To Bee or Not To Bee



A young scientist from France, Simon Klein is carrying on a tradition started by the Acádémie des sciences, which stretches back over 300 years to when King Louis XIV founded it. Better known for its contribution to the arts, France has constantly been at the forefront of scientific advances, too, in fields ranging from chemistry to medicine to nuclear power.

A humble homme who’s already won the respect of his peers, Klein’s led discoveries into the enigmatic world of bee navigation, studying their tiny brains and reporting back with some remarkable finds, including the revelation that bees use natural landmarks the same way humans use signposts. And yet, despite his own amazing research, Klein’s favourite fact about bees is one that was unearthed way back in the 1940s by another European brain.

Previously, bees were thought to use a combination of smell and taste to give each other directions. But the Austrian professor Karl von Frisch discovered bees actually tell one another where to find the best flowers by shakin’ their butts. “I still think that’s the most surprising thing about bees,” says Klein. “Inside the hive, you’ve got dance floors and some bees looking at other bees wiggling their arses, talking to each other with a dance.”

Sadly, after bees had boogied their way through the centuries, the never-ending bee party was interrupted ten years ago when US beekeepers suddenly and mysteriously found that their hives were nearly all empty.

What started off like the opening scene of a sci-fi thriller ended up being a real phenomenon known as ‘colony collapse disorder’. In case you haven’t heard, that’s when bees everywhere started dropping like flies due to increased parasites and pesticides, and the plants that they need to survive were either being destroyed completely or not behaving the way bees were used to, due to a changing climate.

Now maybe you’re someone who doesn’t like honey or thinks that losing an insect that stings people is not such a bad thing, but even so, consider this lone fact: a third of the crops humans consume in a regular diet, from basic grains used to bake bread to the beans that make your morning coffee, would fail without bees around to pollinate them. That means that without bees the Western industrial food complex would collapse—and yet there’s no plan Bee to try and save them.

Absolutely critical when it comes to their role in the ecosystem, bees are much more than just honey-making machines. While some birds, bats and even a few monkeys are pollinators, bees do the heaviest lifting when it comes to helping plants reproduce all over the world. So it makes sense that we use them to help explain sex; the irony is we’re all screwed if they disappear.

While honey bees get the most human attention (along with animated movies and marketing deals) because they supply us with sweet food, there are a bunch of wild bees out in nature doing the same basic job of pollinating crops—or sometimes more specific work, because certain plants rely on a single type of bee for survival.

Regardless of whether they’re bumblebees or carpenter bees, all bee species have the same basic lifecycle. Inside the hive, there are different casts: there’s one individual that lays the eggs—better known as the queen bee—while all the others are worker and drone bees, and their main mission is to collect pollen and nectar, which they transform into honey after returning to the hive.

“What people don’t realise is that just in Australia we’ve got more than 1,600 different species of bees,” says Klein. “There’s the blue banded bee and the teddy bear bee, which really does look like a teddy bear, but all of them have the same diet. They all rely on pollen and nectar. What’s interesting is how we see a co-evolution sometimes, so the plants co-evolve with some species of the bees. There are some nice examples of orchids that have attractive shapes, that look like a bumblebee butt, to attract specific species.”

According to Klein, what scientists now know, after studying colony collapse disorder for the last decade, is that numerous factors are to blame, but they can be whittled down to four big ones.

“One of the biggest is that the parasite load of the bee has increased a lot,” he says. “Also, pesticides have proven to be very harmful for bees. Environmental damage is known to disturb wild bees specifically, but also honey bees. And climate change, which is actually forcing the plants to change, but then the bees can’t adapt quickly enough so we’re seeing a trend of disconnection between bees and plants.”

Explaining further, Klein points out that the extra parasites that bees are carrying around is due to globalisation, which is our own doing. And yet Klein still manages to see the honey pot as half full. “It’s sad, but because it’s driven by humans it means we can try and do something to reverse it.”

So before you start building a bunker and storing dry foods, the good news is there are lots of things you can do to make your little garden or balcony bee-friendly. Start by buying bee-friendly plants—preferably native ones—that are endemic to your region. Get a hive for the backyard or up on the rooftop of your apartment block. Even if you’ve got little kids, you can fill the hive with Australian stingless bees, which are perfect for toddlers to keep.

When you’re buying honey, it’s best to get it direct from your local beekeepers. “If you’re interested, I even suggest joining a beekeeper group,” says Klein. “It’s very good for the bees, the more hives that are around, but also for anyone to be in touch with nature, especially in the city. That’s a good way to link back, connect and meet new people.”

With the increased popularity of rooftop honey, and beekeeping more generally, it’d be easy to write off the whole movement as a hipster fad, but Klein is passionate when he talks about the importance of each and every beekeeper to the survival of the species. “You keep the stocks up, which helps fight against this collapse that we’re seeing at the moment,” he explains. “It’s also good to have bees to increase the coverage of pollinators in an area. Honey bees can travel up to five or ten kilometres around the hive, collecting. So you never know: the little hive in your little garden could be useful for a local farmer.”

Like the insect he fell in love with, Klein travelled a long way from his home in order to learn more. He explains: “Australia is the lucky country when it comes to bees. The population is quite healthy here. When I started studying back in the day, almost six years ago, bees were a hot topic and I quickly realised it was something I wanted to do with my life. I really believe this is something we need to fight for.”


This story is from Issue 8. Does your Lunch Lady collection need completing? You can order back issues from our Shop here.