A few years ago when researching the world of moisture for ideas to include in my book A Wet Look At Climate Change I came across a paper published in the Journal of Insect Physiology talking about honey bees and humidity. I filed this away as “interesting” but didn’t think about it much further. Last year just before spring I got interested in bees again. Nothing to do with moisture this time, just a liking for bees buzzing around the garden. It may have been something on Twitter, but one thing led to another, and I found myself contacting the National Biodiversity Data Centre in Waterford. However, as always with me, moisture had to come into the story at some point….

Identifying bumble bees

Bumbe bee identification

Bumble bee swatch card showing Bombus lucorum

After a quick phone call, I met Dr. Úna Fitzpatrick at the Biodiversity Centre who really opened my eyes to bumble bees. Úna showed me lots of bumble bee specimens and described differences between the species that can be found in an Irish garden, ones that are now obvious to me but that I’d never noticed before. Úna also showed me more subtle differences that are difficult to spot at bumble bee speed. To help in identification she gave me a specimen bottle to trap bees so that I could look at them closely. Simply catch, identify and release, they don’t seem to mind too much. Another present from Úna, and this is excellent, was a swatch card for identifying bumble bees. I can’t tell you enough how useful this has been.

Great fun too chasing bumbles around our garden and noting the species. With a bit of practice, soon I was identifying bumbles on sight, if they would just keep still for two seconds….

Bombus lucorum a regular visitor to the garden and one of them a good friend of mine for about 15 minutes. When I see a bee on the ground that appears to be struggling I encourage it to come onto my finger and then nudge it onto a plant. Otherwise there’s a good chance it will be trodden on, or played with by Watson or Crick, our cats. One sunny day I had taken a mug of tea outside and saw that Bombus had got herself caught in a bit of spider web on the ground. Without hesitation she came onto to my finger. I say, “she” because this was in April and the male drones do not appear until much later in the year, and also she was large and probably a queen. Quite happily the two of us sat in the sun as I drunk my tea and Bombus cleaned herself off with her back legs, and with a little help from me. Then an amazing thing happened. In an instant she starting buzzing and lifted off. I felt absolutely nothing! No push off from my finger. She just became weightless and floated away. A perfectly evolved flying machine.

Save our pollinators

So, where’s the moisture bit, you may be wondering? Well, I had planned to write about something different this week then I got a notification from Greenside Up on a post by horticulturalist Dee Sewell, “Can we save the pollinators of Ireland?” Of course, this immediately caught my attention with my newly found greater interest in bumble bees. In Dee’s article she tells us that Biodiversity Ireland has brought together a range organisations working on action plans over 2015-2020 to save important pollinators. One of these actions is for people to submit sightings of pollinators for Biodiversity Ireland’s database. Coincidently, I have agreed with Úna Fitzpatrick to take part in bumble bee monitoring. But Dee’s article reminded me of that research paper I had filed away, the one about honey bees and humidity, and I ended up thinking about the threat of climate change to bees.

Humidity and the bee

According to this paper, honey bees and some other insects have a “hygropreference”. Google the word and you’ll find “Hygropreference and brood care in the honeybee (Apis mellifera)” and other literature references to bees. Inside their hive honey bees live in a “microclimate”. Apis mellifera like to be at a relative humidity of approximately 75% and a temperature around 34.5°C. The bees become stressed at both low and high humidity and use their wings as a fan to circulate air in the hive to bring down areas of high humidity and to increase areas of low humidity. Temperature directly effects humidity, as I explain in the second chapter of my eBook, and periods of hot dry weather and very low humidity are not good for bees and a challenge to beekeepers. Researchers have also shown that different species can have different hygropreferences and climate change affecting local humidity levels can result in a selective advantage of one species over another.

Our planet is enclosed in a ball of moisture, some parts high, some parts low, and when the moisture levels are different due to climate change over a significant period we are all affected. “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” Albert Einstein.

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