The plight of the humble bee

THE recent sunny spell brought bees out in force; bumbles are flitting between flowers in my garden.

They are so distinctively marked that telling the species apart is fairly easy.

Most guide books, however, give only Latin names, difficult to remember.

The genus name Bombus is straightforward; think ‘bombastic’, but the likes of hortorem, pratorum or jonellus don’t exactly linger in the memory. Fear not, help is at hand; a booklet by Una Fitzpatrick of Trinity College, and colleagues from the Queen’s University Belfast, gives English names for the commoner species. The State of Ireland’s Bees available on the Internet, is accessible and well written.

Bees, wasps and ants are known as the ‘social’ insects, although only 3% of the 20,000 species live in colonies. We have 101 of them in Ireland, the honey bee and 19 bumbles being social.

People are afraid of being stung, so they shun bees, which is a pity because most of these glamorous insects are docile. A bumble bee won’t attack unless you torment it.

The sting is a modification of the egg-laying tube, located in the female’s tail. Males have no egg-laying apparatus and can’t sting. A honey bee releases pheromones, stimulating other bees to join the attack. It may sting repeatedly but, when its victim is a person, it can do so only once. The needle is barbed like a fish-hook. If sunk into your skin, it lodges so firmly it can’t be extracted. The needle and much of the abdomen are torn from its body as the bee takes flight. A little muscular bag of venom is attached to the shaft, making it a pulsating hypodermic syringe. If you’re a victim, don’t rub, you will squeeze more venom into the wound. Scrape horizontally along the skin with a sharp blade to dislodge the needle.

Bumble bees are different; they can reuse their stings so, if you happen to sit on one, it may sting several times.

Bumble bee queens emerge from hibernation to make nests and lay eggs. Fertile eggs hatch into female workers which gather food, raise their brothers and sisters and do the housekeeping. Males come from unfertilised eggs. Their sole task is to leave the colony, find other queens and mate with them. New queens develop in the autumn. They alone survive the winter.

Six of our bumbles are ‘cuckoos’. Rather than founding their own colonies, they take over existing ones, killing the resident queen and laying their own eggs. The workers are fooled into raising the usurper’s young. Cuckoo bees usually resemble their hosts so it’s difficult to tell them apart.

There are 22 cuckoos among Ireland’s 81 ‘solitary’ bees. The loner species are generally smaller than the colonials and identification is a challenge. The female solitary bee makes a series of nests, laying an egg in each one. She stocks them with food to sustain the larvae when they hatch, and departs. It takes a year to complete the life-cycle, only about two weeks of which are spent on the wing.

“If honey bees become extinct,” Albert Einstein remarked, “human society will follow in four years”. Bee populations are declining worldwide.

According to the British Beekeepers Association, a third of honey bee colonies died last winter, twice the previous year. Many flowering plants depend on bees to pollinate them. Denied the services of bees, crops fail.

According to the The State of Ireland’s Bees there were three extinctions here in the last 80 years. The regional Red Data List has six species in the ’critically endangered’ category. Seven more are ‘endangered’, 16 are ‘near threatened’ and 13 are listed as ‘vulnerable’.

* The State of Ireland’s Bees, Una Fitzpatrick, TE Murray, RJ Paxton & MJF Brown, supported by the Heritage Council, the National Parks & Wildlife Service and the Higher Education Authority.

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