Posted by: Ross Gardner | October 29, 2020

In a hole in a tree

The numbers of birds down on the marshes continues to grow, all the wildfowl and waders, their hundreds, becoming thousands, becoming tens of thousands. Yet up on a hilltop, from a cleft in an oak tree, the summer glints through the shortening days and gathering shades of autumn. The hole in the trunk reveals the comb of a wild honey bee nest, still very active even as we approach the beginning of November. A privileged insight into the doings of wild things that normally take place out of human view (bee-keepers notwithstanding, of course), but one which scarcely reveals more than a fraction of the intricacies of their lives.

Honey Bee (Apis mellifera)

A bee taken in isolation is a simple enough creature, but as part of the whole they are something remarkable. The ‘waggle dance’ performed when a foraging work returns to the nest is a marvel of non-verbal communication, knowledge of environment and even geometry. The dance is delivered as a ‘figure of eight’. Its duration and vigour transfers information on the distance and plenty of a discovered forage source, the angle at which it is performed giving details of direction. Information that is relayed with accuracy and efficiency. Each is a part of a colony whose very structure is controlled by a single queen, whose ‘will’ alone dictates the ratio of workers, drones and queens-to-be to the maximum and most efficient effect. The analogy of the insect society as a kind of body in itself – as a so-called superorgansim – may be controversial, but difficult to resist.

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