from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 1 July 2013

rock, flower, time, bees and ultraviolet

To one side of me in the courtyard is the slate quarry face. Slate, a metamorphic rock, is extraordinarily old: somewhere between 450 and 600 million years old. That age, in any ‘real’ terms, is unimaginable.

Growing from the slate face is the oak tree; maybe a hundred years old? Maybe two?

Between the wall and me are a couple of huge stoneware pots; one contains the acid-yellow-green of a hosta (remarkably unassaulted by slugs and snails this year, thanks to the smear of Vaseline on its lip) and next to that, in complementary colour, my lovely blue cranesbill is in flower.

The delicacy and sheer ephemerality of the cranesbill flowers make them all the more poignant in their beauty against the durability of the rock. Against rock-time, their existence is not even a blink, not even the beginnings of an inbreath. The age of rock takes my breath. The transience of flower steals it, too.

The blue cranesbill, a geranium, is a particularly beautiful deep shade of lavender-blue with thread-like white shading to pink to carmine veins. The stamens are dark-tipped and slender; the pistil elegant and long. The pistil when fully developed is tipped with what looks like from the side a red double hook, like m, or a pair of joined arched eyebrows, or a small seagull in flight. If I bend down and look more closely, though, I see that it’s a cluster of five small curls, like a bunch of tiny fish-hooks.

This year I planted a bee garden. Many of its residents are in flower now, and there’s a huge preponderance of blues and violets. Bees see in the ultraviolet range of the spectrum: ultraviolet, violet and blue being the colours that attract them in favourite order of sequence. Like us, bees have three photo-receptors within the eye. Our perception of colour is based on combinations of red, blue, and green, but bees, however, base their perception of all colours on ultraviolet, blue, and green. They can’t see red at all, seeing it instead as black, although it seems they can see some reddish wavelengths. They can see subtle patterns in ultraviolet flowers, invisible to us, that can give them a mass of information about a flower and its pollen or nectar content.

It seems that the fussier a bee is in terms of developing its colour sense the more effective its foraging might be. A study from Queen Mary, University of London, showed that the bee colonies which preferred violet, ultraviolet, to blue flowers in the lab also harvested more nectar from real flowers under field conditions. In fact, the colony with the strongest preference for violet (over blue) brought in 41 per cent more nectar than the colony with the least strong bias. It seems then that violet flowers produce the most nectar – far more than the next most rewarding flower color (blue).

If their preference is for ultraviolet in colour, no surprise that UV light is crucial to bees. If they’re deprived of UV light, bees apparently lose interest in foraging. They’ll remain in the hive then until they’re forced  out by severe food shortage. The UV content of light increases as spring turns to summer – I imagine that’s in part responsible for bringing bees out of hibernation?

A worker bee lives for 8 or 9 weeks, that's all. She spends much of that time on the wing foraging, wearing herself out. During her lifetime, she makes around a teaspoonful of honey; vital stocks for the colony for the winter – which we usually steal and replace with a refined-sugar substitute, which cannot be too good for the bees' immune systems.

Honey should be valued like gold.

Bees and their decline, as we all know, are frequently in the news these days: colony collapse disorder, neonicotinoids, varroa mite, weather – all taking their toll, and their role as pollinators being more than invaluable (Einstein said that should bees die out the human species will have four years left).

Owen Paterson, our own Environment Minister, resisted the proposed European ban on neonicotinoid use (it’s a pesticide). Nonetheless the ban went through for a trial period of two years; however, I hear that the pesticides that will be used instead are just as bad.

As I write this, news has come in of a massive die-out of bees in the States: ‘Just as ‘Pollinator Week’ began last week, an estimated 50,000 bumblebees, likely representing over 300 colonies, were found dead or dying in a shopping mall parking lot in Wilsonville, Oregon. Authorities confirmed Friday that the massive bee die-off was caused by the use of a neonicotinoid pesticide, dinotefuran, on nearby trees. Then on Saturday, it was reported by The Oregonian that what could be hundreds of bees were found dead after a similar pesticide use in the neighboring town of Hillsboro,’ says the ‘causes’ email in my inbox.

What does it take?

We’re just about to make a top bar hive to put in the orchard. This is simple to build, can be placed even in a small garden, and offers a bee-oriented environment (as opposed to a commerce-oriented one). (See We may or may not take any honey – that’s not our priority; it will depend on how much they produce. We’re aiming to offer a home to hundreds of pollinators, first and foremost.

More on all this anon.

1 comment:

  1. I shall follow your bee keeping experiment with interest. I would love to keep bees and have room in my garden which is about one third acre but I have always worried about swarms and there is a large house behind us which, although currently up for sale, is a family home and the possibilities of swarms of bees and young children is a little sobering. Also dog might not be too happy. As it is she lies on the lawn watching the bees come and go from their holes in the ground with great interest!


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