Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Birthday Bees

Sunday was my birthday, and what a treat it was. Botanic gardens for a family picnic - not just any old botanic gardens, but the jewel of them all – Royal Botanic Gardens Kew. The family gathered at the Victoria Gate, where we found – treat upon treat – that a three day science festival was taking place. What could be more fun?

First things first, the picnic, followed by a chat with ‘Charles Darwin’ who talked about his time on the Beagle, and the publication of his great books. Then it was time to visit The Hive, which is an extraordinary and beautiful thing. I’m not quite sure of the best word to describe it, whether building, sculpture, installation or structure. It’s all of them really. You walk inside and underneath a steel lattice which represents the inside of hive. It is wired up to a real colony in such a way that the activities of the bees influence the sounds transmitted through the Hive, and the lighting. It is very striking and immensely popular.

And everywhere there is information about bees, and enthusiastic staff talking about bees, plus a sweet demonstration of the sounds that bees make. What you do is grip a wooden stick between your teeth and press it against a contact in a display, as you can see in the photo. The stick vibrates the sounds to you, so you ‘hear’ in the same way as bees. You hear (a) the sound of one bee begging food from another, (b) the sound of the waggle dance, (c) a virgin queen proclaiming her presence, and (d) two queens challenging each other. I loved it. But the geek joy was far from over.

Next we sat in on a demonstration of a scanning electron microscope. When I was a student they were the size of room and unbelievably expensive. Now they are the size of a desktop pc, and although not exactly pocket money, much much cheaper than before. When we left, a pensioner couple were chatting with the demonstrator, seriously considering buying one just for the pleasure of having such an amazing piece of kit.

The images it produces are breathtaking and simple to produce. We looked at bees, ants pollen and plants. shown here is bee (coated with platinum) ready for use in the microscope.

It was a fabulous day out. Even without the special attractions, the borders are a real joy, and magnets for bees of all sorts.

On the train home, I recalled an earlier birthday, 14 years ago, on the Isle of Arran, where we picnicked by the beach on a gloriously sunny day. We were sitting on the edge of a stream flowing into the sea, and became aware of vigorous bee activity at our feet. The bank was alive with bees tunnelling out of the bank. I think the species was Colletes succinctus, but cannot be sure. Scores, I guess hundreds, of male bees were excitedly darting at the bank as females were coming into the daylight. Any female that emerged was immediately pounced upon by a gang of males, so that each female was surrounded by a ball of bees. Each ball then rolled down the bank to the sand where vigorous mating took place until the female could extricate herself, and fly off to get on with life. My friend serendipity in action again – what a birthday present!

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