This speech was delivered at the annual Festival of Biodiversity organised by the National Parks Board in collaboration with the Biodiversity Roundtable. Targeted at families, adults and children, the Festival aims to create awareness and foster a sense of appreciation for Singapore’s natural heritage. In line with its vision, the speech was delivered by Dr Vimal Rethinam, Director of Conservation and research at Wildlife Reserves Singapore, who shares his personal experience with conserving the precious yet vulnerable oriental honeybees. When reports of the colony collapse disorder were documented and publicised several years ago, my then girlfriend became inspired to keep bees in our backyard.
An avid supporter of the work I do and a nature enthusiast herself, her reasons were mainly practical – not only did she want to support the vanishing bees, she hoped our garden of bee-friendly flowers and herbs would help to repopulate them. Her study in floristry did not disappoint; we did have an impressive haven for them, from roses, sunflowers and lavender to basils, mints, sage and thyme.
Sure enough, it took less than one season for my partner to fall in love, and over time my family expanded not only with the birth of our two beautiful kids, but with the number of beehives in our backyard increasing from two to 10 as well. Now, in my household the indication of the arrival of spring is when my 3-year-old daughter Jaanvi runs out to the garden excitedly screaming “Bees!”.
Bees are the world’s most important pollinators, but they’re also highly misunderstood creatures which is why I consider both of my children lucky to know the honeybees so well.
Providing a conducive habitat for the bees has given me opportunities to observe how children interact with them. To the best of my knowledge, they fall into two separate categories: those who are fascinated, and those who are terrified.
There are kids who watch in wonder the honeybees in their element; as they land on colourful and fragrant flowers to consume sweet nectar through their delicate tongues and collect pollen with their legs, and there are kids who run away with arms flailing, screaming or crying. There are kids who come asking to see our bee garden and enjoy the sight of the precious yet vulnerable little beings, and there are kids who use sticks and stones to bang against the roof of a hive.
I worry that the child who runs from bees in alarm will grow up to be the adult who spots a healthy swarm in her backyard and sprays it with insecticide. I worry that the child who bangs on a hive’s roof will grow up to be the teenager who knocks over a beehive on purpose when no one is looking. Such malpractices are undeserved because unlike the many varieties of wasps, bees are gentle creatures. They pollinate our crops, make honey, and rarely sting unless provoked.
In recent years, beekeepers have continued to report a high decline in bee population, and a world without honeybees is not one I wish to contemplate. Walking into a supermarket would be a different experience; you could expect to find half the amount of fruit and vegetables that are available today. In short, we could struggle to sustain the global human population. These lost honeybee colonies are remunerated by breeding and replacing them year after year. The honeybee’s once fast-approaching extinction is no longer a concern for scientists, but that does not alleviate the situation. The disappearing bees have served as a reminder to us that our survival is interdependent and that we live in collaboration with other species. A child who squashes bees or runs from them is a child who is unaware of their significance, and it’s our job to teach them because such a lesson is as valuable to the child as it is to the bee.
A good starting point is by teaching our children what a honeybee looks like. Often there is confusion between a honeybee and a bumblebee, and many are unable to differentiate the two. The round yellow bodies which tirelessly pester you at a picnic in an attempt to take a bite of your sandwich, has few similarities with the honeybee which gathers pollen and nectar as food for its entire colony back at their nest. Like adults, children may very well be able to make this distinction with a little guidance.
Contrary to popular belief, the process of swarming by honeybees is not an angered or fiery behaviour. Essentially, shedding light on this illusion is also vital when teaching children to value the flying insects.
Honey Bee Colonies
Swarming is honey bee colonies’ natural means of reproduction and a good sign that bee numbers are rapidly increasing, suggesting that the hive is strong enough to split into two. The old queen and one half of the flying bees leave their home to establish a new nest, while the other half stay behind in the existing hive to welcome a new queen. Scouting for a new home may take between an hour or a few days if a suitable location proves difficult to find. We now have two colonies, each more or less half the size of the original single colony, living in different locations. Indeed, we all have much to learn from honeybees about cooperation and teamwork. Thus, I would say that the sight of a drift of bees on a tree branch or a park is a good chance to examine and soak up the intellect and brilliance of the insect world.
As clever as we humans may be, we don’t know everything and that is where the honeybees step in and offer a real lesson. My children and I can sing along to nursery rhymes or Christmas carols in the living room, but we can’t wiggle our bottoms in a specific alignment which conveys the location of a nectar supply three miles away. Bees can.
Many beekeepers would find this amusing but my wife, Kavya, has a practice that she finds rewarding and fills her heart. Though the average worker bee has a brief lifetime of a mere six weeks, when the sun sets my wife often picks up the honeybees which have grown cold and fallen just outside their hive. She accumulates them in a jar, brings them inside our house to warm them up and returns them to their home later, once they are rejuvenated.
My initial dubiety about her habit came from my understanding of bees as members of a complex social system. While they work for the benefit of the whole ecosystem, they are not individuals, and I was uncertain about tending to them as such. All of that disappeared last week when I saw my 5-year-old son, Ajay, crouch in front of a hive at dusk to collect enfeebled bees in his small hand. At that point in time I realized what the bees had taught him — it’s the very lesson we all need to learn; that even the smallest part of the system counts for something.
I would like to end off by saying this: children have a natural affinity towards animals, and we must help them cultivate that sense of fondness, so it turns into an abiding love and interest. Teaching our kids to be compassionate towards animals today is our hope in fostering a kinder world tomorrow. Thank you.