I found a few bees diligently working on a flower-free first floor balcony the other day. It struck me as unusual behaviour (no pun intended) that these worker bees seemed to have confused a bit of plastic piping with a nectar-primed blossom. What on earth were they doing, crowding busily onto the rim of a white central heating vent?Most mysterious.
So often in beekeeping, as indeed in life, a conundrum can be solved by stepping back and adapting a Sherlockian strategy of observation and deduction. And, of course, letting yourself think like a bee. Hint: just concentrate on the obvious and don’t be distracted by detail.
Question: you live with 50,000 half-sisters in a box atop a breezy 4-story roof parapet in London. After half an hour or so, which basic commodity would you lack?
It’s that simple.
And the priority for bees is that their source of water should be reliable: bees use water in winter to dilute their honey stores and feed their colony. The closer, the better, given chill air temperatures. In summer, nectar from flowers contains a high proportion of water to slake the thirst of the bees, but the need to raise new brood and to air-condition the hive (through the cooling evaporative effect of a thin film of water spread on the face of the wax comb) places a heavy demand on the resource.
So what could be better from a bee’s perspective than a nearby combi boiler which fires up at regular intervals – a water feature which meticulously, metoculously, secretes warm dew-drops of purest H2O ?
Now, it is not clear that urban tap water necessarily fits the bill for my bees. With its added chlorine (which is less than one milligram per litre – which equals one part per million – the level recommended by the World Health Organisation, as Thames Water’s website so reassuringly informs us), its ozone-dosing (injecting ozone into the water to break down pesticides and organic material) and its chloramines (the final treatment action is to add a dose of ammonia, which reacts with chlorine to form chloramines, which decay at a slower rate compared to free chlorine), is it any wonder that the sipsome sisterhood of honeybees may be inclined to disdain the mains ?
London’s drinking water has been treated with chemicals for only 160 years (chlorine was first introduced to combat the 1854 Broad Street cholera outbreak in Soho). That’s sufficient time for the capital’s human inhabitants to get accustomed to the hot-and-cold-running sluice. But perhaps the bees, with their 200 million year tenure on this earth, have yet to accept Thames Water’s new-fangled, chemically supplemented, water-based drink as a substitute for the real, wet stuff.
Yet once Chateau Thames has been vapourised in my Ariston boiler and then been vented out of a poly-pipe, the distillate drip is pure water, with all modern additives stripped out. Water in the raw. Aqua.
Could it be that we have stumbled across one of the secrets which make the consistently award-winning Bermondsey Street Honey so remarkable – the discerning, winged water-bearers and the purity of their hydration ?