It’s no secret that bees all over the world are in decline, struggling to cope with both natural threats and challenges posed by man.

However, there are organisations out there trying to turn the tide and Arı Okulu (Bee School) is one formed in the Muğla region which has set itself the task of encouraging the public learn to from bees and about ways they can help them.

Fethiye Times will be running a series of articles this year explaining what bees are up to through the seasons, hopefully putting some bee myths to bed and encouraging more people to understand the vital role they play in the region’s eco-system.

Today, Fethiye Times associate editor STEVE PARSLEY and Arı Okulu’s CEM AYBEK begin with a closer look at what bees are doing in the spring.

Cem Aybek and internationally-renowned bee activist Debra Roberts at the March meeting of Bee School at Tangala Farm above Tlos

The hive mind in the spring

If you walk the woods just about anywhere in the Muğla region at the moment, you’ll find it hard to ignore the bee hives.

On warmer mornings when the sun has risen above the treeline, they emanate an audible hum – loud enough to perhaps seem ominous to those who know little about what’s happening inside.

But, far from an indication of possible aggression, the buzzing is actually as benign as the call of the cuckoo or the chirp of a cricket; it’s simply the sound of the hive awakening from its winter slumber and beginning the process of renewal.

Through January and February, the bees have spent much of the time clustered together. They’re not completely still in hibernation, moving around to allow those at the edge to move closer to the middle for their spell of warmth.

But, as the harsher weather dissipates and the daylight hours become gradually longer, the bees’ activity becomes more focused as the hive begins to stimulate their queen, encouraging her to produce the eggs which will become this year’s crop of workers.

Planting a few flowers or leaving them to grow wild in your garden can help bees looking for food in the spring. Picture by Steve Parsley

Waking up

Once the laying process begins, bees begin to emerge from the hive and the hunt for pollen and nectar gets underway. At this time of year, neither will be used for making honey though; it’s all about gathering food for the young.

And, as March gives way to April and the spring flowers are in full bloom, the first part of a bee’s year is in full swing.

“If you take your family for a picnic or go for a walk in the forest and you come across hives, there is no real need to be afraid,” said Arı Okulu’s Cem Aybek.

“A bee will only usually sting in certain circumstances; a good example is if their hive has just been moved from where they spent the winter to a new location which offers them a better chance of finding the pollen they need.

“If you walk a usual route or have a favourite picnic spot and a bee hive appears overnight, it’s best to give it plenty of space to start with. Some of the worker bees may be in a bad mood and looking for someone to sting.”

However, a bee’s natural predator is the bear so it’s also a good idea to look as little like one as you can.

Cem added: “It’s best to wear white or bright-coloured clothes rather than dark ones and, if you know you will be near hives, try not to wear fur or fleecy clothes.”

Moving on

As the spring gives way to early summer and more and more eggs hatch into new workers, the hive becomes overcrowded. Many of the older bees will die but as many as 70,000 or 80,000 bees could still be sharing the hive by now and, if left to their own devices, they will begin preparations for a swarm.

Over a couple of weeks, the workers will begin to feed the queen on a rich diet of pollen and nectar until she begins to “sing” – a natural phenomenon which can even be heard by a trained human ear outside the hive.

It’s a signal that the queen has laid the eggs likely to hatch into her eventual successor and she is ready to leave.

When she departs, up to 50 per cent of the hive will go with her, leaving the rest to raise the new queen from among the eggs she left behind.

Bees are not the only species hunting for nectar in the spring so the more there is to find, the easier their lives become. Picture by Steve Parsley

As more than one egg is a potential queen, it’s not uncommon for another swarm to leave the same hive, dividing it again so, from an original population of 80,000, the hive may find itself down to 20,000 or less by mid-summer.

“Swarms may seem threatening when they leave the hive but there’s actually very little danger,” said Cem. “The first thing they will do is land somewhere a distance away from their old hive and then send out scouts. The ones who think they have found a good place for a hive will come back and perform a dance, attracting other bees to join them to check the location.

“If they’re happy, the rest of the swarm will escort the queen to the new place and the process of establishing a new hive begins.”

As you may expect, not all beekeepers are keen on allowing their bees to swarm. Keeping tabs on a roving hive can be a challenging proposition for a commercial bee farmer so the process is often completed artificially. The hive is segregated and then a section is moved by hand to another location.

Over generations, bees which have never swarmed naturally “forget” that part of the yearly cycle, a trait which is valued and encouraged by some of the commercial bee farmers, although some have significant reservations about the impact it may have on bee species in the long term.

How can we help

“However there are things everyone can do to help bees at this time of year,” said Cem. “Planting a few flowers can help them find food, even if it’s only in a window box or on your balcony. Leaving wildflowers to grow and public planting in parks would be a great help in some of the urban areas too.

“Arı Okulu would also love to see more people start their own hives. You don’t need a great deal of space – just somewhere to place a hive facing south or south-east. But, if anyone would like more information about how to help bees, our Facebook page is somewhere to make a start.”

The next article tracing the life-cycle of the bee will appear in Fethiye Times in July.