Monday, August 5, 2013


I’m sure you’ve seen those documentaries about social insects where the camera snakes you down into the depths of the colony and there - lit by a ghostly green glow - you witness eerie fungal gardens, ants herding caterpillars and grotesque monarchs stuffing themselves on delicacies.

Well at the moment I feel as if I’ve somehow got trapped down there.

It all started a few days ago when I arrived home to find my living room abuzz.
As I opened the front door the sound hit me like a palpable wave; a droning, wrap-around buzz so intense I could almost see it.
There were bees everywhere. The air was thick with them. They were hovering and crawling and revving for takeoff. There were bees doing their waggle dance, pirouetting and tangoing within a circle of spectators; there were bees conferring quietly in small huddles and bees sitting calmly in apparent contemplation. The windows were coated, inside and out, with a mass of small bodies, but – and this worried me the most - they weren’t angry bees, striving to get out. Disconcertingly, they all had a laidback, we-want-to-be-here kind of manner.
All my pets had retreated outside and were looking as dismayed as I felt.

Of the 20,000 known species of bee (argh!), only seven are honey bees (all in the genus Apis). This select group (whose colonies cache honey is waxy combs) is thought to have originated in SE Asia, and our much loved common honeybee (Apis mellifera) started life in tropical east Africa before buzzing on northward.
Photo posted on Flickr by Goshzilla-Dann.

What was going on?
Had a swarm settled in my house?
I prowled disconsolately through the bee-clouded rooms, searching vainly for the tell-tale ball of bees. Then I tried following one of the bustling trade routes, and the hovering, buzzing hordes led me slowly back to my mealworm colony (housed in large plastic basins on top of a cupboard in the lounge room). Peering into a basin I was appalled to find a seething mass of bees, all rolling and writhing in apparent ecstasy, among the mealworms.
What the...??
Had I stumbled upon some dreadful orgy; a bizarre bacchanalia of miscegenation? 
Then I noticed that the writhing bees looked as if they were wearing cargo-pants whose bulging pockets were stuffed with something white.
Ah ha!  (A light bulb moment.)
They were gathering flour!

Err... flour??

Bees sifting flour from my mealworms’ bran.

Tentatively edging my way through the miasma of bees in the kitchen, I discovered another orgiastic clump squirming about in an open pack of maize meal.
Why had I never heard of bees behaving like this?
I mean, sure, bees show an unhealthy interest in sweet beverages. But dry goods? And it’s not as if I’m a complete neophyte when it comes to bees. As a child I shared home and hearth with a feral swarm (which resided in the chimney). Bee-stings were a routine hazard of television viewing, but never once did the little beasts attempt to pilfer our baking supplies.

With a reckless disregard for personal safety, I grabbed up the flour-bearing items and rushed them out to the veranda. A stream of bees accompanied me, and I prayed that the thousands still humming about inside the house would follow the food.

Could it be that they were starving? It’s been a bad year for bugs (as my skinny mongooses can attest); maybe the colony has scoffed its winter honey stores and is simply desperate? 
But then I looked at the exuberance of daisies currently blooming in my garden.
Nary a bee.

My scorned Namaqua daisies.

Evidence that other pollinators find my daisies attractive.

Craftily I moved the mealworm basins in amongst the flowers, hoping the bees might get the hint.
They didn’t.
But at least they all drifted out of the house, gathering in a massive, swirling column above the victuals. I discovered that if I laid out a smorgasbord of titbits (sugar water, maize meal and an open packet of cake flour), they deserted my traumatised mealworms and I was able to sneak the containers back indoors.
To what extent my mealworms have been scarred by this ghastly experience, I do not know. Caterpillars go off their food when bees buzz overhead (nibbling only one-third as much as usual). But the species used in this experiment (beet armyworms) sport special sensory hairs that respond to the vibration of buzzing wings (to track incoming parasitic wasps). As far as I know, my mealworms are hairless, so maybe they’ll make a full recovery.

Of course the bees are behaving most amicably and I remain unstung. However, the psychological impact on my dogs may be a problem. It was while I was fishing drowning bees out of a 0.5 mm smear of sugar water, that I noticed Wizard staring at me with a look of astonished disbelief. He’d come dashing over to interpose himself between me and whoever I was talking to (as alpha male he feels he has the right of veto), only to discover I was conversing with bees. Since then his attitude to our insect plague has changed: whenever a bee buzzes him, or lands in his bowl, or entangles in his fur, he fixes me with a look of profound reproach.

‘Hey look: it's a squashed bee!’
My dogs aren’t alone in disliking bees. When researchers played bee recordings to herds of snoozing elephants, the pachyderms immediately fled the scene, retreating about 60 m (200 ft) with their tails in the air. This little guy, however, hasn’t fallen victim to a bee (or car); he’s just annoying Mum by playing on the road.

Now it’s no surprise that bees are well-equipped to garner pollen (and flour?) but they’ve got one adaptation that’s genuinely electrifying. When bees zip around in their busy buzzing way, their bodies are bombarded by dust motes and other little bits of air-borne grunge. These minor collisions scrape electrons off the bee’s outer waxy cuticle and, voila, you get a positively charged bee. Flowers - in contrast to bees - sport a negative electrical field (at least on sunny days) and we all know how opposites attract. So when a positive little bee comes hovering down, the flower’s pollen flies up to the bee, like iron filings to a magnet.

But the niftiness doesn’t stop there.
Bees can also discern the electrical fields of flowers. When a conscientious worker bee touches down on a bloom, she neutralises its negative charge, and it takes a couple of minutes for the flower’s negativity to restore itself (rather like when I eat a piece of chocolate). This means that bees zooming about above a field of flowers can spot which ones have just been plundered and save themselves a fruitless nectarless visit.

It’s the bees’ flagella (the very tips of their antennae) that sense electrical fields. Pushed or pulled by an electrical charge, the flagellum’s tiny movements are monitored by touch-sensitive fibres within the bee’s antenna joints. When researchers unkindly immobilised these joints (by covering them with wax), the bees could no longer tell positive from negative.
Photo posted on Flickr by Johan J. Ingles-Le Nobel.

I have decided that today is D-day. I’m withdrawing all aid. I’ve carefully hidden my mealworm containers away inside my wardrobe (hey, who needs clothes?) and have locked up all cereal products.
Fingers crossed that the bees will leave!

Sweet-toothed, mead-guzzling humans have kept Apis mellifera for at least 3000 years. Archaeologists uncovered 30 hives (made of straw and unbaked clay) dating from about 900 BC at a dig in Israel’s Jordan Valley. However, it wasn’t until the 18-19th century that people learnt how to pinch the honey without killing the golden goose colony. Photo by Gwendolyn Stansbury.

The local little bee-eater family (Merops pusilla): possible justification for indoor foraging?


  1. I love the alliterative description of bee positivity!
    How extremely bizarre that the bees should disdain flowers in favor of flours...
    If you find out more to explain their sudden fascination with your dried goods, I hope you'll share the solution with us!

    1. I’m afraid I still haven’t found an explanation for this perverse behaviour but some of the apiary websites suggest that pollard and soya flour are suitable ingredients for ‘bee-feed’ (used to sustain domestic hives over the winter). Maybe my bees originally swarmed from a professional hive and have retained a cultural tradition of flour-munching?

  2. As ever, I'm impressed by how intrepid you are. And completely mystified re: the lure of flour (and envious I didn't think of the word play Olivia did). Especially in light of that lovely field of golden asters. (oh, wait, aster is from star, and I said light... does that count?? =) Maybe if I'd said a galaxy of asters... )

    In addition to some minor disapproval, I also suspect your dog finds you strangely powerful & surprising. Bee Whisperer.

    Years ago a friend's house was invaded by bees, and a bee expert arrived, saw what the species was, and said he'd be back at night. He returned, and went inside the house, turned off ALL the lights, then walked to where the infestation (nest building) was, turned ON a flashlight, and the bees were DRAWN to the beam of light, so he carefully LED THE BEES OUT of the house 'cause they FOLLOWED the beam of light. Problem solved. SO FREAKY!

    I love smart people. =)

    Hope the bees spurn your residence and leave you buzz-less.

    1. Thankfully I’m pretty much in a state of buzz-less-ness now, although I put out a bowl of flour every now again (to placate the Great Bee deity). Thank you for the information about bees swarming to the light; intriguing and potentially invaluable one of these days. I think your aster word play is stellar and if Olivia’s astuteness leaves you feeling envious, it devastates me (that I could write a whole post without even stumbling upon it!).

  3. Lynda,
    thank you for blogging again. It's lovely to read your adventures again, so well written. I find the very thought of so many bees in the house utterly creepy and admire your courage. I had quite forgotten about the bees on the hearth rug in front of the TV! Let us know when you discover the cause of the bees dietary quirk!

    1. Thankfully my current bees are nowhere near as aggro as our childhood ones (which I seem to recall hurtled into the whole kamikaze bit when merely brushed). Considering that they lived in the chimney (where it’s smoky) you’d think they’d have been calmer. Apparently smoke induces the little beasts to madly gorge themselves on honey (so they won’t lose their hard-won stores to the fire) and bloated bees find it tricky to sting (smoke also masks the ‘skitch-‘em’ pheromone emitted by angry peers). Still, folklore asserts that bees are highly responsive to human emotions so perhaps they were just tuning into all that ambient hostility and angst...

  4. Great post, as always. Very interesting about their attraction to flour. I've had my own issues with bees (see recent blog post) so I'm going to see if they can be lured away from the nectar feeder with some good old Self-Raising. Should give them a lift!

    1. I hope you’ve been able to tempt your bees away from your bird feeder. Although if I had to choose between sugar and flour, I know which one I’d go for!


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