Portugese bees

I just returned from holiday. Amazing how once you’re attuned to a subject, you begin noticing it everywhere. For example at a beach restaurant, wasps ignored all other dishes – even honey-and-fig cakes – and targeted ones with shellfish in them, which got us thinking about how smelly fish scales are meant to make great bait for wasp traps.

After a couple of days, we realised there was a small bee colony in the chimney of the villa we stayed at.

Bee colony in unused chimney, Portugal. Click to enlarge

Bee colony in unused chimney, Portugal. Click for high resolution image of the bees.

As the fireplace wasn’t used, the owners had stuffed paper up the chimney so there was no problem with bees coming down. Though a couple did manage to struggle through the barrier when I tried some honey on my toast. You’ll note in the photo that Portugese bees are very dark – I’d thought they’d be bright yellow like the heat-adapted Italians, but this is not a unique colony, bees were the same dark hue many miles away.

When I bought the aforesaid honey, I noticed something interesting next to it on the shelf in the supermarket. I’ve not seen this for sale in UK ones…

Jars of pollen for sale, Portugese supermarket

Jars of pollen for sale, Portugese supermarket

Here’s a close up of the contents:

Close-up of the pollen

Close-up of the pollen

Why anyone would want to eat random pollen I don’t know. Unlike honey, it isn’t sterile, and it can cause allergic reactions.

I never actually saw any beehives in Portugal. I wonder now if I was looking in the wrong place: we would put them in full sun in the UK but I noticed some people grew vegetables between trees – for shade! Temperatures were about 10C higher than in the UK.

I was a bit puzzled as to what the bees were foraging, as the countryside was pretty arid. But in retrospect a common shrubby weed was probably a form of thyme, and there were lots of fruit groves. Which confirms an old bit of folklore Gareth mentioned: humans can’t really gauge how much bee forage there is in an area except by seeing how heavy the hive gets. An area can seem smothered in flowers to us, but bees don’t thrive. I suppose this is partly because we tend to think “colour = flowers = nectar” and ignore tree blossom.

Unfortunately I never met a local beek to talk with. I’d have been very interested to know if they have the same problems with varroa, whose breeding is meant to be suppressed by high temperatures. However, here is a link to a description of a discussion with a Portugese beekeeper, which has some interesting details of the different approach their tradition evolved based on local conditions and materials.

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