Fringe Box



Beekeeper’s Notes: Bees Can Be Cannibals When They Must, Just Like Humans

Published on: 1 Mar, 2023
Updated on: 1 Mar, 2023

Hugh Coakley keeps bees in Worplesdon

Cannibalism is regarded with horror and fascination by humans but the wider animal kingdom is less troubled by this most fundamental survival strategy.

We read of spiders eating their mates after copulation, lions eating cubs fathered by another and owls killing the weakest chick and feeding it to the siblings.

Three of our four hives at the bottom of our garden. We are looking forward to the first inspections of the year when we get a few warmish days this month.

Bees are just one of the 1,500 species, including humans, who are known to eat their own kind.

A recent article in Bee Craft, the monthly beekeeping magazine, says bees eat the eggs of egg-laying workers, an undesirable phenomenon in a colony, or the larvae or pupae when the colony is starving. The queen and the fully formed insects are the last to die, eating their own to prolong the colony’s life.

And while we might express shock and moral outrage at the thought of clinging to life by chewing on the leg of one of our neighbours, we are less certain about it being wrong when there is no other choice.

Three sailors in 1884 cited as their defense the ‘custom of the seas’ when they finished off and ate the cabin boy to survive after being shipwrecked. They were sentenced to hang but this was commuted to jail after public protest.

And I remember the sensational reports in The News of the World of the airplane crash in the Andes in 1972. 16 out the 45 who were on board survived the cruelly cold weather on the mountain for over 10 weeks by eating the frozen bodies of the other passengers. Even 50 years later, the case is still pored over, the reactions of those who tasted human flesh still fascinating us.

Survival is hard for us and for all living things. Eating one your own can be a simple, ultimate strategy for life and it makes sense in the extreme.

I’m not sure I would say that if I were the male spider on my way to the marital bed though.

I reported last month on the UK government giving “emergency authorisation” to allow the banned neonicotinoid pesticide on the sugar beet crop for the third year running (see Beekeepers Notes: How Dare We Kill Insects in the Name of Commercial Interest).

I have just read in Bee Craft that the EU Court of European Justice ruled just days previously that EU member states could no longer offer exemptions to the ban. The PM promised in 2019 environmental standards would not fall. I think we should at least match the EU, if not do better.

Bees feeding on the sugar fondant we have placed over a hole in the top of the hive. Click on the image to enlarge it in a new window.

Our bees at home are looking ok, cross fingers. We are still feeding one hive with fondant and they are still taking it.

We will be inspecting our four colonies this month for the first time this year, just as soon as we get a few warm days. They are all flying when they can so I am hopeful they will come through the winter.

I am quite looking forward to seeing inside the boxes again.

See Beekeeper’s Notes March ’16 – Starving Bees Turn Cannibal

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