“How many bees do you have?”
“Just one hive.”
“But how many bees?”
It’s a question that I’m often asked, and one that I could never satisfactorily answer. I’ll usually explain that I don’t know exactly: “the population varies through the year – higher in summer when there’s a lot of work to do, and it falls in autumn so there are fewer mouths to feed through the winter”. The questioner often looks disappointed, as if I should count the bees out every morning, and count them home again each night.
When I’ve not got the energy for a discussion of apian population dynamics, I’ll answer with: “thirty-four-thousand eight-hundred and forty-one: it was a prime swarm”. That usually leaves the questioner satisfied, if slightly puzzled.
But it set me thinking. How many bees were living in the hive?
The books vary on the subject. The National Trust Guide to Beekeeping gives a population of ‘a few hundred drones’ and ‘up to 40,000 workers’. Bees in the City suggests a number of ‘up to 50,000 worker bees’. And the British Beekeepers Association puts the summer population at ‘about 35,000’. Many factors can influence population-size so most of the books on my shelf avoid the subject altogether, or use a vague ‘tens of thousands’ to wave away the question.
I made some quick calculations based on the average size of a honeybee and the space inside my top-bar hive. Assuming that half the occupied volume is filled with bee-bodies, it gives a population of 34,743. This seemed a reasonable estimation to start with.
I tried another way: I made some assumptions around egg-laying rates and lifespans, and built a basic population model. This gave a peak population in early June, with 35,951 bees. Twenty-eight thousand of these would be working inside the hive and 7,951 would be foragers.
The two approximations were surprisingly close, so I settled on “35,000-ish” as an answer to the question. But I struggled to imagine or describe 35,000 of anything. The number is too large, too abstract to hold. Even when opening the hive and seeing the honeycomb crowded with dark bodies I was not able to discern them as individual creatures. I had begun seeing them only as the ‘bien’, one super-organism instead of a mass of separate animals. To look at the bees rather than the colony is like looking at the pixels rather than the picture.
Soon after, I read that the population of Abingdon is approximately 33,000. The town, give or take a few hundred people, is the size of a bee colony. So on a misty October Saturday I climbed the steps to the roof of Abingdon County Hall, and looked out across the rooftops of the town.
I began to imagine the population metamorphosing into bees; as if ‘human’ was a larval form, and they were all now shrinking down and sprouting translucent wings. First, those people shopping in the square, then those in the cafes and the bookshops, and then those in their homes and in their beds – waking on this misty Sunday, and finding themselves transformed into insects. For the first time, I could imagine thirty-five thousand of something. The number finally seemed tangible.
But at the moment too, I was struck by the emptiness of that knowledge. One cannot know a town from its census figures. An enumeration of a beehive’s residents tells me nothing about the hive itself. It is not a useful question to ask.
The hive has a population as big as a market-town, and is equally complex in its systems, providing each resident with sustenance and safety. It is simultaneously a home, a factory, a nursery-school, a construction site, a maternity-ward, a barracks, and a warehouse, all co-operating and coexisting within the four wooden walls. So although I had an answer, the important thing was to understand and explain what is happening – the complexities of how the colony functions. In my next post, I try to model the processes within the hive.