Bees in my backyard

Posted by: Bittu Sahgal on

"How doth the little busy bee improve each shining hour, and gather honey all the day from every opening flower!"
- Isaac Watts

I used to live in a building called Jaldarshan on Napean Sea Road. I woke each morning to the sound of a kingfisher.

Just outside our balcony, growing out of a sheer rock face, was an outcrop of lantana bushes that have proven to be a virtual sanctuary in an otherwise human-dominated landscape. I spent hours in my balcony watching sunbirds, tailor birds, magpie robins, koels, sparrows, crows, rose-ringed parakeets and pigeons. When the season was right (winter), warblers and gulls come visiting our turf. I once even saw a shikra pick up a sparrow in a puff of feathers. All this from my balcony that also overlooked a venerable ber tree and a clutch of peepul trees that swarmed with life. Between them, these wild plants managed to feed such a variety of life forms (and my soul) right here in the turmoil we call Mumbai.

And then there was the Jaldarshan garden. At dawn and dusk a virtual army of pipistrelles and swifts competed with each other, dive bombing the airspace over our garden, consuming the insects that grow fat on the plenty of Malabar Hill. When it was darker and most human residents were glued to television sets, fruit bats came visiting to feast on thousands of figs and ‘false badam' fruit. Every few years a family of barn owls raised its family in a cosy little niche 20 metres up in our cliff wall.

I am never, ever, bored in Mumbai. When there are no birds to be seen, particularly in the warmer hours of day, I manage to entertain myself watching butterflies, beetles, spiders, grasshoppers, ants, wasps and bees. Smack in the centre of our Jaldarshan garden grew a cycad, a palm-like plant related to the ancient trees that once dominated the planet, long before the first flowers made their appearance on earth.

My lifetime regret is that I know so little of botany. Flowers came to be because plants decided to entice recently-evolved flying creatures, millions of years ago, to courier-deliver seeds through a process we now describe as pollination. I never pluck flowers, but I do touch them and I do smell them when I can.

Few people know that flowers use textures to attract different kinds of insects. Don't ask me how, but flowers manage to arrange their cells in such a way as to provide visiting insects with surfaces that feel variously like cotton, silk, wool and velvet. Some even use a kind of oily ‘lip gloss' that provides their petals with a sheen that attracts insects (butterflies ‘smell' and ‘taste' flowers with their feet!).

I like the sound that insect wings make. It's a calming, hypnotic sound that is largely drowned by the roar and hum of the city. One Sunday, while sitting in the garden, I heard the buzz of bees and followed several individuals Apis mellifera as they went about their chores. They were sisters, gathering food stocks for the hive and I guessed they would be around three weeks old. They sucked honey using their probosces, but they also managed to collect pollen that they would transport back to the hive in bristly ‘baskets' on their hind legs. Watching the bees I wished our own society was half as organised as theirs. We would consume less, waste less and live much healthier lives.

There is much we need to learn and emulate from nature. We know very little, for instance, about the natural history of honeybees in the wild, despite the fact that we have domesticated them for eons. We knowthat their tropical ancestors managed to colonise dry habitats including grasslands and scrub thanks to their "all for one and one for all" social strategies for survival. But why is it that bees cannot discern the colour red? Why is it that worker bees (sterile females) continue to work for the welfare of the colony though they are denied sex and will never be able to bear young? How come bees that do not deliver young are willing to feed the wormlike larvae in the hive with pollen and nectar? How did bees learn to communicate with each other using the medium of ‘dance'? Why do drones (sting-less and born from unfertilised eggs) die after performing a single mating act with the queen? How do bees 'know' what to do collectively to raise or lower the temperature in their hives? So many questions. So many things to do. So little time.

It gave me an opportunity to look inwards and spend time on things (and people) we seem to have left too little time for... the sweetness of water, the softness of the breeze, the sound of birds singing, the freshness of new flowers... and the hum of busy bees.