World Bee Day takes place on Friday May 20th , the day on which Anton Jansa, the pioneer of beekeeping was born in 1724. The purpose of this day is to acknowledge the role of bees and other pollinators in the ecosystem. There are 100 bee species in Ireland: the honeybee, 21 species of bumblebee, and 78 species of solitary bee. Bees are the most important pollinator of crops and native plant species in Ireland. They are a key component of our wildlife and one of the busiest, least appreciated work forces we have. A study from the Department of the Environment found that bees are worth €53m a year to the economy. In Ireland crops such as apples, strawberries, raspberries, tomatoes, blackcurrants, peppers, courgettes and pumpkins are reliant on bees for pollination. It is estimated that almost three quarters of our wild plants rely on insect pollinators, of which bees are most important.
Melittology is the branch of entomology concerning the scientific study of bees. Melittology covers more than 20,000 species including bumblebees and honey bees. It is a vast field of study that has produced many interesting findings. For example, a study at Cornell University led by Thomas Seeley showed that bees, numbered for a study, dance, beep and butt heads to swap information. Seeley is a towering figure in the scientific study of bees. He has done a lot of work on what is called swarm intelligence, trying to understand how bees work together to make decisions. This swarm intelligence in seen in schools of fish and flocks of birds as well. Seeley’s work over 40 years has explored this fascinating topic. Like a lot of scientists, he became interested in his topic early in life. As a boy he noticed hives near where he lived and he has described his fascination. “If you lie in the grass in front of a hive, you see this immense traffic of bees zooming out of the hive and circling up and then shooting off in whatever direction they want to go, it’s like looking at a meteor shower.”
He also spoken extensively about how swarms are like our mind. “I think of a swarm as an exposed brain that hangs quietly from a tree branch,” Seeley said. A swarm and a brain make decisions. Decisions made by the brain are informed by neural signals from our eyes, such as when we see something and try to decide what to do next. Swarms and brains decide things in a democratic way. Despite being the Queen Bee, the Queen does not decide for the hive. The hive makes decisions for her. In the same way, no single neuron takes in all the information and makes a decision alone. It is millions making a decision. Seeley thinks that this convergence between bees and brains can teach people a lot about how to make decisions in groups. “Living in groups, there’s a wisdom to finding a way for members to make better decisions collectively than as individuals,” he said. So maybe it’s about making people feel they are part of the group making decisions, so it’s about finding a solution for everyone and so it seems, we can learn a lot from bees
If you want to find out more bees please check out www.biodiversityireland.ie and for a great book on bees, we’d recommend Bees of the World by Christopher O’Toole and Anthony Raw and Honey and Dust by Piers Moore Ede, a fascinating travel book describing one man’s journey to various parts of the world through honey!