“How doth the little busy bee/Improve each shining hour/And gather honey all the day/From every opening flower!”
These are the words of the opening verse of Isaac Watts’ hymn ‘How doth the little busy bee,’ first published in 1715 and included, at the last count, in no fewer than 20 hymn books. The hymn continues: “How skilfully she builds her cell! / How neat she spreads the wax! / And labours hard to store it well / With the sweet food she makes.” And then, in the second couplet of the third verse, we find what are, perhaps, the most frequently quoted words of all the many thousands Watts wrote in a staggering 750 hymns. “In works of labour or of skill / I would be busy too: / For Satan finds some mischief still / For idle hands to do.”
Well, Isaac Watts’ actual words are possibly quoted less often than the paraphrase of them: “The devil finds work for idle hands.” But it is not the hymnist’s words which concern me, gentle reader; it is the fate of the busy little bee. I am concerned by the ever-growing list of threats to the bee population - and I mean the wild bee population as well as the honey bee population. Just consider what these tough little insects face, despite their ability to cope with rather warmer-than-usual summers or slightly colder-than-usual summers, with uncommonly cold or unusually mild winters and with more-than-average or less-than-average rainfall. So let’s begin with a problem I have previously written about - varroa mites. These nasty little parasites anchor themselves on the bees’ backs and then feed off their unwilling hosts. The wounds opened by the varroa mites allow a pathogen carried by the mites to get into the bees’ immune systems, weakening the infected insects and causing their premature deaths. Bad, bad, as President Trump would tweet. There’s not a lot gardeners can do about varroa mites.
Then there is European Foulbrood, a bacterial infection which has become common in recent years. This infection causes the worker bees on which the hive depends to abandon their queen and the nurse bees which care for the brood. The workers just vanish and possibly die. Bee-keepers can cope with it by thoroughly cleaning the septic hive and leaving it vacant for a period before replacing the queen, although destroying an infected hive is a better option. These are not options for wild bees; and European Foulbrood can all too easily result in the collapse of a colony. But there’s not a lot gardeners can do about this issue either. Then there is climate change. Hotter summers, colder winters and periods of drought for the United Kingdom are very bad news indeed for bees. We need bees … both the wild species and those cared for in apiculture … bee-farming … to pollinate our food crops and our wild and cultivated plants. As the number of bees foraging in the countryside declines, farmers will increasingly have to pay to have their crops pollinated and the price of our food will inexorably rise. But the individual gardener can’t do much about climate change.
And there is human intervention in the bees’ lives. With the best of intentions, we … farmers and gardener alike … spray chemical pesticides to rid our flowers and crops from unwanted insect nuisances, usually ignoring the warning on the label which reads ‘dangerous to bees.’ The bees can’t read the labels; and the numbers of these essential insects killed by chemical pesticides bears mute testimony to the pesticides’ deadly efficiency. Gardeners and farmers can … and definitely should … spray pesticides late in the evening after the bees have returned to their hives, for most of the toxicity of the chemicals will have gone by the next morning. We can’t control what our neighbours do: but you, gardener, spare that bee!