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Island Ecology

Island Ecology

by José P Ribas


Part Three

Ibiza Ecology

One of the facts about bees that have always been attractive to humans is the way that the bee-society is structured.

Every individual of the hive seems to be programmed to do exactly its own role, always for the benefit of the community, always ready to defend it - even at the cost of their sting, which will condemn the individual to its own death.

Bees know what to do in the different stages of their life, collaborating with the society as if it was just an only body, without interfering with the task of the rest of the hive-society, accepting its destiny and never acting for a selfish or ambitious purpose.

It is the dream of any human government.

We all know, more or less, what a hive is: a swarm, a living mass of thirty to eighty thousand individuals (far more in some bee-races in the proper circumstances). Once it is established in a definite place that will be its habitat, where they will develop their productive industry within a very effective and sophisticated social system, reproducing themselves maybe for many centuries, generation after generation, until the natural conditions and the local environment change drastically or they are removed by man for his own benefit.

In its natural environment, the hive will be formed by a new swarm somewhere that can offer the right conditions for it, best in quiet and lonely open areas with plenty of vegetation and water near by, protected from extreme temperatures, winds and humidity, also sheltered from the invasion of other insects or the attack of any other animal, such as small cavities in rocky walls, or even better in the cavity of a big and old tree trunk, though a swarm can decide to stop in the most unwanted places, even inside a house or a car downtown, as happens in Eivissa, especially at this time of the year. The fire brigade have to act in several cases to remove some swarms that come to town, invading houses and public gardens, becoming a danger for the people and the traffic. But those hives, for obvious reasons, don't normally remain for too long.

It was probably the preference of the bees for empty tree trunks that gave the idea to primitive man to form and control his own hives. All they had to do was to take the trunk with the bees in it and place it somewhere nearby, so the honey was always under control and available, or cut the trunk smaller and take it with him.

This is something that we still can see here, in our Islands.

Our ancestral hives, displaced in the forest or near by it, are normally made of a trunk that has been previously emptied by the ants and fungus. They mostly use almond or carob trees, because of the resistance of its bark to rot, of about four feet long and fifteen to twenty inches diameter at most (1.25 metre x 0.45 metre, more or less), resting sideways on the ground, covered afterwards all over with clay and flat stones to shelter them even better and make them more insulated to the exterior temperatures, leaving just a very small entrance in one of its ends, always looking for the sunny side. (Those bee-houses were confused and taken as old tombs by some of our first tourist visitors. They discovered, painfully, their mistake when they tried to open them looking for archaeological treasures. The real treasure for them was to discover how fast they could really run; I bet some haven't stop running yet).

Also in some parts of mainland Spain there are still beekeepers that move the hives up and down the mountains according to the seasons, like nomads with the bees as they did with sheep or any other cattle from immemorial times.

Nowadays, even some of the old hives are still active and there are demands for keeping them for anthropological interest. Most local beekeepers use the modern "Langstroth" hive, invented by the American Lawrence Larrain Langstroth in 1851, considered to be the most significant pioneer of the modern Apiculture.

This bee-house is the most used at present, with very few changes, all over the world. The revolutionary fact about this bee-house is that the honey panels can be removed from the hive just by lifting its cover, without having to destroy them, not bothering the nesting and the rest of the hive. The panels can be fixed in it again, once the honey has been extracted from them.

In 1857, Mehing, a Bavarian beekeeper, invented a way to make artificial wax panels, by pressing natural wax in a mould with the cells already printed on it.

These two inventions together increased the harvest of honey - up to twenty times more then before - because of the amount of saving time and work, without having to destroy practically the entire hive and also leaving a lot of dead bodies just to collect the honey, with far less stress that this means to the bees. All this seems maybe a little thing to us nowadays, but this type of hive was already wanted and it was for a long time studied by beekeepers throughout history, at least by the Greeks, who could see the advantages of this system. But it was impossible for them to succeed. (Bees only allow certain measures for them to operate inside the hive; if those measures are not respected, the honey panels get cemented with propoleos made by the bees to the side walls of the hive and the entire system fails. This is another of the secrets that Langstroth discovered in the eighty years of his long life working with bees).

Bee Busy Collecting Pollen

The Langstroth hive consists basically of a cube with different departments. First, a box or deposit, resting on a platform a few centimetres from the floor, with a capacity of a minimum of forty litres for the nesting of the larva, where the queen lays its eggs and where the rest of the bees will spend the inactive winter month. Then comes, by the side or on top - depending on the model of bee-house (vertical or horizontal) - another deposit of about the same size for the honey panels hanging separately one by one; some more boxes with more panels can be put on top in case of a large production, all well sheltered by a removable top.

Inside the hive, in the middle, we have the cell-wax-panels, the old nest. The queen always starts laying her eggs in the cells in the middle of it, larger cells for the non fecundated eggs that will turn into drones, special cells for the future queens, which will also be filled up with the queen's jelly. The panels to stock the honey are normally apart if there is enough room for it, and its cells are smaller. All this, together with a non stop frenetic activity, making new cells, stoking the pollen and honey, producing propoleos to fix the panels, cleaning the hive of the bee drops and the dead bodies, ventilating and drying the habitat with their wings, looking after the new born babies, etc, etc.

Stone Bee Hive

The Bee Family

Whatever the habitat, the bee family hasn't changed since we've known them, most probably since before the human race appeared on Earth. The structure of its society has proved to be so efficient along the times and it is a real model of labour, discipline, order and generous collaboration - a good lesson for the human kind.

The bees of a hive are basically a big physiological family, with a father, the drone (there are about a hundred and fifty to two hundred, or more, drones in the hive) that the sons will never meet, the mother, the real Queen, only one (she gets fecundated at least once, then she will lay about two thousands eggs every twenty four hours for two, three or more years). They provide all her sons with her own personal perfume, which they will always recognise and distinguish from any other clan, the sons, or should I say daughters? For practical terms, the common bee is asexual: only the drones are diffidently males and the queen is the only bee that will develop and use its sex and lay eggs. (There are from thirty to eighty thousand labour-bees in a normal hive, though this number can be reduced to half for the winter month, relying on the food reserves, the old drones will also be sacrificed then). Within the family we also have the eggs, larva, and the newborn bees. In the next article we will follow all the life processes of one of them, so we can see all the amassing activities that they can do in such a short amount of time as their life is.

Society of Bees

José P Ribas