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