The official 10-day mourning period for Queen Elizabeth II ended here, on September 19th, with a dry, still day with dense, quilted cloud cover, and hardly a breath of wind.We had already been gripped by the emotion of losing the only monarch we have ever known, and as I intermittently left the house for fresh air, and to stretch my legs, I was struck by just how quiet it was. No transatlantic jets, almost no cars, and even the birds were quiet. Quieter even than the very first lockdown, or the day of the solar eclipse, or when the Icelandic volcanic dust cloud grounded all air travel. It’s been estimated that some 4 billion people around the world watched some of the events on the day and almost half the population of the UK. The world really did seem to still, our landscape hushed, and many or most who chose to listen or watch the formal proceedings would have reflected on a matchless life of dedication and service. Just think of two examples. The famous briefing red boxes. In a Facebook post in September 2015, the Royal Family account said the Queen received red boxes every day of her reign, including weekends, though not on Christmas Day. The documents were sent from the private secretary’s office to the monarch in a locked box. Papers to be read. Documents signed. Never mind the visits, smiles and handshakes. How exhausting, and much of this was carried out in the full glare of both public and media.
We found many points to ponder about the actual mourning and services, although perhaps for us the incessant drumbeat of the long slow processions and marches, the several silent vigils, and the efficient and colourful pageantry exemplified by the wonderful coffin-bearing guards will linger longest. Needless to say, a few detracting, critical voices were still heard, but we were left thinking how fortunate we have been to have lived in this land, during this sweeping Elizabethan epoch. As Daniel Hannan pointed out, “of the long list of countries that have rid themselves of monarchies during the Queen’s 70-year reign – Afghanistan, Burundi, Egypt, Ethiopia, Greece, Iraq, Iran, Laos, Libya, Nepal, Rwanda, Tunisia, Vietnam, Yemen, perhaps only Greece can be said to have made a success of the change. In all the others, there have been times when ordinary people longed for a neutral referee who was neither a politician nor a general.” Might this give pause for thought to those who think there are better ways of organising a nation than our curious, ancient system of inherited constitutional monarchy? I doubt it.
And finally, at 16.50 p.m. the imagery and haunting sound of the lone Pipe Major Paul Burns of the Royal Regiment of Scotland playing the lament “Sleep, Dearie, Sleep.” as the Queen’s coffin was lowered into the vault, late in the day at Windsor castle, proved to be the moment when the neck hairs rose, and my eyes welled with tears.
Such is the power of music and emotion on the receptive human mind.
Will any nation’s mourning ever again be like this one?
Will so much of the world unite, pause and ponder with gratitude, even briefly, like this, again?
By evening the hills were lit by waves of golden light.
The following morning saw me climbing the hill at first light, with an extra layer over the nightshirt, and sitting in the hut to watch the dawn unfold. It seems that bats have already taken up home in the roof of the Hut, and there was a typical late flurry of activity as they whizzed in and out beneath the curved roof sheets to my right.
Mists are common in the valley at this time of the year, but rarely have I seen such a calm, uniform sea filling the valleys all the way to the distant hills of the Carmarthenshire Fans.
Metaphorical islands of firm, high ground, above seas of doubt.
The mists, of course, did clear, with patience, and time and the power of the rising sun.
I wonder how an alien surveying from space with an eagle, (or more likely artificial digital satellite), eye, would have interpreted all these unusual scenes of activity in the UK – the massed crowds lining streets for miles and miles, the queues, the processional marches, the unfamiliar attire and lack of traffic, then black limos disgorging people arriving at Westminster abbey. If their alien culture had similar customs honouring their dead, then I guess they might have deduced very easily that someone significant in this nation’s life had recently passed away. But if not, how would they account for the very dramatically altered patterns of human activity and behaviour they witnessed for these few days?
It’s a similar challenge for me observing changes in honey bee activity. One develops with time an increasing awareness and knowledge of what constitutes normal behaviour for a particular colony, or society, but still has to try to account for sudden, dramatic, alternative scenarios of activity, and if inquisitive, to deduce what it all might mean. In this regard, trying to understand how a honey bee colony works as a whole, and how individual bees perceive and behave in their environments both inside and outside the hive, are useful starting points. My decision to host colonies here in a generally hands-off manner means that external observations become even more important since it’s very rare for me to actually open a hive up.
(The two images taken below, just before we popped off for 3 nights away, almost certainly indicate the demise, for whatever reason, of the colony set up by the swarm above, which I featured in June. The colony is being robbed out of its resources by bees from a different colony ).
There have been several recent new sources of information which have been added to my database of understanding in recent weeks. The first is the work of Lars Chittka, who has just published his first book, “The Mind of a Bee” encompassing a lifetime of experimental work with both honey bees and bumble bees. Professor Chittka is a German zoologist, based with a team he has gathered around him at Queen Mary University (QMU) in London in the Chittka lab for Bee Sensory and Behavioural Ecology. He summarises his work thus:
My research has established links between sensory physiology and learning psychology on the one hand, and evolutionary ecology on the other. Why do animals have the sensory systems they do? How do they use them in their natural foraging environment? How do cognitive-behavioural processes function in the economy of nature?
Pollinator-plant interactions have been used as a model system to study these questions. I have been particularly interested in mutual evolutionary and ecological influences of insect colour vision and flower colour signals, and insect learning and flower advertising.
In addition, I have studied bee navigation using large artificial landmarks, orientation of bees in complete darkness, as well as the question of how bees use spatial memory to navigate among several rewarded sites. Recently, I have also become interested in the evolution of cognitive capacities and communication, and the pollination biology of invasive plant species.
For those not inclined to buy his book, I’d thoroughly recommend watching this discussion, hosted by the Linnean Society of London, with some very interesting Q&As. He explores not only how bees, in many ways, are better equipped with more diverse sensory options for assessing the world around them (and in the darkness of their own colonies), than we are, but also considers how impressive they are at problem-solving and learning from others.
In addition, he touches on whether they can even be thought of as possessing a mind, or consciousness. That they can achieve this with a brain containing only about 1 million neurones, (very similar to Winnie the wasp, featured here) compared to the 86 billion that the average human brain contains, is discussed, and the extreme plasticity and interconnectivity of bee neurone connections are highlighted.
All this left me pondering just how under-utilised most of our neurones must be, for most of the time.
The other very interesting feature of the book, which only gets touched on in the video, is his deep historical knowledge of the development of bee research. Much of this goes back decades, and even centuries and recent advances in technology have enabled early theories to be tested and confirmed, in many cases. I found his discussion of how certain eminent, even Nobel prize-winning bee scientists working in Germany just before WW II, were ostracized, (mid 17th century: from the Greek ostrakizein, from ostrakon ‘shell or potsherd’ – on which names were written in voting to banish unpopular citizens), particularly chilling. I fear we’ve entered another dangerous period when free speech or thought is far too easy to shout down or suppress.
One method used in his research involved attaching tiny radio transmitters to individual bees and tracking the totality of their lifetime foraging missions. His colour images of the lifetime travels of individual bees are superb and extremely well reproduced in both his book and the talk. What this revealed is that the busiest bees can be at least 10 times more active than the least active, in terms of missions flown, or pollen and nectar collected.
In summary, I’d suggest anyone with an interest in gardening, nature or bees would enjoy this beautifully produced and clearly laid out, fascinating book. (Even if the font is quite small!)
This concept of variations in levels of activity is discussed a little more in another fascinating take on honey bee colonies. Provocatively titled, “Man-made breeding and selection vs natural reproduction and selection – why modern beekeeping will eventually send the species of honey bees into its demise”, this discussion by German Torben Schiffer, from the excellent 2021 programme of The National Honey Show (N.H.S) series of lectures, highlights how much individual bee colony’s foraging behaviour can vary. And what appears at first sight to be very lazy bees, may actually be bees that spend more time, say, on within-hive activities to the benefit of the long-term survival of the colony, rather than simply the beekeeper’s often honey-centric assessed need for vigorous foraging for nectar.
Much of this phenomenal natural variation in apparent “busyness and productivity”, should perhaps be considered by our current politicians in their drive to up the productivity of our own nation’s output. To what extent can the limited economic levers which they have to pull, really achieve anything? For sure they can, and do, tinker with societal rules, and tweak some guiding parameters for behaviour. But maybe it’s all just down to huge natural variations in individuals. Some of us are busier, more academic, more artistic, more musical, whatever. Genetic variations, or more probably their epigenetic expression really call the shots. In turn influenced by diverse environmental or even dare one think, dietary influences. We’re probably unrealistic in expecting too much from our politicians, certainly once they stray into heavy-handed state-driven edicts.
Surely the most extreme example of the huge epigenetic impact that simply a change of diet can achieve, is indeed the story of the next generation of honey bee queens. Starting out as an egg laid by the fertile queen bee within a colony, with exactly the same genetic mix as all the other thousands of female worker bees, what creates a physically and functionally completely different being is (it seems) simply the diet that the larva is fed during its very early few days. Paul Hurd’s (also of QMU) lecture at the same N.H.S event “Honey bees are what they eat: how do differing diets result in queens or workers?”, delves into the complex subject of epigenetics, and how genes and sections of DNA are switched on and off, temporarily, or permanently to amazing effect in the development and functioning of individual cells, different organ systems, and whole beings.
On the strength of Hurd’s recommendation I bought Nessa Carey’s review book on the subject – “The Epigenetics Revolution”. Like some of the reviewers featured on the link above, I struggled in sections – it’s really quite a complex subject, and maybe I’m a bit long in the tooth for my brain to cope with much of the jargon. However, it does lift the lid on how modern biology has shown that it really isn’t as simple as just our genetic make-up coding for how we’ll all end up – the impact of our diet and numerous other environmental impacts can, through modifications to how our genetic blueprint is expressed, have the most profound effects on physical form, health and function.
All of this has gone a long way towards explaining, to me, how the most vigorous and efficient of the honey bee colonies here, started out as the smallest and weakest fourth swarm from one hive last year. It’s just as well that I decided to capture it, rather than let it fly off. Their ability to fly in all weather and stretch the foraging times to the limit is amazing. They’ve retained this into their second year, and the large swarm, above, which left the colony, and which again I opted to catch and re-home not only built up quickly in their new, more conventional space but produced this additional box of pristine filled and capped honeycomb in under 2 months.
As well as this additional started extra box of a few uncapped combs, which demonstrates that with no pre-pressed wax sheets of “foundation” for them to use as a guide – simply the outer wooden frames with the tiniest of wax strips at the top – they created all this new wax, then filled it with nectar, evaporated off the massive amount of surplus water from it, and once the honey was concentrated enough, capped it all off with pristine white wax.
Just how honey bees manage to construct their combs so precisely, has perplexed observers for centuries, and the latest scientist to delve into how they manage it, is another worker in Lars Chittka’s lab at QMU, Vince Gallo. He’s spent 4 years so far on his PhD, researching many aspects of the process, using his background and many years of experience of being both a beekeeper and a software engineer. His talk – “How to build honey comb – a bricklayer’s perspective”, is the final one I’ll feature here, and once more it’s a fascinating story of detailed, painstaking research to understand the 120-degree angled precision of how the bees make such wonderful structures – in the dark of the hive, from small crystals of wax that they manufacture. They always get the horizontal angle of inclination of the hexagonal cylinders just right to stop all the honey dripping out! And they make the combs two-sided, with the bases of the wax cylinders which began life as rounded half spheres being re-worked into pointed structures which interlock perfectly, back to back in an offset way, with the cylinders on the other side of the comb.
Well worth a watch if you enjoy your comb honey, as I do. You’ll never undervalue it in future.
Aside from all this bee-related thought and a bit of action, the garden has benignly slid through September. The Cyclamen hederifolium are wonderful in many parts of the garden, autumn colour is just beginning to appear, and the latest batch of “i” named daffodils chosen to commemorate this year’s lamb crop has arrived from Scamp’s Quality Daffodils and been planted in between some leeks for a first-year bulk up and evaluation.
A probably final group of lovely garden visitors, for 2022, from Pembrokeshire enjoyed a wonderfully sunny, breezy day towards the end of the month, and in what’s been a generally disappointing year for butterflies and dragonflies, a warm day of sunshine after several cooler grey days, brought an apparent hatch of Small Copper, Lycaena phlaeas, butterflies. 4 individuals were spotted within 20 yards of each other, in about 10 minutes, including a locked, mating pair. They were all choosing to rest up on the bare earth of molehills in the upper meadow, presumably since the temperature of these was noticeably higher than the surrounding vegetation.
The sheep have finally been turned into the lower hay meadow’s aftermath re-growth, but the upper meadow is still flowering in places where it’s re-grown, and in what will probably be a very poor year for waxcap mushrooms, after all the dry weather, the advancing perimeter of the field mushroom mycelium, below, is quite clear this year from the lush green rings in a specific lower part of the field. Sadly, barely a handful of mushrooms have appeared this season, in dribs and drabs over 6 weeks.
An occasional Golden-ringed dragonfly, Cordulegaster boltonii, has rested up in the terrace garden, on occasion, and a Hummingbird hawkmoth, Macroglossum stellatarum, also re-visited our favourite floriferous Buddleja, the fourth separate sighting this year, which is a record for us.
The Asters seem late, as usual, and as the temperatures begin to fall away past the autumnal equinox, I’m looking forward to the quieter months of the year, and the big garden tidy-up. We’re just hoping that we get just a few more dry days to finish off the external decorating. Historically this has been every 2 or 3 years for the woodwork, but annually for whitewash. We’ve now decided that the hot summers, and generally high rainfall of our climate play havoc with dark painted woodwork, so are trying to increase the frequency of this task. It might take more time and effort, and indeed paint, but the prep. work this year has been far less than last year when we’d left things for 3 years. The hassle and cost of replacing wooden windows and doors is something we’d prefer to avoid.