Swooning over Swarms
Swooning over Swarms
Bees are in acute danger; in rural monocultures, they hardly find sustenance. Amateur beekeepers from the network Berlin summt! provide urban habitats for bees.
Berlin Cathedral, on an island in the Spree River, boasts royalty on every floor. In its underground crypt rest the venerable remains of the royal lords of the Hohenzollern dynasty. One floor up, the faithful pray to the King of Kings in the massive nave of the church. Even further up, at a height of almost 30 meters on the roof over the altar, royal offspring are being raised. Amateur beekeeper Uwe Marth, assisted by cathedral manager Lars-Gunnar Ziel, lifts a honeycomb frame from the hive with his bare hands. “Everything is fine,” he finds; then he puts the frame back into one of the four beehives that each house approximately 200,000 bustling little creatures. Always at their centre, marked with a coloured dot: their queen.
His bees tolerate the intrusion without trying to sting. “They are peaceful beings,” says Marth, who does not need a protective beekeeping hat. He merely makes sure he is wearing white or yellow. “The bees register people with black clothes or dark hair as a bear, a million-year-old aggressor pattern in their brains,” he explains. “Bears steal honey—and bees defend the honey with their stingers.”
Uwe Marth, who is a teacher by trade, is part of a group of a dozen amateur beekeepers from the initiative Berlin summt! (in English: Berlin is buzzing!) who draw attention to the precarious situation of their pollinating protégés. Bees are of immense importance to the continuity of life on this planet – without them, numerous types of produce and nuts could not bear fruit. And yet, their free services to nature and humanity receive such little support that bees are in grave danger. Every year, a third of Germany’s bees perish on average; in some other countries and regions, the figure is even higher. This is caused by a combination of different factors: parasites, pesticides, chemically treated seeds, smog from electronics, an increasing amount of paved-over surfaces, agro-industrial monocultures in the countryside, and the ensuing extinction of species. In many cases, bees starve in the midst of a glorious summer because after the bloom of a monoculture such as rapeseed is over, they cannot find any more food.
Nurturing an endangered species
This is why, like many other animal and plant species, bees today fare better in cities than in the countryside. Urban settings offer a much greater variety of trees and flowers, and plants are less frequently treated with chemicals there. In Berlin, 298 of Germany’s 560 native types of wild bees have found a home. About 700 recreational beekeepers take care of the 3,200 colonies in the city. On the trees that line the capital’s streets—approximately 154,000 linden trees, 80,000 maple trees, 21,000 chestnut trees, and 14,000 locust trees—bees find more food than in Brandenburg’s monocultures. In order to welcome the little immigrants in style, Berlin summt! has provided lodgings at distinguished locations: on top of the state parliament of Berlin, the planetarium, the House of World Cultures, and, as just described, the copper roof of Berlin Cathedral.
From the Cathedral dome, Marth points out the flowering chestnut trees in the neighbouring park: “They are just a couple of hundred yards away. No problem for a bee. They can fly up to several kilometres to a food source. They do, however, consume two thirds of their harvest for their own energy needs. Here, try it!” He gives me a pinhead-sized golden yellow ball. “This little pollen ball,” the beekeeper says, “consists of millions of microscopic pollen.” The sample tastes so luscious that it could have come straight from the land of milk and honey.
The beekeeper is looking forward to harvesting 25 kilos of honey or more per bee colony. In 2013, cathedral manager Lars-Gunnar Ziel sold about 200 jars of “Cathedral Honey.” Each of the 250-gram jars raises 1 euro for the umbrella organization Berlin summt! Ziel has caught the bee euphoria himself and now has his own bee colony: “In the summer, I have up to 50,000 pets,” he says, laughing. Then he grows serious and adds: “The honey is actually secondary. Bees are in danger; we must nurture them and take good care of them. I just enjoy being able to give back to nature.”
The swarm is the organism
Both men are clearly fascinated by the bees’ unique swarm intelligence. They are bubbling with facts about the insects. A colony of about 20,000 flying bees, Marth reports, visits between 20 million and 100 million blossoms each day between May and July. The scout bees inform the collector bees about the location of the blossoms by performing round or waggle dances, depending on the distance of the food source from the hive. The collector bees “completely sweep a flowering tree in less than half an hour.” To make a single kilo of honey, they must cover a total distance of 40,000 to 140,000 kilometres, “which is one to three times around the earth!” A precious delicacy, indeed.
A single bee is insignificant, Marth continues to explain. “The swarm is the real organism. It is truly fascinating.” For example, the bees collectively determine how many males they want to hatch. The queen uses her antennae to measure the size of a honeycomb before she lays eggs into it. Depending on the size, she will either lay an unfertilized egg, which will yield a drone, or a fertilized egg, which will later yield a worker bee. The queen spawns up to 3,300 eggs each day, which is “almost twice her own body weight.”
Everyone can help protect bees
The scene switches to a forest in the Zehlendorf neighbourhood, where Wolfgang Friedrichowitz checks the hives at the youth hive stand. Before he retired, he sold technical equipment. Now he takes care of four bee colonies and half a dozen young bee fans, such as 14-year-old Paul. When he was small, Paul simply loved honey as a sweet treat; now he is discovering that the life of a bee is no picnic at all. Paul also learns how the varroa mite, one of bees’ worst enemies, can be kept at bay with formic or oxalic acid. The junior beekeeper brings a little crate that is put on top of the hive in the fall. The evaporating acid kills the parasites, but not the bees, his mentor Friedrichowitz explains. Since the varroa mite invasion of the 1980s, the retiree adds, it is continuous human care that has kept the honey bees from extinction.
Although not everyone can or wants to become a beekeeper, the initiative Berlin summt! stresses that anyone—whether they work in the arts, in science, or in the business world—can help protect bees. Owners of gardens and balconies can set up nesting places for wild bees and provide bee-friendly blossoming plants. Besides supporting bee colonies, the group's initiators Corinna Hölzer and Cornelis Hemmer also champion the “preservation of intact urban nature.”