So much has happened in the weeks since my last post: I started an MSc (in bee ecology); my son and I pulled our honey crop; I presented a talk at the first-ever United Beekeepers of Alberta conference; I began to TA (teach) a university computer lab on statistical biology; I wrote a feature about the late Warwick Kerr (see it in the November 2018 American Bee Journal); we winterized our hives; and, I had almost three hours of sleep. I will write posts on some of these things in the future, but first I have to keep a promise.
Back in August, when I returned to Calgary from Iceland, I said that my next post would be about the bees I saw in Iceland. It wasn’t. Dr Warwick Kerr (“The Man Who Created Killer Bees”) died in early September, so I posted about him instead. Writing about Kerr became a priority (When was the last time a country lowered its flags because a bee research scientist died?). My posts about Kerr led to my American Bee Journal article which needed written within a few days to meet the journal’s publishing deadline.
I was in Iceland in late August. Previously, I posted a bit about beekeeping there. Honey bees are scarce in the Viking Republic. A few beekeepers try to keep a few hives, nursing them along through months of cold snowy darkness and then feeding the bees to prevent starvation if the summer is cold and wet – as it was this year. I visited Iceland in late summer when honey bees should have been foraging. They would normally collect some honeydew from small trees and bushes at that time, but this year, they didn’t. It was a disaster for honey bees, as might be expected during the coldest Icelandic summer in 100 years.
It was too cold for honey bees. However, I saw bumblebees. Big, fat, bumbling insects that took wing by the thousands when the weather improved. After days of intermittent showers and temperatures around 10C (50F) the sky cleared and Reykjavikians pulled off sweaters and faced the sun, like prairie gophers on a mild winter day. Or bumblebees on a sunny day in Iceland.
The sight of two bumblebees sharing a flower was definitely a Kodak moment. This was the first time that I’d seen such a sight. It had been cool and wet. These bumblebees snuggled in the rain. Then the sun came out. It became bright and almost warm. The bees began to dry. Within minutes, they revived from motionless to twitching to shaking as their muscles generated heat. Then they flew off.
Bumblebees lived in Iceland long before people arrived 1200 years ago. They adapted to Iceland’s flowers and the flowers adapted further to attract bumblebees. Honey bees, on the other hand, are not native to Iceland. They only survive when kept by humans and will surely die out when the people of Iceland all move away. In Iceland, honey bees need to be kept, making Icelandic enthusiasts true bee ‘keepers’.
Bumblebees survive the long winters when solitary queens find dens and burrows to slumber through the cold in a dormant state, patiently awaiting mild weather. When it comes, they rapidly build nests, populate them with a few hundred bees, and pollinate the native flowers of Iceland. In late summer, a few females mate and then find solitary dens and burrows to once again slumber until the coming spring’s mild weather. And so it goes.
I was lucky to meet so many nice Icelandic bumblebees. Here are some of them: