Ross Land

The amazing bee

“How doth the little busy bee, Improve each shining hour…” observed hymnwriter Isaac Watts in the 18th century. Bees are remarkable creatures, and they have captured our fascination since ancient times. Indeed, their social organisation and language skills can make them seem almost human.  

Written by       Photographed by Ross Land, Kennedy Warne and Michael Schneider

Warm drizzling rain mixes with the gentle mists of a small geothermal lake to shroud the Waiotapu property of the Berry family. Paddocks of yellow ragwort and violet nodding thistle stretch away into the morning haze. Manuka, kamahi and rewarewa clothe the sides of a steamy valley.

Clusters of beehives dot the landscape all around me, but, ignoring the bountiful supply of food, few bees are flying. Today, like so many days over this past spring and summer, the rain has driven them indoors. Peevishly they prowl around the front of their hives. It’s the sort of day when beekeepers like Russell Berry stay away from them.

On a sunny day as many as 12,000 of the bees from each hive will be out bringing home the food: pollen, bees’ protein, will be fed to the young; nectar will eventually be ripened into honey which will both feed the 45,000 or so bees in each hive and become part of the 200,000 kilograms of honey that Russell Berry’s staff take off the hives each year in this, New Zealand’s largest beekeeping operation.

The effect of all the extra bees back in the hive is akin to a rainy day in the school holidays, with the kids inside, bored, grumbling, and bad tempered.

Wet weather in the North Island the legacy of two Christmas cyclones — means that this is going to be New Zealand’s worst honey season on record, according to Murray Reid, National Manager of Apiculture for the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Our normal honey crop of about 10,000 tonnes will be halved this season, he says.

The honey business is a fickle business — which is one reason the country’s commercial beekeepers’ income relies partly on the export of live bees and queen bees, and partly on the hiring out of hives for crop pollination.

It is 150 years this year since the first honey bees were brought to New Zealand from England, by a quite appropriately named Miss Bumby, “a very plump and very nice good tempered girl”, according to the records. The sister of a Northland missionary, Miss Bumby arrived at the Mangungu Mission Station on the Hokianga Harbour with her two hives of bees in March, 1839.

Now there are over 7000 beekeepers in New Zealand and over a third of a million hives. But nearly 300,000 of these are owned by the 612 commercial beekeepers in the country.

Of these commercial beekeepers, the Berry family’s operation, Arataki Honey Ltd, is by far the biggest. With 17,000 hives and bases in Hastings and Waiotapu, it is the largest honey business in the Southern Hemisphere, and one of the biggest privately owned beekeeping businesses in the world.

Today, inside the Waiotapu honey house, the staff are extracting honey from Arataki outposts which stretch from the Hauraki Plains down the Coromandel Peninsula to the Waikato, King Country, and Central Plateau.

The atmosphere is almost medieval. Thousands of coloured boxes which hold the frames of honey are stacked nearly to the high ceiling, and the wonderfully aromatic smell of their honey permeates the building.

Up among the rafters thousands of bees sweep in demented circles. Some have come in as hitchhikers on the honey boxes; others, drawn by the perfume of the honey, have flown in as doors are opened.

It’s a oneway trip for these bees, for the screens on all the windows, put there to keep them out, also keep them in. Their bodies litter the windowsills and in the tearoom one of the staff is casually sweeping them into a heap.

Occasionally a queen will manage to cling to a frame and be brought in with the honey, and the worker bees will sense her presence and start building a home. The signs of this activity are clear to see: in one corner pancake upon pancake of natural comb hangs from the rafters. This is the way the honey bee’s combs have been built in the wilds for the 10 to 20 million years they’ve been on earth — before we induced them to crawl into the hives of today.

The Egyptians embalmed their dead in honey, and according to the history books, Alexander the Great’s dying wish to be buried in honey was honoured, a “white honey” being used for the occasion. Honey is also used as the basis for the liqueur Drambuie.

Nothing so glamorous for our honey, according to Murray Reid.

“New Zealanders are among the biggest honeyeaters in the world we eat nearly 5000 tonnes each year here. But a good deal is used for commercial purposes, for commercial baking and bread-making, as sweeteners in drinks, into cosmetics and into tobacco manufacture, where it keeps the tobacco moist.” Some goes into horse feed, some to specialist exotic bird aviaries, and the leftovers to bears and other animals at zoos.

The beeswax goes into a strange variety of industries. Most of it’s recycled into new combs for the hives. The rest is used to make candles, chewing gum, floor polish, lipsticks and face creams, pencils and crayons, to season leathers and to protect some foods.

Mead is another by-product of honey, and last year Gabrielle and Leon Havill of Rangiora exported 63,000 litres of the fermented honey wine. Potent stuff, mead was a staple of elaborate Viking funerals. It not only marked funerals but also, research tells us, led to them.

At least four Viking kings died during or after mead-drinking binges, and so strong was the association of mead to funerals that the expression “his mead is brewed” spelt the belief that the person spoken of was surely doomed.

But so, too, was it attached to fertility, and the word “honeymoon” was derived from the old custom of giving newlyweds mead to drink on each of the first 30 days after the marriage.

[Chapter break]

We produce two types of honey in New Zealand — honey as we know it, and honeydew, which the bees make not from nectar, but from the sweet excretions of insects which feed on the black beech forest in the foothills of the Southern Alps.

Much of our honey is creamed, or “granulated” in the words of the industry. Outside the warm hive conditions some honeys crystallise, so the beekeepers get in first and granulate it themselves by adding a starter. Nothing else is added, but the honey producers sometimes have a hard job convincing a suspicious public that they haven’t put some additive into the mixture.

We prefer creamed honey in New Zealand — it doesn’t drip off our toast.

The flavour of each honey depends on the flower it comes from. In New Zealand we have over 30 recognisably different flavours of honey. Their colours range from water white to nearly black. We eat mainly light-coloured honey — and clover is our clear first choice.

Our export markets have different tastes. Darker honeys go to Switzerland and Germany. So does honeydew, which reminds the Germans of their own Black Forest honey. Strong flavoured thyme honey from the hills of Central Otago has found an eager market in France, and Japan won’t touch our darker honey, preferring instead light runny honey which Japanese use for food glazes and to sweeten drinks.

“Here. Stick your finger in this,” says Arataki’s Phillippa Marshall, inviting me to sample the comb from which she’s about to extract honey in the large spinning extractor. The honey is light coloured, sweet, and subtle — the honey of my South Island childhood which came to our tables in waxed cartons.

“It’s clover,” Phillippa tells me from the clover-rich Waikato. “Now try this one,” she says. This one is dark and strong and tangy, from rewarewa, our native honeysuckle.

But when I taste the ling heather honey I can see why it’s one of the highest priced honeys in the world. The aromatic flavour bursts on the taste buds at the back of my mouth, leaving a lingering perfume for minutes after. Produced from flowers in the Central Plateau, it is the champagne of honey.

But I’ll have little chance to develop a taste for it because the small amount that is produced in New Zealand is almost all exported. Arataki will get about $12 a kilogram for these 28kilogram containers in front of me, but by the time Dresden customers pick this honey off their shelves, they’ll by paying up to $50 for each kilogram.

But how can it be proved that the honey is what the label says it is?

Until 1982 New Zealand honey exports were largely governed by a honey marketing body. Now it’s open slather. Once there used to be a team of official honey tasters, or graders, checking whether the honey flavour was true to the declared floral source. They knew what all the honeys tasted like and they could even taste taints such as venom or smoke — even kerosene or coal gas used to heat the honey houses.

The graders would take a teaspoon of honey, assess its flavour and strength, spit some of it out and swallow the rest.

“We had to swallow some,” former grader Colin Rope explains, “because the taste buds that pick up bitterness are at the back of the throat and the volatiles which are the main part of the flavour sensation spread up into the sinuses.”

At the other end of the technological scale, researchers at Waikato University have discovered a way of identifying the floral sources of honey — by a method similar to the one used to detect drugs banned in sports competition.

The discovery came as a completely unexpected bonus for researchers Seng To Tan and chemistry lecturer Dr Alistair Wilkins. At the time they were attempting, for their colleague Dr Peter Molan, to isolate compounds which made some varieties of honey potently antibacterial. Using a number of sophisticated techniques they were able to produce a graph, or “fingerprint”, of the chemical compounds involved.

“We looked at the fingerprints coming off the different honeys, and realised they were quite distinctive,” says Seng To Tan. Now, they say, they have confidently identified the floral sources of a dozen of our honeys.

The significance of this find, if it’s eventually accepted, is that it would enable honey producers to supply a certificate of floral authenticity with each line of honey, settling disputes over the source — and over the price each honey can command on world markets.

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The gate sign on Wilderland Community says: “No drugs. No alcohol”. The sun is out, blazing down on the orchards and vegetable gardens surrounding the home of Dan and Edith Hansen, the first couple to settle on this land. The sweet smell of drenched earth and vegetation hangs heavy on the air.

Perched high in the hills overlooking Whitianga, the Wilderland Community has 230 hives now — still far from the viable business number, according to the industry, which reckons that at least 700 hives are needed to support a family.

It is 90 hives more than were here two years ago when beekeeper Archie Hislop arrived to take over the bees — and many more than the two Dan and Edith arrived with when they came to the land in 1964.

Wilderland is a group of people who follow no particular philosophy “but we try to live awarely, and observing what’s happening, respond openly to each situation,” Dan says.

The community lives on a simple diet of organically grown foods, and honey fits into this category.

Like so many beekeepers, Dan and Edith, now in their seventies, came themselves from a beekeeping background. Two of Dan’s older brothers started beekeeping before they had left primary school, and both continued as commercial beekeepers until the end of their lives. There are still branches of the Hansen family keeping bees around the country.

Greybearded and incredibly lithe, Archie Hislop came from a beekeeping business in Kaikoura.

“After the war I was looking for a simple life, and I thought that bees were the only animals I could graze on another person’s land without paying,” he says, laughing.

“Beekeeping is a job which tunes you to the seasons,” Archie tells me. “As you walk past the hives the smell of the crops they’re working is fanning out into the air.”

In this part of the world, the Coromandel Peninsula, and in the eastern Bay of Plenty, there are restricted honey seasons. The problem is a plant called tutu. The vinehopper insects which feed on tutu during the first four months of the year produce a toxic honeydew which the bees collect. It doesn’t hurt them, but it’s highly dangerous to humans. So the gathering of the richlyflavoured manuka, kamahi, and rewarewa honey starts on May 1. In Coromandel it runs until December 31, and in the eastern Bay of Plenty until December 10.

[Chapter break]

It’s 11am on a hot midFebruary Auckland morning. Each day for the past few, as I’ve been sifting through my encyclopedic file of bee research, I’ve noticed bees collecting nectar from the dandelions in my neglected garden.

Always they are there at about the same time of day, and I now know why: some flowers produce nectar and pollen at different times of the day and the bees know when to come and collect their haul. Since they usually forage close to home — “as far as the crowing of a cock or sound of a church bell,” according to the ancient laws of Ireland — I know that someone in my neighbourhood has a beehive.

For the few days the dandelions are flowering they will be visited only by bees working dandelion flowers, for each bee works only one type of flower at a time. It’s a remarkable reciprocal arrangement between the bees and the flowers. By visiting only one type at a time the bees become expert gatherers from that flower, and in return the flowers will be pollinated from one of their own kind.

Each of these bees’ honey stomachs is the size of a pinhead. To make one teaspoon of honey she will have to fill her honey stomach 60 times. And to fill it just once she may have to visit up to 500 flowers. Yet sometimes a hive of bees will be able to produce up to two kilograms in a day.

Each hive needs about half a kilogram a day to feed itself — 30 to 40 kilograms to see it through to the next spring’s honey flow. Yet even so, in this country the average yield for a hive is 30 kilograms a year more than that — up to 160 kilograms in some. It’s this surplus which beekeepers take.

And if that output is amazing, the effort the bees put into it is truly astonishing. To collect each kilogram the bees have had to fly the equivalent of three orbits around the Earth!

[Chapter break]

At waiotapu I’ve seen, with Mark Berry, a frame of brood cells where the queen lays her eggs. There, for the first time, I watch a bee chewing her way out of her cell. Small, yellow, and furry, she squeezes out of the tiny space like a cat squeezing through a very small gap, as other bees walk over her head. For her it’s like climbing out of a manhole into a busy road.

Within hours this new bee will start her work. From here, all going well, she will progress through a set list of duties until, at the end of her short fivetosix week summer life span, her work done, she will die.

For the first ten days of her life her job will be to crawl into the evacuated hexagonal brood cells to clean them and prepare each for the queen’s next egg. As well, she’ll be expected to huddle over her unhatched sisters, making sure they are kept warm.

After a few days the feeding gland in her head will develop and she’ll become foster-mother to the larvae, feeding, cleaning, and looking after them. Each of the larvae she tends will need to be visited up to 1000 times, so she will only have enough time to rear two or three.

Towards the end of her first ten days she will see light for the first time, venturing out of the hive for a cautious look at the countryside in which she’ll soon be working.

On a good day you can see hundreds of these young bees flying slowly up and down the front of their hive, taking a good look at home, much as we would check out the look of a hotel before we ventured off into foreign city streets.

Soon her wax glands will develop and from 10 to 20 days she’ll become a cell builder, constructing each sixsided cell to a precise pattern which has always been stored in her brain. It will also be her job to “take out the rubbish” and welcome the returning foragers. As bees fly in with their loads, they will slip their “breeches” of pollen into a cell around the brood and she will pack them down.

She will take nectar from other foragers and, going off to a quiet corner, will sit swallowing it and regurgitating it, exposing it to the warm hive air until it has evaporated enough for her to put it in a honey cell. Towards the end of 20 days she may become one of the fierce little guard bees who wait at the hive entrance, forelegs raised, attacking and killing unwanted intruders.

Then, at about 20 days old, it is her turn to go out into the world to collect the colony’s food. She has only three weeks left to live.

Whether a worker bee or a queen will develop from a fertilised egg depends on the worker bees which look after the brood. Workers will be brought up in small narrow cells; queens get more spacious, peanutshaped quarters.

But it is the food fed to the larvae in each of these cells that will determine the bee which emerges. The larvae in the queen cells will be fed exclusively on royal jelly; workers get a little royal jelly, but mostly pollen and nectar.

It’s a joint decision between the queen and workers whether a male bee, a drone, will be laid. Unlike workers and queens, drones grow from unfertilised eggs.

A queen bee may reach the age of several years, but she only mates once. Somewhere between seven days and three weeks after emerging from her cell she will go on her “nuptial flights”. On a sunny afternoon she will fly out of the hive, spiralling higher and higher into the sky, leaving behind her a wake of scent.

Down below, the hugeeyed drones have been waiting in groups to perform their only useful duty in life. Now, rising like a comettail, hundreds of them pursue her. Only the strongest can fly as high. Those few will mate with her, then die.

She will fly out several times over a few days, until after mating with seven to ten drones she will come back to the hive with a lifelong store of millions of sperm and start laying eggs — up to 1500 a day.

As she lays eggs in the worker cells she will let a small amount of the semen through to fertilise the egg. But when she comes to a larger cell — built for a drone — she will not fertilise the egg — and that egg turns into a male drone.

Drones are large and lazy and rely totally on the workers to feed and nurse them. Although the purpose of their existence is to mate with any virgin queen from any hive, if they never succeed they still come back to be looked after. They are tolerated as long as virgin queens are flying and the nectar is flowing.

But towards the end of summer the workers will turn on the drones, starting a slowly rising campaign of hostility, biting and dragging them from the hive. Obstinately, they will keep trying to get back into their formerly friendly home, but eventually they will be forced out to die.

From then until the following spring, when workers again build drone cells, the hive will once more be a totally female colony.

So who calls the shots in a colony?

Is it the queen, or is it the workers? The answer is both — and neither. More accurately, it is a group of messagecarrying chemicals, pheromones, produced by both.

The main group of pheromones are produced by the queen. At almost every moment of her life she is attended by a court of workers who feed her, groom her, and stroke her with their antennae. As they do, they pick off the special chemicals.

Leaving her, they stroll through the colony, giving out food and touching antennae, all the time distributing the scent. The thousands of fanning wings carry the message even further — it says “Queen in residence”.

It is the strength of the queen’s pheromones which prevents other female worker bees’ ovaries from developing, and it’s also her pheromones which stop the workers from making rival queen cells, the cells which tell beekeepers that the bees are preparing to replace their queen, or to swarm.

[Chapter break]

Flashback to a night in midNovember. The streets of Te Puke are alive with a strange nightlife. Rumbling through the streets are dozens of trucks carrying thousands of hives on their way to the kiwifruit blocks.

In three weeks, from about midNovember, some 60,000 hives from Northland to Taranaki will be moved in and out of the Bay of Plenty. For those three weeks the job of the bees will be not to make honey but to pollinate the kiwifruit.

Weeks earlier, kiwifruit orchardists have put in their orders for the hives. Now, as night falls and the bees come back from their foraging, hundreds of beekeepers put on their suits and start trucking the hives out to their temporary homes.

Kiwifruit are a strange fruit. They produce no nectar, only pollen. If the fruit is to grow to export size, the bees have to transfer over 1000 grains of pollen from the male flowers to each female flower. Understandably, the bees are fairly halfhearted about this crop which produces only half of their food needs, and they’ll fly many kilometres looking for the nectar to supplement this pollen diet, unless humans intervene.

Dr Mark Goodwin, an apicultural scientist with MAF at Ruakura, has come up with an answer.

“If we feed the bees with sugar syrup high in their hive,” he says, “the reception committee which normally waits to take nectar from the foragers is diverted to the richer source up in the hive. With no reception committee at the hive entrance, the foraging bees get the message that the hive doesn’t want the nectar they are bringing in, so they switch to pollen, and all that extra foraging in the kiwifruit means a betterpollinated crop.”

Over 90,000 honey bee colonies are rented out each year, 80,000 of these to kiwifruit orchards around the country. This $500 million crop relies heavily on bees, and so do other crops. The pollination work of bees on pasture legumes like clover is worth another $500 million each year; and it has been estimated that their contribution to the nitrogen content of the country’s soil is worth $1,750 million each year. Bees have been rightly called the “angels of agriculture”.

However, there is sometimes an uneasy alliance between other land users and the bee. Although the country relies so heavily on their pollination power, other plants which they need for food are being sprayed or cut out of existence. Native forests are being clearfelled; hedges removed.

Last year a gorse mite was introduced to control the bane of some farmers’ lives. If the programme is successful it will mean the loss of a major pollen source for the bees. The introduction of another mite to control broom is also being considered, and if this goes ahead it could be a sad day for many bees — and beekeepers.

In 198687, 10,000 “packages” of live bees, each containing a kilogram of bees — 9000 bees plus a queen were exported, as well as 31,000 individual queens. Most of these went to Canada’s western provinces, where the winters are so harsh that it is difficult to keep them alive all year round.

Then, in 1988, a fortuitous situation developed for New Zealand beekeepers. Troubled that a mite present in US bees would spread across the border, the Canadians stopped all bee trade between the two countries.

Beekeepers around New Zealand reaped the benefit. At short notice, in April, the Arataki operation alone supplied the Canadians with 2112 packages — 19 million bees. Each colony of bees is transported in a gauze “sock” within a long cardboard tube. Queens travel “first class” in little cages, accompanied by a dozen or so worker attendants.

Bees evolved in Asia, perhaps in Afghanistan. From this homeland they gradually spread into temperate regions, but they maintain a steady primeval warmth inside their hives. To keep the temperature constant at35 degrees they either spread a film of water over the brood cells to cool them or cluster like an eiderdown over them in the cold.

On the day I visited the Wilderland Community I saw how bees cool their hives. Heads down, tails up, they stood on the entrance platforms of the hives, fanning their wings frantically like little living ventilators, moving hot air out through the entrance.

This day was so hot that there were two groups, one on each side of the platform, each pointing in a different direction. The group on one side was fanning air into the hive, the other group fanned it out, like children circulating water around a bath with their hands.

But the heat bees can generate is a bother to exporters — if it builds up in transit the bees will die. The tubes in which Russell Berry’s bees travel are his simple invention to stop this happening. At the bottom of the tubes are holes covered in gauze, at the top a gauze lid, so the bees can draw air through the bottom of the tube and fan it out through the top.

And before they’re put on the aircraft they’re chilled to five degrees. At this temperature the bees go into winter mode, clinging to the gauze stocking of food in a slowly revolving cluster.

The bees’ amazing power to generate heat was proved to me after my visit to Mark Goodwin. At that time he was some days into the final stages of research to test whether bees could be sent by sea rather than by air — research which could save exporters thousands of dollars. For this step he had put 100,000 packaged bees into a small temperature controlled room. The bees were to stay there at 30 degrees for 22 days the time it would take a ship to reach Canada.

But five days later, unbeknown to Mark, both the machinery which kept the temperature constant, and the backup warning system, failed in a power cut. Six hours after the cut, he went to check the bees and found twothirds of them dead from overheating.

In six hours the bees, with their combined weight of 10 kilograms no heavier than a couple of cats had in their panic raised the temperature in the room to an incredible, — and lethal — 45 degrees.

Geographically, we are an isolated country. And for bee exporters that’s just fine. Our isolation means we’re free of the worst of the bee diseases common in other countries, although “we’ve still got our fair share,” according to Dr Denis Anderson, the only bee pathologist in New Zealand, or for that matter the Southern Hemisphere. For the last few years he has worked for the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research in Auckland.

Our honey “health” is fragile, he explains — which is why there are such strict controls on people bringing in any honey or beekeeping products from overseas. It could happen so innocently — just one container of honey from an infected area could mean a whole new problem for New Zealand beekeepers. Every year MAF’s agricultural quarantine officers pick up a staggering 2500 containers of honey or other bee products from passengers bringing them in as gifts — and they intercept more through the mail.

The real fear in the bee world, though, is that somehow, some way, the Africanised “killer” bee might find its way in. These ferocious bees are the stuff horror movies are, and have been, made of They can react three times faster to intruders than our bees, inflict ten times as many stings, and pursue hapless aggressors for up to a kilometre. And, as Brazil found out too late, once you’ve got them they’re there to stay. Unlike our bees they swarm constantly, dividing and multiplying at a horrifying rate.

In 1956, in the hope of producing stock which could produce more honey, 76 African queens were taken from Pretoria in South Africa to Rio Claro in Brazil. In 1957, 26 queens escaped from a research station and started to multiply their way up the South American continent. In thirty or so years they’ve formed over two million colonies through Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, and now Mexico; moving up the continent at three to five hundred kilometres a year. This year they’re expected to reach the United States.

“They’re simply unmanageable”, says Denis Anderson.

But one sector of our bee industry argues that there is still a need to upgrade our stock here with outside blood from safe countries. They say that our bees are an inbred bunch, the descendants of many strains introduced before controls started here.

“Although New Zealand calls its bees Italian — they’re the docile yellow ones — they’re really a spaghetti mixture now,” Denis says.

So this season, for the first time, a Northland queen bee breeder, David Yanke, has imported bee semen from Western Australia. The vial of semen, “the tiniest little vial,” says David, came with 100 microlitres in it, enough for ten virgin queen bees.

Under an anaesthetic of carbon dioxide each queen bee is carefully injected with the semen. The resulting bees will be an Italian type with, he hopes, the ability to produce significantly more honey than our bees.

[Chapter break]

At sim and jane besley’s home, in the heart of Auckland, I watch the bees coming and going from Jane’s three hives while I wait for her to come home from her work as a theatre nurse at Auckland’s Green Lane Hospital. For this, the last leg of my research, I am visiting the more human face of beekeeping, the hobby beekeeper. Jane is one of 7000 people in New Zealand who keep bees simply for pleasure, or as a paying hobby.

I stand a good distance from the hive’s entrance because the bees doing their stint on guard duty are aroused. Minutes before, another bee, trying to walk into the hive, has been set upon by the guards. Within minutes she’s engulfed in a skirmishing ball of bees, biting and stinging. At last the whole ball falls off the platform and the intruder, twitching feebly now, lies dying.

Something in this bee’s scent has alerted the guards that she’s a stranger, and although this bee is possibly a young worker lost on one of her first orientation flights, the stranger smell can spell greater dangers to the bees that have killed her. She may, for all they know, be the first of a group of robber bees. Bees, like wasps, will sometimes sense the `easy’ honey in a hive which has few bees, and forgetting their normal foraging, they will descend on the hive in huge, nervously buzzing hordes, to kill the hive’s occupants and steal their honey.

Each of Jane’s three hives is painted a different colour: one pink, one blue, one yellow. They’re beautiful to look at with their clouds of golden bees shimmering around them. But the colours are for the bees’ eyes too, not just for the pleasure of humans. It is one way the bees can tell which home is theirs.

Bees’ eyes see colour, but not the same colours we see. They see ultraviolet light through their polarized eyes.

“Imagine,” says one researcher, “the white stars of daisies on our green lawns. Now, through a bee’s eyes we are looking at blue-green stars on a background of pale yellow.” In some flowers which look a uniform colour to our eyes, the bees’ eyes can see contrasting-coloured throats — nectar-guides which tell the bees, “Come straight here for the pollen and the nectar.”

In this garden there are delphiniums and borage and petunias — all blue, because bees really do seem to be attracted to blue. The industry’s honey crop may not have been a good one this year but Jane’s bees have had a boom season. Already she has taken 68 kilograms off her hives and she will have another 25 kilograms yet, she thinks. Most of her bees come from swarms — one of which she spotted on the way home from work. All up, Jane says, it has cost her only $400 for the two sea sons she’s had her hives.

“Not bad,” she says, “for a hobby which is so absorbing, and so easy if you follow the rules.”

Jane is a wonderful example to a beginner: her cupboards are full of the light amber honey; the mead is brewing on a kitchen shelf. She makes bath lotion and hand cream from the honey and wax, and candles “which burn beautifully with a big, fat, steady flame”.

She loves her bees.

“They’ve taught me so much,” she says. “Whatever they’re doing reflects something in nature. And there are the wonderful, unexpected things too. Like the smell of the bees and honey on summer evenings, as they fan the warm aromatic air through their hives. They’re amazing. I’d keep them even if I only got a few kilograms of honey. I think everyone should have them.”

Two months ago, with less knowledge of bees, I wouldn’t necessarily have agreed with her. Now, with a growing understanding, I have an immense awe and admiration for these complex and endlessly fascinating creatures.

I can already picture a hive, and smell those summer smells, among the dandelions in my garden.

[Chapter break]

Understanding bee behaviour

A bee’s brain is the size of a grass seed, yet in this tiny brain is encoded some of the most complex and amazing behavioural patterns witnessed outside humankind. For bees are arguably the only animals apart from humans which have their own language.

Earlier this century Karl von Frisch, a professor of zoology at Munich University, spent decades of “the purest joy of discovery” unravelling the mysteries of bee behaviour. For his astonishing achievements he was awarded the Nobel Prize and it is from his work that most of today’s knowledge of what bees say to each other is known.

It started simply enough. Von Frisch knew from experiments by an earlier researcher that if he put out a bowl of sweet sugar syrup bees might at first take some time to find it — but once they had done so, within the hour hundreds of other bees would be eagerly taking the syrup.

Von Frisch realized that in some way messages were being passed on back at the hive, messages which said “Out there, at this spot, you’re going to find food.”

But how was it happening?

To watch the bees von Frisch constructed a glass-sided hive. He found that once the scout bees arrived back at the hive they would perform one of three types of dance.

In the first type, a returning scout scampered in circles, alternating to right and left, stopping occasionally to regurgitate food samples to the excited bees chasing after her.

In the second dance, clearly an extended version of this round dance, she performed a sickle-shaped figure-eight pattern instead.

In the third, distinctly different dance, she started by running a short distance in a straight line, waggling her abdomen from side to side, and returning in a semicircle to the starting point before repeating the process again. She also stopped from time to time to give food samples to begging bees. Soon the others would excitedly leave the hive in search of food. Minutes later many of them, marked by von Frisch, could be seen eating at the bowls of sugar syrup.

Experimenting further, von Frisch unravelled the mystery of both the round and sickle dances — the first two related types. These dances, he concluded, told the bees simply that within quite short distances of the hive there was a food source worth chasing. The longer and more excitedly the scout danced, the richer the promise of the nectar source.

The scent she carried in her samples and on her body was a message to the other bees that this particular food was the one they were looking for. The others would then troop out of the hive and fly in spiralling circles “sniffing” in the wind for the promised food.

At first von Frisch thought the bees were responding only to the scent of the food. But what did the third dance mean? And if bees were responding only to the scent, how could they also “sniff down” food hundreds of metres away from the hive — food which was sometimes downwind?

On a hunch he started gradually moving the feeding dish further and further away — and noticed as he did so that the dances of the returning scout bees also started changing. If he placed the feeding dish over nine metres away, the second type of dance, the sickle version, came into play. But once he moved it past 36 metres the scouts would then start dancing the third, quite different, waggling dance.

Gradually he interpreted all the dances and realised the bees were telling each other not just the quality of the food and how far away it was, but also, in the longdistance waggle dance, the exact direction of the food in relation to the sun.

The measurement of the actual distance too, he concluded, was precise. For example, a feeding dish 300 metres away was indicated by 15 complete runs through the pattern in30 seconds. When the dish was moved to 600 metres the number dropped to eleven.

As for the direction of the food, von Frisch noted something puzzling. When the scout bees came home to tell their sisters about the food source, sometimes they would dance outside on the horizontal entrance platform of the hive, and sometimes on the vertical comb inside. And, depending on where they danced, the straight portion of the waggle dance would point in different directions.

The outside dance was fairly easy to decode: the straight portion of the dance pointed directly to the food source, so the bees would merely have to decode the distance message and fly off in that direction to find their food.

But by studying the dance on the vertical comb inside the dark hive, von Frisch discovered a remarkable method which the dancer uses to tell her sisters the direction of the food in relation to the sun.

“Since she can no longer see the sun, she uses gravity instead,” he said. “The direction of the sun is now represented by the top of the comb. If he runs straight up, this means that the feeding place is in the same direction as the sun. If the goal lies at an angle of 40° to the left of the sun, during the straight part of her run the dancer points 40° to the left of the vertical.”

The bees that follow the dancer then translate the angle from the vertical back to the sun’s true position once they are outside the hive — and fly off to collect their prize.

This was to be the first of von Frisch’s remarkable discoveries. Soon he would also discover that the bees had backup systems.

On a lightly overcast day bees can still tell where the sun is because, unlike humans, they can perceive the polarized light patterns in the ultraviolet light which comes through the sparse cloud. From this they can deduce the sky’s pattern and locate the sun.

And on very cloudy days they fall back on a third system of navigation — using landmarks — trees, groups of houses — which they have had to learn by taking orientation flights.

“But like humans they can get confused,” says Dr Mark Goodwin, a Ruakura scientist who studied the dance language of bees for his doctoral thesis.

Picture an aerial view of the kiwifruit orchards at Te Puke. Looking down we see block after block, the same shape, the same size, the same rows of windbreak trees. At the end of every third or fourth block there is a group of hives.

“When you walk into another orchard block without hives,” says Mark Goodwin, “right at the same end as the hives you’ll often find a cluster of bees hanging from a kiwifruit vine or flying in large circles. They’ve been using landmarks and they’ve come back to this place which looks just the same as the place they’ve left. They’re temporarily disoriented and lost.”

Like humans, bees also have a time sense. Senior lecturer in zoology at Auckland University, Dr Robert Lewis, includes a component on bee behaviour in his courses. At one time, setting up experiments for his students, he went out at the same time each day to put out a bowl of sugar syrup and “when I got there, the bees would be waiting for me.”

It’s a handy sense for bees to have, for on some flowers pollen and nectar are to be found only at certain times of the day. In others they are more abundant at various times of the day. For some, such as clover, the best time for the bees to visit is in the afternoon; for others, like honeysuckle and dandelions, it’s the morning. Kiwifruit flowers produce only pollen — but not until 8 or 9am, and after a few hours the bees have stripped it.

Mark Goodwin laughs: “A lot of kiwifruit farmers don’t know this. They go out to the hive and check at 7.30am. No action. Then they’ll go back later, in the afternoon. Still nothing happening as far as they can see — and they’re paying for the hives to be here. I’ve known some who, thinking the bees are not earning their keep, give the hive a good shake.”

This means that throughout any day, some bees will be out foraging frantically while others will be taking it easy at home, waiting for their flowers to come on tap. And when this time comes, their biological clocks will click into action and they’ll be out and off.

Through their dances, bees can tell each other not just of nectar and pollen sources, but also about a suitable pond for water to cool their homes and quench their thirst, or where they can find the propolis — the particular tree resins with which they seal up their draughty hives.

But they also use dance language when they swarm — to pass on information and make decisions about their new home.

When they swarm, bees gather around the queen in a cluster, like a very large bunch of grapes. Then it’s time for the scouts to go out looking for new accommodation. Dozens fly off in all directions, and before long they come back to tell the others of their find.

When they return the scouts dance on the surface of the swarm, telling the bees the direction of their choice of home and — by the liveliness of the dance — their estimation of its suitability.

So all over the swarm the scouts are all performing their own dances — except that some are dancing more enthusiastically than others.

Within the space of a few hours sometimes days — something akin to political rally fervour starts happening. The most vivacious dancers gain more and more support and followers. These followers have gone out to check the sites and when they come back they support the propaganda of the first scouts, by joining their particular dance.

Some of the other dancers, who have been campaigning for other sites, catch the enthusiasm and may go out to check the rival accommodation. Then they too add to the approval frenzy building up in the swarm. The other bees which can’t show the same enthusiasm for their finds eventually just stop dancing. So a consensus is gradually reached all finally agree that one site is best: the swarm dissolves and they fly off, the hundreds which now know the way leading them to their new home.

There are still many unexplained areas of bee behaviour. Karl von Frisch recorded instances where in the course of an experiment which involved moving a feeding dish gradually further away from the hive, the bees began to anticipate the moves and would be there waiting for the feeder at the spot they presumed to be the new location. Since flowers don’t move, it’s hard to imagine what programming could have enabled bees to anticipate von Frisch’s activities.

And some years ago, Doctors Carol and James Gould, two US researchers, began to suspect that bees could keep in their “memories” a cognitive map of an area, an aerial “photograph” of countryside over which they had flown.

In an experiment they tricked a scout bee into dancing a message which told the others that the site of a good food source was in the middle of a lake. But the bees back home refused to budge — even when the Goulds put food into the middle of the lake in a boat. When the scientists moved the feeding dish further away, however, so that the dancing bees indicated food on the far side of the lake, the other bees hurried out in great numbers.

The Goulds concluded: “Apparently they ‘knew’ how wide the lake was — and so were able to distinguish between sources supposedly in the lake and those on the shore. This ability is most easily explained by assuming that the recruits have ‘mental maps’ of their surroundings — on which they place the spots indicated in the dances.”

The Goulds question whether this ability to make and use maps provides evidence of some “intelligence”.

So does Mark Goodwin.

“It simply means that some of their actions are genetically programmed into them — like the dance behaviour — and some are learned. Bees have to be flexible — they learn to come to colours, they learn landmarks, they learn not to look for pollen and nectar in lucerne because it has a reproductive column which flicks to one side when it’s triggered and it hits them. They have to learn how to get pollen and nectar off many different types and shapes of flowers.”

Remarkable though the discoveries made to date about bee behaviour have been, scientists have only so far scratched the surface. There is still a long way to go, Mark Goodwin says, before they understand everything about bees.