PRECIOUS POLLINATORS Of the 99 species of bee in Ireland, there is only one native honey bee species, Apis mellifera mellifera. Pic: Cc-by-sa-3.0
Country Sights and Sounds
It was time for my lesson on Bible history. John the Baptist lived quite happily (well, we assume he was happy) on a diet of locusts and wild honey. Dried locusts contain about 50 percent protein, as well as a range of other important nutrients. However, they are not the complete food, for they lack an essential amino acid called methionine. And what might be a source of methionine? Honey, of course. How did he know that all those years ago?
We don’t get many locusts here. Perhaps grasshoppers would do at a pinch. But what could possibly be better than a taste of honey on the comb? There is one thing – wild honey.
Yes, wild honey is made from the same flowers as that gleaned by beekeepers from beehives. It is made by the same kind of bees too. It looks the same and tastes the same.
But there the similarities end, as anybody who has stolen honeycomb from a nest of wild bees will testify, for such a thing is a fine prize indeed.
I found such a prize last weekend, in a hole halfway up the trunk of an ancient beech. It was hard to miss, for a constant stream of bees was going in and out. These were proper Irish insects, black bodied and cross, rather than those docile golden creatures much cherished by commercial beekeepers.
I watched them a while and thought how nice it would be to sit at the foot of that tree with just a small section of honeycomb for refreshment. I wouldn’t want much – just a taste, that’s all. Surely the bees would understand?
Even as I stood there one or two of the many came across to put me to the test. I remained still while they brushed against my face and at the back of my neck. The natural instinct is to wave them away. Annoy one and the rest soon get agitated, that much I do know.
So I stood and waited until they went back to doing their thing, and then moved forward just one pace at a time, imagining I’d not be noticed. By moving slowly I was able to mount the bank and peer into the cavity in which they had their nest while they continued going about their business. It was most interesting to see how they carried leg-loads of bright orange pollen in, and how they came out without a scrap of that same colour still on them.
At the bottom of the cavity were pieces of last year’s comb. It looked hard and dry, and certainly wasn’t what I was hoping to find. Further up inside the tree I could see something far more interesting, a great, sagging arch of hexagonal cells that must be bursting with liquid gold.
Could I reach up and grab a piece, and run fast enough to escape the enraged insects that would surely descend in a black cloud tens of thousands strong, each armed with a barbed dart and furious intent? I didn’t think so.
A few moments of careful manoeuvring saw me armed with a stick of suitable length, with a crook at one end that looked especially designed for extracting honeycomb from hollow trees while causing the least annoyance to the owners. I would give it a try.
However tolerant of my intrusion Apis mellifera mellifera, the wild Irish bee, had been up to that point, I am fairly sure I discerned a distinct change in mood the moment my stick was introduced to the opening of the nest. The gentle hum that emanated from deep within their woody home rose in tone and in volume until the very air was resonating.
I would have to be quick. If I stood on tiptoe I should be able to reach that delicious round…
Somewhere deep in the bowels of the tree a door was flung open and a rampant crowd came storming out. I knew in an instant that these bees weren’t looking for flowers. Oh no, one and all, they were thrown into fight mode and were set to defend their nest to the death.
It is amazing how quickly memories of previous bee stings can spring to mind. It is also amazing how rapidly somebody as out of shape as I can cross an acre of field in about six bounds.
I escaped unscathed.
Wild dining should rightly include honeycomb, I complained to a friend.
“Go at night, when they’re sleeping,” she says. Now there’s an idea. Anybody want to come along?
Michael Kingdon formerly wrote these columns under the pseudonym John Shelley. A naturalist and keen fisherman, he lives close to the shores of Lough Carra.