It is a sure sign that Spring has finally arrived once bees of all shapes and sizes start busily gathering nectar and pollen from flowers. And if you just allowed yourself to stop in the sunshine and zoom-in on a bee on a flower, you might see her amazing, extendible tongue syphoning the sugar-rich liquid from the plant into her honey-carrying stomach. But, for honeybees, that is the simple part of the job.
And if you then could peep behind the scenes when that bee returned to her hive with a full tank of nectar, bumping down onto the landing-board, you would witness something quite unusual. The foraging bee doesn’t just walk through the hive door, issue a sisterly greeting to all and sundry, dump her cargo into the nearest empty honeycomb and put her (six!) feet up, job done. Instead, something exceptional occurs, something which might disquiet even the keenest honey-eater. Something which, here in Michael Caine’s old Bermondsey stomping ground,“not a lot of people” know about: it’s the transmission of the nectar from the gatherer’s honey stomach, face to face, to a waiting house-bee’s stomach via – as you can see in the picture above – their unfurled tongues. Docked together, our bees begin the transformation of nectar into honey with a comestible kiss.
In English, this exchange of nectar has a name which itself is a bit of a mouthful: it is called trophallaxis. Pronounced Tro – fa – laxis. Try saying it…..those three syllables force your tongue forward, backward, forward again, your mouth-parts mimicking the action itself as you pronounce the word !
For our bees, this transfer of nectar is much more than simple food-processing. It is a download transmitting the most precious commodities a bee-colony can possess: energy and kinship. It is a sensual etiquette, exuding innocence in its nutritional necessity. Yet it also communicates fluent messages: about the quality of a food source, the outside temperature, a need for water in the hive or even the condition of the Queen bee.
And like language itself, in this exchange both the donor and the receiver play their part in turning basic materials into higher-value goods. The oral transfer of nectar starts the transformation into honey in the same way that, for primitive humans, the spoken word would have helped refine raw information into shared intelligence.
This blog is called “Apis” after the Latin word for bee. In linnean lingo, the honeybee’s full title is “apis mellifera” – which translates as the “honey-carrying bee“. My intention is to carry to these pages my experience of bees, of beekeeping and of the bee-world. When we meet here, we become interlocutors. We share words – like trophallaxis (try it one more time for luck: Tro – fa – laxis): a communication, a connection, a communion.