A Simple Idea Generating Interest For Life

When I was at school many years ago, there was a large park just across the road, and we were allowed to go there in the lunch hour to enjoy its amenities.  These were varied and included ornamental gardens, a boating lake, a herb-garden and rockery, and open spaces to walk in and for children to play.  It was very pleasant and indeed the school used it for physical education, having the boys run around the paths that surrounded the park.

At the centre of the park was the town museum, and this too provided much stimulus and education in several subject areas.  It was set in one of the most ornamentally planted areas of the park and immediately in front of the entrance doors was a domed portico.  I used to enjoy standing at the centre of it and stamping my feet because it was perfectly shaped for multiple echos – matching the physics lessons we had had on sound reflection.

The inside of the museum was dedicated mainly to display of paintings with rotating exhibitions and hosting of a print biennale.  There was much to learn from each exhibition and it certainly contributed to an appreciation of art and sculpture, representational, abstract and even humourous.   One memorable small sculpture was mounted in a picture frame.  It depicted a face in which the tip of the nose was attached with a piece of wire, and under the face was the caption “a close shave”.

One section of the museum was dedicated to a permanent exhibition, mainly local history and natural history.  Most of this I now forget, but there was one exhibit of great simplicity and ingenuity which was striking enough to make an impression on me for life.  That is an interest in bees as the exhibit was a live bee-hive.

The construction was two wooden steps up to a pair of sprung wooden doors.  These opened on to a perspex side of the hive, so opening the door allowed you to see most of the hive and instantly made you understand the origin of the expression “a hive of activity”.

Bee on blue flower

As you looked inside, you could see the honeycomb and the worker bees busy tending it.  It was always crowded with every bee apparently knowing what it had to do and where it was going.  For most of the time they must have been functioning in the dark, but opening up the doors to have a look, with its instant blaze of light seemed to have no effect on them whatever; they simply carried on with what they needed to do, ignoring the person looking in.  It was most engaging, and I could have watched it for hours if left to do so, though in practice it would only be minutes.

The permanent exhibition was in a part of the museum on the ground floor just next to the entrance, which meant that it was close to the ornamental gardens, an excellent source of nectar.  The hive itself was near a window and as you stood on the steps you could look out towards the ornamental gardens. 

The person who built the hive had had another stroke of inspiration, as there was a conduit from the bottom of the hive, through the museum wall and out to the gardens.  The part nearest the gardens was also made of perspex, so if you looked out of the window you could see bees both flying out to the gardens and flying back in.  They did this at some considerable speed, so you saw not recognisable bees, but little grey fast-moving smudges whizzing in and out.

This simple educational artefact has had the effect of giving me a lifelong interest in bees.  Apart from our huge dependence on bees for pollination and therefore food supplies, something well worth reflecting on, I always like to watch bees as individuals and will stop to do so as I walk outside.  As I do so, it raises many many questions in my mind both at the level of the individual and the level of functioning of the hive as a whole. 

It makes me alert to observing bees – and on one occasion I saw one of the most striking observations one can make - a swarm of bees.  They had landed on a tree in our local park, and there was literally a cubic metre mass of bees, all holding on to each other on a tree branch.  Somebody had placed a sign on the trunk below them, bearing the word “Bees” in large letters.  I do not know what became of them or how they were moved or who moved them, but it was one phenomenon of nature that I am glad to have seen.

Looking at bees (and insects) individually I am always intrigued by their flight and wonder how it is done mechanically, not only from the point of view of their being able to do so, but from the point of view of all the control mechanisms this implies.  This includes, ability to navigate, to respond to falling off a flower and rapidly activate their wings to recover their position, what sight they need to allow them to fly safely in three dimensions and at speed, and how they cope with winds, both flying into a constant wind against them and in coming in to land through leaves and twigs which shield imperfectly, presenting a set of cross winds and making landing more difficult. 

Bee on red flower

I have also read that during the lifetime of the average bee it will fly 500 miles before, unsurprisingly, its wings wear out and it dies.  In a straight line that is London to Aberdeen, an amazing distance for one small organism.

Looking at bees as social insects, I marvel at the organisation of the hive, and from reading a little about bees, it seems they can adopt several roles within the hive – not only making beeswax and tending to larvae growing in the cells and giving them honey – but apparently quality control on the pollen brought in by the incoming members of the hive, deciding which bees work inside the hive and which go out to collect nectar. 

I wonder if the bees recognise members of other hives and what would happen if such bees were to try to enter this hive.  And as the queen’s strength wanes and it becomes clear that a new queen needs to be bred how the hive knows that it is only one, so multiple conflicting islands of competing queens with their loyal subjects do not occur.  I wonder if the roles rotate, and how each bee knows what role it is performing for the greater good of the hive.  Even at the simplest level, the necessary communication and feedback mechanisms must be complex in order to let the hive function.

So whoever it was who set up the permanent exhibition and built the hive, I am profoundly grateful to him, and I will continue to be so as I learn more and more about bees.