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A penny for your thoughts

A well-stocked garden will still have plenty of colour this month thanks to flowers like Cosmos, Salvia, Cyclamen, Dahlia and Nasturtium. Many will be useful sources of pollen and nectar until the frosts arrive. At that stage, pollinators will have to rely on perennials like Hellebores, on shrubs and on wildflowers.

Some of the bumblebees still collecting, are the last Common carder workers in their tawny coats but there are also large Buff-tailed queens that hatched a few weeks ago. Their portliness will help them to survive in hibernation if they can collect enough nectar to last them for up to 5 months through the winter.

When you see a bumblebee flying about in your garden, do you ever wonder if she has a single thought in that furry head of hers, or do you think of her as a brilliantly evolved flying robot programmed to act instinctively to a limited range of signals? If she is only acting in a reflex way to a certain flower, having learned that its colour and shape are associated with a reward, she would not be able to visit other types of flower, to visit some in the morning when the nectar supply is better than later in the day, to pass it by when it has recently been visited by another bee, or to ignore it when its colour is fading slightly.

These choices based on experience, are made constantly as she flies over gardens and meadows, making the most of her foraging time. Although she will stick to one plant species at a time, using handling skills learned already, she will change to another species once she has depleted the first one. Whether this variation in behaviour is due to a large series of automatic reflexes that she can draw on, or is due to conscious thought, it looks as if her furry head keeps very busy.

Did you read that the New Zealand industry, based on producing manuka honey, has collapsed? The supplies became greatly in excess of the demand. Although it is honeybees that make it, the vast scale of the business has put wild bees and their food resources under tremendous pressure. Any honey (Manuka or otherwise) is great for sore throats and as a food, but it is useless as an oral antibiotic because it is broken down in the stomach. Honey does have some benefit if spread on inflamed skin, but it is very sticky!

If you wish to learn more about the mental abilities of bees, then your Christmas present to yourself could be “The Mind of a Bee” by Lars Chittka. Once we appreciate the amazing abilities of bees, it makes us consider the possibility that other insects and invertebrates may have greater “intelligence” than some higher orders of animals. Brain size seems to be less important than the degree of connectivity in those microscopic organs.

Adrian Doble

Volunteer with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust

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