The Thistle Guards
This summer I read Laline Paull's brilliant book "The Bees", a fictional account of the life of worker bee Flora 717. Although the author uses imaginative artistic licence, intricate details of the setting and plot throughout the book reflect - with ingenious twists - aspects of real "hive life". Honey is stored in walls of the "Treasury", workers in "Pollen and Patisserie" prepare delicacies, and "the Queen's Love" is spread through the hive from bee to bee. Reading it as a beekeeper, I loved being immersed in the world of "The Bees" and noticing the underlying features of honey bee biology which inspired it.
The castes of workers within Flora's colony have different flowering plant names. The guards are "Thistles". In the book, the Thistle guards diligently police the landing board, signalling bees when it is clear to take off, and closing the landing board to outbound flights under adverse conditions.
Back at Copper Bee Apiary my own Thistle guards have their hands full defending their colonies against wasps and the occasional hornet. The wasps are a relentless nuisance, here in large numbers, too cowardly to make a direct assault but continually drifting around the hives, waiting for a momentary lapse in the guards' attention. They try to stay out of sight by lurking just under the landing board.
I've also seen a hornet "hawking" at the hive entrances. Her behaviour is more purposeful than the wasps'. She spends less than a minute hovering around the entrance to a hive, awaiting her chance, then if unsuccessful she moves off to try another hive. The other day I saw what success looks like. She hovered in front of Queen Peony's hive, watching the bees going in and out, then suddenly grabbed one of the foragers from the air and fell to the ground with her. They were lost in the undergrowth for a few moments, then up flew the hornet, grasping the bee tight, and hung under the branch of a nearby apple tree where she ate the body. Having had her meal, she took off and flew high over the apiary, presumably headed straight home to where hungry mouths were waiting.
I'm probably not the only beekeeper to like hornets, but I expect I'm in the minority. Being predators, hornets are on the "enemies of bees" list, but I don't begrudge the European hornets the few bees they take. I find them very beautiful, and it's exciting to see their occasional appearances in the garden and watch them at work.
On the other hand we've all heard about the threat posed by invasion of the Asian hornet to these parts. That sounds like a different kettle of fish altogether. Its hunting tactics are rather too efficient, hawking in groups which can predate a hive to death. The insect even looks mean. Whereas the European hornet is a big bright brown and yellow thing, the Asian hornet is mostly black with an orange face and a menacing expression.
I'll be taking part in Asian Hornet Week 10th-16th September. Participation involves extended watching at your bee hives and specifically looking out for the Asian hornet. Count me in. But I'm not doing the traps. We're all supposed to be setting monitoring traps from spring to autumn. Trouble with these is that they are bound to catch a whole lot of nice insects, and I'm sure many innocent European hornets are being killed across the country as people mistake them for Asian or, more probably, simply let the trapped insects die by forgetting to check and empty their traps every day.
If you don't have your own hives to watch, then watch the hedgerows, or come and do Asian Hornet Week with me! I'm looking forward to having a good excuse (if one is needed) for just sitting in the apiary watching the hive entrances. No veil or zoom lens needed - the videos below are all just taken on my phone as I sat/stood by the hives. (Best watched in full screen - click the square icon in the bottom right of the video window.)