, positioning the needle and murmuring ‘…just a pinprick…’
Today the worst part would be angry buzzing inside my tracksuit, but I’m confident I can block up any holes. Mario watches as I tuck my trousers into my socks and pull the zip right up until it feels airtight.
‘You’re wearing black,’ says the beekeeper.
‘Bees don’t like black.’
I look down at my tracksuit.
‘They associate it with black bears. Black bears eat bees.’
This is a blow.
At least Mario has a spare beekeeper’s mask, and for gloves I’d just have to scrunch up my fingers in my sleeves and hope for the best. Being stung, the beekeeper assures me, is excellent for arthritis.
Mario produces a ‘smoker’, a can with a spout at one end and bellows at the other. He stuffs it full of pine twigs and lights it, and I follow him down a sloping plot of land, past a stone chicken shed, pomegranate trees and a vineyard.
We stop at a low stone wall for Mario to fill some clay pots with water. As bees buzz round for a drink I ask him what the rocks in the water are for.
‘Otherwise, they drown.’
Mario is an excellent guide and a devoted apiarist. Next to the BEE number plate on his car, there’s a bumper sticker of Bumblebee from the Transformer movies, while the ancient storehouse on the hill above the hives is called IN NAHLA [The Bee]. Mario is a pure bee.
All the time he’s checking on the hives he’s telling me wonderful stories about apian society and behaviour. Most famously, when worker bees return from a region rich in nectar they perform a ‘waggle dance’ in the hive, which tells other bees how close the flowers are, according to the speed of the dance, and also the region’s location in relation to the sun.
Mario takes me up to the first ‘super’, one of the rectangular ‘boxes’ which form the beehives. He opens it up and holds out the seething latticework of bees.
‘How many bees, do you think, in this hive?’
I guess wrong.
’70,000,’ he says.
70,000 creatures in a set of boxes the dimensions of a packaged laptop. Some of the hives have wires which relay the temperature, weight and humidity of the hive, plus the number of bees coming in and going out, to an app on Mario’s phone.
Considering the number of bees I’ve picked out of swimming pools, this feels like a stupid question. Here, the bees seem happy walking on the rocks and sipping the moisture, but then I see a very large orange and black insect circling the rocks. It’s four times bigger than a honeybee.
‘That’s an Oriental Hornet,’ said Mario.
I’d heard about these ‘murder hornets’ invading America, but I’d never expected to see one where I live. Perhaps it’s just here for a drink of water, I’m thinking.
The hornet picks up a honey bee and flies off.
Mario is quietly furious.
‘They eat them.’
Just as we are leaving the watering spot I see another hornet scoop up a bee like a man picking up a puppy, and fly off. The hornets probably came over to Europe on container ships, in crates of fruit, and Mario is unsure of how to get rid of them.
When we are twenty feet from the row of hives, Mario sets down two white plastic buckets with a layer of honey at the bottom, left over from the harvest. A few bees come over to investigate.
The beekeeper describes a ‘cumulative messaging’ system: two bees will find the honey, then come back to the hive and communicate the news via a dance and/or a pheromone; four bees will go out and come back with the message, then eight bees will go, then sixteen, and so on.
As he gently holds up a tray fizzing with wings, a bee circles my hood with the high-pitched whine you hear just before you get stung. Mario smiles. ‘They pick up on fear.’ I work on staying calm.
I learn that the female workers live for around six weeks and the male drones manage two to three months. Only the females have stings. The worker bees collect the nectar and the drones fertilise the queen.
Sex in mid-air with a royal sounds exciting. During her ‘nuptial flight’, the virgin queen is courted by a stream of males. When one drone manages to couple with her, he ejaculates with such force that the tip of his ‘endophallus’ is left inside the queen, rupturing his abdomen. He falls to the ground and soon dies.
The next eager drone to catch the queen removes the last male’s endophallus, ejaculates, falls off and dies in the same manner. The consequences for successful suitors recalls the fate of worker females, after they sting you. According to Debbie Hadley’s Sexual Suicide by Honeybees,
‘…the queen will mate with a dozen or more partners, leaving a trail of dead drones in her wake. Any drones that remain around the hive in the Autumn will be unceremoniously driven from the colony before cold weather sets in. Honey stores are simply too precious to waste on a sperm donor. The queen, on the other hand, will store the sperm for use throughout her life. The queen can store 6 million sperm and keep them viable for up to seven years, with the potential of producing 1.7 million offspring during her lifetime, as she uses a few at a time to fertilize her eggs.’
On average, the queen lays 1500 eggs a day leading up to Spring. Once they hatch, the worker bees pick up to twenty larvae and feed them exclusively on royal jelly, making them the only sexually mature females in the hives, and potential queens.
The first queen to hatch will kill all of her sisters.
The queen is integral to the colony: Mario tells me of taking royal larvae from a ‘queened’ hive and inserting it into a ‘queenless’ one. On average, the queen has a two to three-year lifespan, and every bee has to touch Her Majesty to take on her scent, so they can easily identify and repel intruder bees.
Some invaders are harder to resist. I see a hornet pick up a bee and carry her away in the air. They don’t just eat individual bees: sometimes a scout hornet will come and identify a beehive, then bring back a message to its colony. Then a gang of hornets will come and devastate the hive, killing the bees and eating the young.
Yet the honeybees have come up with a collective solution to the marauders: if a scout hornet comes into the hive the bees will bunch around it in a ball, and then vibrate their wings furiously until they’ve raised the temperature in the hive to one degree above the hornet’s ‘heat tolerance’.
The beekeeper smiles: ‘Basically, they microwave the hornet.’
Mario puts his hand in a tray of bees and ruffles them. I stand behind him, trying to look nothing like a hungry black bear. My favourite worker bee whizzes around my head with an angry whine. I work hard on being calm, as Mario gently waves his hand over the buzzing tray. He’s checking on the Propolis, a sticky sap the bees take from trees and use for constructing the hive.
I wonder how it feels to stroke bees. Are they warm? Do they hum, like a soft machine? My brother once tried to stroke a bumblebee, and it stung him.
Mario shows me a clay amphora with five holes in the cork. The base is open, so I can see a colony of bees working on their honeycomb. This Phoenician beehive features the same ‘tray’ system I see in modern hives, demonstrating how beekeepers have emulated nature.
There’s an angry buzz around my hood. My admirer is back. I smile at her from behind the hood, hoping she isn’t spreading violent pheromones around my tracksuit.
As we go back up the hill I see the honey buckets are now black with bees. Mario admits that we, as a species, steal honey; I wonder to what extent we compensate by providing drinking water and ‘bee hotels’, the modern hives.
We come back to the top of the hill and I take off my hood, feeling relieved: I hadn’t been stung and I’d showed nerves of steel.
‘You seemed nervous,’ says Mario.
This is a blow. It could have been worse: some of his visitors panic and thrash out at bees. I was still curious about how they hadn’t stung his hand while he was checking the tray.
‘Could I do that?’ I ask.
‘They’d probably sting you,’ he says. ‘They don’t know your scent.’
I’d sprayed on mosquito repellent earlier that morning, and I wondered if that had helped keep the bees from bothering me. Mario agrees it was possible.
As I take off my tracksuit, I’m buzzing from the experience. Bees are miraculous. It’s common knowledge that they are integral to human survival, as without bees our supermarkets would lose at least half of their fruit and vegetables, and ultimately the Earth would become barren.
Bees are threatened from all sides: not just the infamous varroa mite, evil hornets and colony-killing infections, but human expansion, habitat loss, pesticides and…Bee-Eaters.
Mario points up at a set of telephone wires:
‘That’s where they wait.’
Bee-Eater birds can devour several hundred bees a day. During their migration there can be seventy to eighty Bee-Eaters perched over the hives. Most will fly down and feast on bees, while four or five will keep a lookout on the wire. When Mario comes down the hill they start screaming warnings.
For once I’m up for shooting birds. Yet Bee-Eaters are a protected species, which feels ironic. Perhaps if they weren’t so colourful it would be acceptable to cull them; yet the damage they do to bee populations may be balanced by the other pests they eat, including Oriental Hornets.
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Before I leave the hives, I want to buy honey: partly because I’m grateful for the experience and partly because I like honey. Mario presents three jars, each a different colour: the light yellow honey comes from flowers in spring, the orange honey is from summer flowers, and the darkest honey is autumnal.
Honey is not only delicious but immortal. It doesn’t rot, so Mario is irritated by regulators requiring ‘best before’ stickers on his honey jars; I imagine Zeus pacing Mount Olympus, maddened by the pettiness of mortals.
Mario believes that honey is more beneficial than antibiotics, but only if it’s local, and collected and eaten at the right time of year. For him, Manuka honey is a scam. I’m amazed at how precious honey is: one teaspoon contains the life-work of twelve worker bees.
Mario is excited at Malta’s waste management company, Wasteserv’s promotion of an ‘eco-hive’ alternative to garbage management. When he proposed filming a beehive right next to a mountain of garbage, as a striking visual comparison, they accepted.
If humans were more like bees, I suggest, we would have been more successful in combating Covid 19. Does my stereotypical view of Eastern “hive” cultures hold water? I can’t see social distancing working in a beehive, but would group thinking have been more effective against the pandemic?
Mario is sceptical.
‘Yes, but it would be impossible. Humans are too egoistic—bees are ready to die for others.’
It seems like a triumph of the collective, but surely bees have no choice: the drones don’t know they’ll die after mating with the queen, and how is killing your siblings a sign of altruism? Plus, hives are vulnerable to their own viruses.
This vulnerability comes from the sheer complexity of bee society, which never ceases to amaze Mario: even after half a century of bee-keeping, he tells me, ‘I come here every day and learn something new.’
My jars of honey are gorgeous shades of golden dusk, fresh from the eucalyptus fields around Mario’s hives. They’ll help me through my own winter. No other bees hibernate, so the honey gives the honeybees a sense of immortality.
The complexity of apian society is fascinating, and researching it is addictive. I’m learning about stingless bees in the Philippines and ‘bee-beds’ in Slovenia, where you can sleep to the hum of a hive beneath your pillow.
Humans need to learn from bees, to appreciate the reward structure of nectar and pollen, the give and take of natural events. We’ve produced great culture and inventions, but none of our creations can match the elegance of a healthy hive.