Queen Elizabeth and the bees

Queen bee on honeycomb
Queen bee ‘crowned’ with a dot (Boba Jaglicic, Unsplash)

While observing expressions of public affection and admiration for Queen Elizabeth II from afar, I began to muse about other queens. Queen bees in my hives.

They shouldn’t be called monarchs by any stretch in the meaning of royalty. But I am struck by a correspondence between the late queen and insect queens. The steadfast duty to serve in one great role for society’s sake. Without that service, the institution of a constitutional monarchy or the life inside hives cannot survive.

But here’s a wonder. A queen bee isn’t born from a royal lineage, like the House of Windsor, and doesn’t have a unique genome. She is what she is because the egg that made her was laid in a special cell and workers fed her a special diet as a larva. Any egg can potentially make a queen in the process of supersedure to ensure succession where a queen is failing. It’s more like making a new Dalai Lama (although always male) than the heir to a European throne. It has none of the mystique of a royal family tracing its roots to an ancient founder. The current Lama and Tibetan monks discover his successor as a child and turn him into an extraordinary individual with a momentous life as a spiritual leader and diplomat. Somewhat similar to when nurse bees care for a precious larva in a queen cell.

Aside from rambling on about royalty, poring over frames of honeycomb covered in busy insects gives me a cast of mind about the tranquility of hive life. It’s neither feudal nor communist, but still a highly organized community. Individual honeybees don’t have the freedom of solitary bee species, but neither are they stuck at the bottom of a rigid caste system. A new worker bee starts with humble jobs and transfers to other occupations, such as nursing, honey-making and guarding the hive. Finally, she graduates to flying for foraging outside for nectar and pollen. There’s no jealousy or conflicts from competition in the patriotic fervor to benefit the community.

This post sounds anthropomorphic for a biology professor, but I can’t find better words to express the industry of honeybees, which the mind of the hive organizes. They have an admirable society, even if not one we can or want to emulate.

World Honeybee Day at a Meadery

Silver Hand Meadery, Williamsburg, VA
Silver Hand Meadery, Williamsburg, VA

Plans for the morning were interrupted when I heard the Silver Hand Meadery in Williamsburg was filling glasses for all-comers this morning. And why? It’s World Honeybee Day on the third Saturday in August. The calendar event has gone international since 2009 for celebrating the benefits of pollinators and the only kind that manufactures sweet liquid gold.

There was more to attract attention than the chink of glasses in a small crowd gathering to start the weekend with “Cheers!” A beautiful mural stretching yards along a wall leading to the front door was unveiled by the meadery’s owners. It is as colorful as a children’s picture book, full of bright flowers, bees, and butterflies under a blue sky. The artist Emma Zahren-Newman titled it: “The Flight of the Honeybee, circa 1622.” Why the date? It is reckoned to be the year when the Virginia Company of London shipped honeybees to the Jamestown colony, then only 15 years old and barely hanging on after starvation and a fractious relationship with local Native Americans.

Although many native bee species exist here, they were probably the first honeybees introduced to North America. Evidently, they didn’t do well in this climate at first, but they followed the westward march of the frontier as European settlers grew new crops that depended on the services of Old World insects then and ever since.

What Hatidze Knows

A woman in a desolate corner of North Macedonia claimed to be the last wild beekeeper in Europe made a splash at the Oscars. Her story told in Honeyland took three years to produce on a slim budget and was never expected to win acclaim. I rate movies by how long they stay in my head. Five minutes? Five hours? This time it was still ringing the next day. I recommend watching it.

In the first scene we watch Hatidze Muratova, a vigorous woman of about 50 years old and ethnically Turkic, climbing a rocky precipice to check a bee colony. She removes a covering stone with bare hands to reveal a yellow honeycomb covered with bees. The insects would normally attack an intruder, but not her.

Her life in a deserted village was a spartan existence in a stone shack. It might have been otherwise for the able and intelligent woman, but her father forbade marriage because the youngest daughter was expected to stay with aged parents at home. He had passed away and now she cared for a bedridden mother (who dies). A hard tradition, but Hatidze was happy and obviously sociable at the Skopje market where she bartered jars of honey.

When a family of nomads turned up with a herd of cattle to settle among the ruins of the village, the story moves from the tenderness of home to a tense relationship with new neighbors. They are poor but their lives are more turbulent from poor decisions. Since Hatidze made her living from beekeeping, they hoped to make more income by building an apiary. Later in the season when honeycomb should be saved for the bees in winter they harvested all the honey, forcing their starving bees raid Hatidze’s hives.

She was friendly with one of the sons, teaching him the art of beekeeping. Her philosophy was to take half the honey for herself and leave the rest for them. The boy took the message home, but his father didn’t listen.

This is not just the story of a fascinating character struggling to manage relationships. It was her elementary philosophy that stayed in my head—take half and leave half. It’s a fine mantra for earth care.

For countless thousands of years humans had a negligible impact on earth. Our numbers were low and technology was primitive. The lives of hunter gatherers were probably short, but they lived sustainably. Neolithic people gave up nomadism for settlements where they grew crops and grazed animals. These were more prosperous times but living closer to each other and to their animals promoted disease, theft and a social hierarchy. Choices require trade-offs.

Settlement meant the ability to store harvests and accumulate wealth, so greed and excess are corollaries. Not satisfied with sufficiency, forests are chopped down, sea-beds scraped by trawlers and valuable ore mined to exhaustion for maximum profit regardless of the interests of future generations. The beekeeper of Bekirlija leads a wiser life that seems no less happy for not being conventionally rich.

Next Post: Wax moths—Foes have Virtues too

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