The Perils of a Mild Winter

Blog Post One 002

When I got off the tube train at East Finchley Station this afternoon, I noticed a small, hunched shape on the platform. As I bent over for a closer look, I realised that it was a bumblebee, lying motionless on her back. As everybody else piled past on their way home, I wondered what to do. I couldn’t bear to think of people treading on her. What if she was still alive? So I picked her up and rested her in the palm of my hand. She looked substantial, but her weight barely registered. And then she moved, one of her legs groping into the air as if looking for something, anything to cling on to.

My bumblebee is a Queen, who has come out of hibernation too early because the weather has been so unseasonably mild. She has been unable to find any flowers to feed from, and has used up her last energy searching the desert of the station platforms for something to eat.

I cradle her in my hand all the way home. Once there, I put her onto a plate, and position her so that she can drink from a spoon filled with sugar-water, the closest substitute for nectar that I can make. I watch as her leg twitches, but gradually the movement becomes weaker. I fear that there is no hope for her.

The bee will not be the only creature to die – she has some ‘hangers-on’. I count four mites crawling through her fur, each the size and shape of a flaxseed. That’s a heavy burden for an insect to be flying around with. The mites live in bumblebee nests, and will attach themselves to the young queens, like this one. When an infested bumblebee lands on a flower, some of the mites will get off and wait for another bee to latch onto, as if changing buses. However, without the bee the mites won’t survive either.

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Looking at the bumblebee closely, in a way that she would never allow if she was healthy, is both a privilege and a kind of impertinence. I notice, as I never did before, that her wings are like smoked glass, the ridged veins standing out and catching the light from my angle-poise lamp.  Her eyes are black, like twin coals in her alien face. She has little hooks on the end of each leg, rather than feet. There are bands of dirty yellow fur behind her wings but just behind her head there is the faintest shadow of gold, only discernible from a very particular angle.

As I watch, she is curling up, her antennae covering her face, her legs crumpled under her. I will leave her for a while, but I am sure that she is dead.

The other casualties, apart from the bee herself and her little team of parasites, are the eggs that she carries. She will have mated once last summer, when she first emerged from the nest as a fresh young queen. I imagine her flying to meet the male bees at the top of the lime trees where they leave their pheromones, a kind of sexual perfume, so that she can find them. Inside her will be the first of her fertilised eggs that, if things had been different, would have hatched into the first workers to support her nest. From this one female up to four hundred and fifty bumblebees would have been born, going on to pollinate countless thousands of plants. When any creature dies, however humble, however common, there is a ripple effect that spreads much wider than that little death.

18 thoughts on “The Perils of a Mild Winter

  1. Rhianwen

    Wonderful to see your blog up and running… Very moving post, I look forward to seeing more soon.

    Congratulations,

    Rhianwen

    Reply
  2. Linda McBurney

    Beautiful writing Viv. I often reread your article – “The Bumblebee and the Tramp” and wish it could be published everywhere, not just buried in my computer. I look forward to more of these glimpses into the world so many of us ignore – and at our eventual peril. Thank you.
    Linda

    Reply
  3. Laurin Lindsey

    Thank you for the captivating story of your little queen bee! I learn a few new things. I love bees and was so entertained when they came to drink from my wisteria blooms this year. Spitafield’s Life re-blogged you and i am so happy they did! I will look forward to your next story. I work at home and am fortunate to be surrounded by garden on every side. We never spray or use chemicals and so the birds, bee’s and butterflies visit often.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Thank you, Laurin! I agree that pesticides and herbicides have a terrible effect on the wildlife in the garden – they might kill the aphids and the slugs, but they also kill the lacewings, the ladybirds, the frogs…..your blog is gorgeous. I’m following to find out what’s going on in the garden in Houston!

      Reply
  4. Caro McAdam

    As someone who always tries to rescue stricken bees, I loved this. Beautiful and thought-provoking. So pleased to have found your blog! Thank you.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Thank you Caro! I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog. There are lots of us about who do notice and try to care for the small creatures that we share London with. How nice it is to meet one another here…

      Reply
  5. Classof65

    Spitalfields pointed me here and I am so glad it did. Your blog is a treasure and I will be checking it daily for more riches.

    Reply
    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Thank you so much, I’m glad that you’re enjoying the blog. At the moment I am only posting once a week (more if time allows) but hopefully when my work commitments ease up I’ll be able to do some more!

      Reply
  6. Pingback: Bugwoman’s First Annual Report | Bug Woman – Adventures in London

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