1) DON’T LET US DOWN –
Ignored in our own region of origin, we are identified by many names – the Asiatic honey bee, the Oriental honey bee, the Eastern honey bee or the Apis Cerana. Centuries ago, we tried to create a relationship of trust with humans. We failed. We offered them one of nature’s greatest gift – Madhu – also called Honey in English, Miel in French, Honig in German. Universally accepted for its amazing health benefits, honey is truly the elixir of life. We still create it for you but with a feeling of being let down. The earlier human generations, with their traditional wisdom practiced a wonderful approach of living in harmony with nature. The later generations ignored the principles of coexistence and were unreasonably exploitative. Even our very existence was put on stake during the honey extraction process. The acrid smoke, the choking sensation, the rough squeeze leading to the destruction of the egg, the larvae and the pupae and very often the unintentional killing of our impressive Queen devastated the whole colony. Extensive use of pesticides and insecticides added to our misery and has put our very survival at stake.
Insensitive approach created a major conservation issue, wherein our insignificant presence often resulted in ineffective cross-pollination and also under-utilization of the nectar potential. Flowers bloom and wilt away waiting for our sublime descent – they miss our gentle caress. It is an endless and futile wait and only we realize their agony and pain. We pray that before it is too late, humans grow to be equally sensitive, accept their share of responsibility in ruining the balanced relationships in nature and strive to make us once again a relevant indicator of the healthy ecosystem.
Peaceful by nature, we will never sting without provocation. Many of you because of your mistaken first impressions may think otherwise. We will sting only in a situation of total discomfort and then our response will be instantaneous and definitely agonizing for you. However, stinging is an act of self sacrifice for us – with our stomach ripped apart, we drift aimlessly for some time to finally depart this life in excruciating pain – try visualizing the terrible moments before we finally rest in peace.
We request you to venture into our delightful domain as a hobby beekeeper. Try to understand our nature. Your perspectives will transform. It will no longer be an attitude of indifference or a quest only for honey. It will no longer be a fleeting glance on the flowers. It will be all about observation – trying to locate flora for the bees, honey bees on each flower and bee hives everywhere. Observing us go about our work – purposefully, systematically and ceaselessly transferring nectar and pollen from diverse flora to the hives will definitely give you immense satisfaction.
Tattered and serrated wings are the signs of our old age. We never retire. We fall dead, silently executing an exceptional work in a small life of about fifty five days. Contributing in your small way, in a life span measured in years, to see millions of my innocent sisters smiling on their way back home, should be an appropriate apology and a great recompense for you.
Hindustan Times e-Paper
2) FOR A CAUSE
The Oriental honey bee or the Asiatic honey bee, as we are generally referred to, reflects our distribution over a geographical area which includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, China, Bangladesh, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam, Korea, Philippines, Indonesia, Java, Taiwan, Japan and Papua New Guinea. This natural spread in an area inhabited by more than one third of the entire human population has ensured our continued survival over the ages. Also known as Apis Cerana, we have two subspecies in India – Apis Cerana-Indica and Apis Cerana-Cerana. We can survive, thrive and perform in highly marginal environment and create possibilities of cross pollination and the finest honey in different geographical regions with varied climatic conditions – from coastal areas to snow capped terrain.
Humans are generally guided by extraneous considerations and usually err in taking correct decisions. We always have a perfect understanding of the circumstances and respond remarkably well to even complex situations. Here are two instances to demonstrate our instincts evolved to perfection.
The mother Queen is our de-jure and de-facto sovereign. In our self governed society she controls everything – our thoughts and all our actions. She directs all the activities towards the progress of the colony. Supported by an excellent information system, she has an indomitable will and enormous capacity to take accurate decisions at the appropriate time. And these decisions involve a perfect understanding and synthesis of many variables like the weather conditions, the stored resources, the inflow of pollen and nectar, our numerical strength and our potential. We, as workers also execute the entrusted age-defined functions with all our capacity- day in and day out. Any of us who cannot contribute with full efficiency leaves the colony of his own volition. None is allowed to be a burden on others and nobody flutters away from responsibility. Total commitment is necessary – even one percent less is not acceptable. However, our absolute loyalty to the Queen is only for the continued advancement of the colony. Any act of the Queen indicating weakness or a flaw is instantly taken note of and communicated to everyone. Immediately, a series of time bound actions are initiated to create a capable successor. Not a moment is wasted and there is no resistance either. Even the faltering Queen creates perfect situations for this change of the guard. Humans can learn an unusual lesson in ‘total dedication for common progress’ and the significance of time from this complex mix of actions perfectly executed.
This one is also equally remarkable. The entire colony comprising of a Queen, thousands of female workers and a few drones is one biological unit. United in thought and action we are actually super-organism. We collectively follow unwritten conventions. Humans have to experience the amazing aspects of our regulated and controlled behavior. Even in crisis, when the resources are low, we work as a cohesive unit. Our queen is perhaps the first to understand the gravity of the situation, but we are also intelligent enough to realize the predicament. A despotic attitude, wherein few strong bees may take control of the resources and deprive others of the same is absent. The possessions are used collectively and cooperatively. Even the last drop of nectar is shared and then we all face the consequences together. A great lesson in coexistence and another instance of our inspiring response, one which has an extremely significant message for humans – that even in calamity there is no animosity, no antagonism, no dissent, only sagacity prevails.
If permitted, we can continue to enumerate numerous such simple lessons in managerial excellence and collective responsibility. Please try to understand our nature, our needs and our responses. Learn the amazing art of beekeeping to appreciate us better. Become an urban beekeeper to explore new perspectives and new reasons to relax.Together, let us create and enjoy an eternal relationship of trust. We are prepared, but are you?
Written by RAKESH GUPTA, this narrative was published in Himachal Times on 7th Sep, 2016.
3) THE JOY OF LIVING
There existed a small colony of honey bees high up on a neem (Azadirachta Indica) tree. In the last three months, I had seen the bees create and develop the comb from scratch to its present size of about 17 cms across. One has to understand the skill and the coordinated creativity that goes into the building the comb to be able to admire these small but magnificent insects – perfect hexagonal cells giving maximum strength with minimum utilization of wax to create a structure which could withstand the ultimate vagaries of nature – torrential rain, intense heat and storms.
This was a comb of Apis Florea – the dwarf honey bee, first identified and described by Johan Christian Fabricius, a Danish Zoologist in 1787. Also known as the Red Dwarf Honey Bee, it is characterized by distinct red or brown, white and black bands on the abdomen. Naturally distributed in the Indian subcontinent, the A Florea is sensitive, prefers isolation but does not like confinement. It makes a single comb attached to the underside of the branches, hidden in dense thickets to minimize detection – this has ensured their survival over the ages.
According to the seasoned beekeepers, any effort at displacement leads to immediate swarming. They cannot be confined like the A Cerana (Eastern honey bee) or the A Mellifera (Western honey bee) and any such effort always fails. Their sage advice preempted any thoughts I had of trying to relocate the gentle bees. At least, temporarily.
Preconceived convictions, howsoever strong, should not be accepted without trial, and if necessary, a series of trials must be performed. Immensely fascinated by the A Florea, I realized that I was subconsciously waiting for an opportunity to interact with them to understand them better. I had to relocate them or atleast attempt it.
A few days later, I realized that there were no flowers around to sustain the A Florea and this was when the temperature in Lucknow was at a sizzling 43 degree Celsius. They needed immediate sustenance. Any delay would result in the whole colony swarming away. This also implied losing the opportunity to truly understand this bee colony with which I had developed an emotional bond. Ignorance of many and exploitation by a few humans has, for centuries, made them suffer immense hardship and this was the opportunity to correct this age old perception.
After sunset, when all the honey bees were back, I tenderly cut the branch on which the comb was suspended and brought it home. Not one bee was left behind and none suffered in the entire relocation process. The whole operation was so swift and silent that the bees might have probably accepted the moving motion as the natural swaying of the branch. But, let us not underestimate their reasoning. I would like to believe that they had sensed their impending crisis and welcomed the support in the time of their nutritional uncertainty. All in all, they remained silent, none protested. Perhaps, they realized that not all humans are insensitive.
I gently placed the branch on a temporary wooden structure that held it steady from both ends. Care was taken to provide them with an open area at the top so that they could continue to use the top of the comb, known as the crown, as a platform for landing and taking off. This crown is a distinctive feature of the comb built by the A Florea.
At sunrise, I was with the bees. I offered them honey as a gesture of goodwill. Moments later, suddenly, as if on some silent command, they became very active. They then started to swarm around nervously. I searched for the Queen to try to confine it and thereby stop the swarming process but was unable to locate it in such intense activity. I could do nothing but watch the bees fly away, leaving the comb entirely exposed and see my entire relocation effort go awry.
A close examination of the comb showed a few hundred pupae but no larvae or eggs. There was neither honey nor pollen. This confirmed my assessment of shortage of nectar and pollen. I should have acted sooner. It was an effort made too late. With all the honey bees gone, this late awareness was only of academic interest now.
I tried tracking down the bees. I walked to the neem tree, maybe, they had gone back there. After all, it was only about 150 meters away, but they hadn’t. Feeling momentarily purposeless at the loss of the bees and contemplating what to do next, I went back to the empty comb. To my pleasant surprise, the entire colony was back, and at their full strength too. Through the course of that day, this sequence of swarming away and coming back to re-colonize the comb was repeated four times. It defied all logic. Never in my entire beekeeping career, I had witnessed this phenomenon. I still cannot explain this action nor the reasons for it. A Florea seems to have a will of it’s own but for me, it was like a pendulum of anguish and pleasure.
I inspected the bees early morning. They were all there. The wooden structure used for their resettlement was open at the top but there was a board at the bottom. The comb was nearly touching the bottom board and I noticed that the bees were scattered all over the bottom board, motiveless and confused. This prompted me to examine another hive of A Florea. I noticed that the bees were clinging to each other, forming a curtain, 3 to 4 layers deep and at the lowest level, this formation was about two inches lower than the constructed comb. This made me realize that the bottom board was not only blocking the desired air circulation but also preventing the natural downward extension of the comb. The bottom board was pulled out. But, the sides were still covered, a situation contrary to their nature.
They had also started using the crown to convey information about the source of nectar and pollen including the direction and distance. This transfer of information was communicated through a waggle dance, a performance graceful enough to mesmerize the most casual of observers. This dance is performed on the top surface of the comb and not on the vertical surface – a phenomenon peculiar only to Apis Florea.
I fed them honey and they enjoyed every drop of it. Slowly but surely, I have built a relationship of trust and understanding with them. They are kindhearted and do not perceive me as a threat. The typical display of shimmering and hissing to warn any predator is now conspicuous by its absence.
However, to protect their nectar resources, they continue to react very aggressively to any honey bees of other species. The vibrations induced by the variations in the flying pattern enable them to differentiate between their own and other species of honeybee. The response to any such threat is immediate, swift and intense. I have seen them pounce and seize hold of even the A Dorsata (Giant honey bee) for any attempted misadventure. This captivating display of the survival instinct by the most primitive honeybee species reminded me of the bedtime story of ‘Lilliputians against the Giant’.
An earlier examination of the empty comb on the second day had revealed only the pupae stage. We all know that the honey bee is an insect and the life cycle consists of transformation from an egg to larva, then pupa and finally to an adult. Here the initial two stages of the egg and larvae were missing. This could mean only two things – either the Queen had ceased to lay eggs or worse the Queen no longer existed.
Nectar and pollen are the main floral resources for the bees. Usually, the Queen ceases to lay eggs on realizing that the nectar and pollen reserves are low and initiates egg laying when nectar and pollen inflow starts. I earnestly wished that the absence of the egg and larvae stages would be explained by the diminishing reserves of honey and pollen and not the result of an absent Queen.
It was therefore necessary to re-examine the hive and locate the Queen. I inspected the colony again, bit by bit. The curtain of the bees was very thick and the physical presence of the Queen could not be established, but there were countless eggs – one in each hexagonal cell. A consistent laying pattern suggested a vigorous Queen. This assured the survival of the colony. It seems that they have happily settled. The relocation has been a success.
(There was no honey in the comb. Uninformed people would have destroyed this comb and damaged the entire honeybee colony in their quest for honey)
Written by RAKESH GUPTA
4. LEST THE HONEY BEES FADE AWAY
‘No living creature, not even man, has achieved in the center of his sphere, what the bee has achieved’
-Maurice Maeterlinck in The Life of the Bee (1901)
Today, on the occasion of World Honey Bee Day 2018, this observation by Maurice Maeterlinck assumes great significance. We should learn a few lessons from the bees, ‘a few’ because they offer so much to observe, understand and emulate. The creativity and minimalism associated with every phase of their life is actually a string of lessons for humans to follow.
The honey bees have a well defined purpose of collective existence and a very small life to achieve that objective. A ‘small life’ is a life span of just about fifty five days for the worker bees, but it is a small life of immense activity rather than a long life of monotonous idleness. Immediately after emerging as an adult they start to work. The functions are age related and generally correlated with the physiological development of their various glands. All the activities which are performed by the honey bee whether it is cleaning the cells, feeding the larvae, producing wax or royal jelly, maintaining hive temperature, constructing comb or foraging for nectar, pollen and water or any other work – they always put in all their energies to the task. Contributing ceaselessly for a defined purpose, they generally breathe their last during the flight. This will surely remind us of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’:
‘Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die’
Honey bees work day and night. For them the perceptions of time are meaningless. They neither delegate the assignments nor do they flutter away from the genetically assigned task. In contrast, humans generally look for the first opportunity to get away from their responsibilities.
In the hive thousands of worker bees cling together and work as a cohesive unit. Efforts are always made by all – irrespective of age and the contribution of each member is equally significant. Apparently, there is no program evaluation and review, no critical path training, none to monitor the progress, no one for course corrections, no chain of command and no protocols. In reality, everything is so well ingrained in their system. They never fritter away their energies or resources.
Simply observing them work as a collective group will surely impart attributes of patience, purpose, trust, co-existence, optimism, endeavor, commitment, creativity and much more. In contrast, it is difficult to visualize ten thousand or even greater number of humans living and working together in perfect unison for a common purpose. The strength that the numbers provide to the honey bees is sure to create differences, confusion and virtual anarchy in case of humans.
Devastated by our recklessness and restricted by environmental degradation, honey bees are swiftly fading away from the face of the earth. They are now desperately in need of an improved environment, better sensitivity and immediate support. We must accept the fact that they are perfect indicators of a balanced environment, critical for a healthy ecosystem and indispensable for the continuation of the human race.
To ignore them even now is to await an untimely apocalypse.
Written by Rakesh Gupta on World Honey Bee Day 2018