If you are looking out for cuckoos in spring then it is just possible that you might not be looking in the right place. For many years I thought that the only way to find them was to listen for a distinctive sound and then go and look for something with feathers and a beak.

It turns out that there are lot more types of cuckoo than I had realised and there are several species of cuckoo bees. I suppose it is quite logical when you come to think about it. If a flying feathered dinosaur can evolve to find ways of fooling other birds to do all the hard work of child rearing then so can a bumble bee.

With the bees the trick is every bit as clever as the one pulled off by the bird. Early each spring the first bumblebees that you tend to see are very large. They are the queens who have spent winter hiding in a small crevice keeping warm and are now heading out to look for a place to build a nice new nest. You can see them moving around a garden inspecting possible places to go and occasionally landing on a flower to build up strength with a bit of pollen and nectar.

Once they have settled on a site they will start building up a store of supplies there and laying a few worker bumblebee eggs so that they can hatch and work on behalf of their queen to make sure the nest has even more stores so that the queen can build up to laying perhaps a few hundred more eggs.

All of this works very nicely to steadily create a well stocked small colony that you can safely leave in your garden with very low risk of being stung. I have been asked to deal with a colony in a bird box and one underneath a patio within yards of a kitchen door. In both cases I advised the owner to just do nothing and enjoy watching the bees come and go peacefully about their business. Neither owner regretted doing so or had the least problem.

On reflection I should have told them to keep a sharp eye out for intruders. As soon as a nest is established and has a good supply of worker bees bringing food in for the young there is a strong incentive for a cuckoo bee to arrive. Their method of reproduction is very simple. Don’t bother spending all that energy building up a nest. Just wake up a bit later than the other queen, spend your time feeding yourself up so that you are good and strong and then seek out a place where some other woman has done all the work.

All the cuckoo has to do is to muscle in, force out or kill the old queen, lay a good clutch of her own eggs and leave the workers to put all their effort into raising a species of tricksters. This requires evolution to have enabled the cuckoo species to look like the breed of bees that it is trying to imitate and utilize. Even more importantly it requires the cuckoo bee to hide in the nest long enough to acquire the right smells so that the worker bumblebees don’t detect anything wrong and gang up on the cuckoo queen. They will then work away their lives without realising it is all in the cause of an exploitative opportunist species and not their own.

This talent for mimicry makes it pretty hard for humans to tell some of the different species of bumblebee apart. Most of the time you can work out what species you are dealing with by looking at the patterns of the stripes on a bumblebees body. One with a buff coloured tail is quite likely to be a buff tailed bumblebee – not hugely imaginative as names go but easy to remember and get right.

I ain’t no king bee

In my record collection there is a wonderful blues record by Muddy Waters called “I’m a King Bee.” He was blessed with an amazingly deep voice that sounded incredibly lived in and he used it to make his female listeners aware that apart from being a brilliant guitarist and singer he was also:

“a king bee baby, buzzing round your hive

I can make good honey, won’t you let me come inside.”

Two things strike me about these lyrics. The first is that it is just possible that they may have something to do with topics other than beekeeping. I suspect that this innocent little hobby of mine may not have been the prime interest of the singer. The second is that Slim Harpo, who recorded the original in 1957, may not have been entirely familiar with the habits of the male honey bee.

The truth is that there are no king bees. The male bees are only a little larger than the female worker bees and all the males are all pretty much of a muchness. Which might be why they carry the prosaic name of drones. In any one hive there are usually no more than a few hundred of them. What is more , male honey bees don’t make honey. They don’t visit flowers and collect either pollen or nectar either. Nor do they help raise the next generation of bees. In fact they don’t do much of anything. They just laze about waiting for the women to feed them. Then, when they have been well fed and feel properly rested, they go off looking for sex.

There may be readers who might regard this lifestyle as pretty desirable. It may even be that a high proportion of those readers will be men. But beware! When choosing lifestyles to envy it is important to know a little more of the facts.

When they are feeling frisky, and the weather is fine, drone bees will go out looking for a queen. Most of the time nothing much happens. They just congregate with other male bees around a location which smells like it might be of interest to a queen and when nothing turns up they visit a couple of more promising locations and then go back to the hive to get fed for free before trying again tomorrow.

On very rare occasions, which are observed by bee keepers even more rarely, a queen will actually turn up at one of these mating sites. If they are extraordinarily lucky and beat off all the rest of the competition the male bee will get to mate with the queen and she will store the sperm for later use. Unfortunately, and male readers of a squeamish disposition may wish to look away now, on completion of his first sexual conquest the drone discovers that the only way to decouple from the queen is to rip his sexual organs out of his body and leave them inside her.

It is important in biology not to fall into the trap of anthropomorphism. In other words we should not assume that experiences of one species equate to experiences of humans. I do, however, feel we might be on safe grounds for assuming that this is not the best outcome that you could wish for from a sexual encounter. Nor is what follows immediately afterwards. The male drops dead.

Should the drones live on in glorious celibacy then things are not much better. These boys get to die a long lingering death when winter begins to arrive because the female worker bees decide that they might as well stop feeding them. Somehow the women know that the men are now of no use.

Having been driven to feed the males all summer, for no possible benefit to their own hive, suddenly the worker bees know that the men are never going to be able to mate with other queens and there is no point in wasting food on them any longer.

The queen gets a better sex life. But only marginally. She will usually only make one mating flight and, by coupling with several males on that day, she will store enough sperm to last her the rest of her life. For the next two or three years she will be either shivering through the winter or giving birth perhaps a thousand times a day.

The rest of the bees in the hive have no sex life whatsoever. They spend all their available time working. They will be either building wax bee combs, providing food for the queen’s offspring, converting nectar into honey, guarding the hive, out searching for food from flowers that might be up to three miles away, or doing any one of the hundreds of other jobs that need doing in and around the hive.

Should they, in the middle of this life of hard work and sexual abstinence, find a drone bee that isn’t the son of their own queen attempting to gain entry to their hive then they will know very well what to do. They won’t let it in any drone bee baby, buzzing round their hive, it can’t make any honey, so they won’t let it come inside.

Andy Brown
August 2013


Observation of Hives

When you open up a bee hive for the first time you rather expect that the occupants aren’t going to be best pleased about it and will immediately launch an attack on you. Instead almost every time I’ve done it I’ve been amazed at how peacefully the bees carry on doing their business as you hold up a frame of bees and start to inspect it.

There is a reason for this. Bees have different jobs within the hives and the ones on the frames in the centre of the hive aren’t usually terribly interested in stinging you. Poke about at the front of the hive and the guard bees will attack you very quickly. Provided that you lift the top off the hive gently and pull out your frame of bees equally peacefully the message that the hive is under attack takes a lot longer to reach them. It is usually possible to take a bit of time to look at what is going on and try to understand some of it.

That is a lot easier said than done. Usually the best I can manage is to see whether the bees are healthy, work out whether they have enough food and figure out whether they have a queen laying nice numbers of eggs that are developing into healthy larvae and new bees.

I rarely get to see any of the other things bees are up to. In their everyday lives the worker bees can be doing a whole series of different jobs such as feeding the young, cleaning, water gathering, cooling the hive, heating the hive, unloading food, dancing to explain where they got their food or simply hanging around taking a break.

These things were even harder to observe in the days before the idea of hives with frames of bees that could be pulled out one by one was discovered. Until Lorenzo Langstroth invented this idea in 1851 the only way to find out what was going on within a bee hive was to break it open and destroy much of it. So in the place of knowledge people did what they usually do – they made up daft ideas in order to cover up their ignorance of what was actually happening.

If you look on the side of a can of Golden Syrup you will see a picture of a lion with a lot of bees coming out of it along with the slogan “Out of the strong came forth sweetness”. Somewhere along the line some bright spark decided that bee swarms were created out of dead lions and the legend got passed down for long enough to become part of an advertising slogan. That isn’t, of course, where swarms come from – unless there are a lot more lions around my village of Cononley than I had previously realised.

It was also thought for many thousands of years that the bees were a fine example of a well ordered monarchy where authority needed to be handed down by a man. When, in 1609, the Reverend Charles Butler finally proved that there was a queen but no king he found it very hard to get the crazy idea of a woman ruling accepted. It has taken a lot longer to get the message across that it is not even true that she is an authoritarian monarch. If the workers don’t think much of the job she’s doing they get rid of her and it is the workers who bully the queen into leading a swarm not the other way round.

But even today, when it is possible to pull out a frame of bees and take a bit of time to look at it what we are seeing isn’t entirely natural. Bees do their work in the dark depths of the hive and it remains really difficult to get a tiny camera in there and still see the full extent of what is happening.

The best chance most of us will ever have to get a decent close up view of live bees doing their stuff is to visit an observation hive when the bees are housed during the warm season behind clear glass

walls. One of the places in Yorkshire where you can see this is in Keighley at the very fine Cliffe Castle Museum. Right at the back of the museum away from the Celtic stone head, the gold saxon coins, and the William Morris stained glass windows they have one of these observation hives. From spring through until autumn it is possible to watch the bees at close range as they go about their business.

There can be few better ways to entertain a child on a wet afternoon. Or indeed an old man!

Andy Brown
Feb 2017