The new home is set up immediately after moving into the abandoned black woodpecker cave. The bees' wax glands are running at full speed during honeycomb construction. The exact processes remain hidden, the brown and black striped insects sit so close together on the ceiling. Only after a few days do snow-white constructions appear between the countless bodies. Perfectly shaped, as if flowing from a 3D printer, they gradually grow downwards. At the same time, other roommates are busy with planing. They tirelessly rasp with their mouth tools, the so-called mandibles, on the inside of the tree cavity.
“This behavior has been puzzling beekeepers for decades,” says Jürgen Tautz, emeritus biology professor and behavioral researcher at the Julius Biozentrum -Maximilians University in Würzburg, which deals intensively with honeybees. “Now it has been solved,” he says proudly. What seems strange on the planed planks of the prey – that is the dwelling for the industrious pollen collectors in the beekeeping terminology – suddenly makes sense in tree hollows. Because cleaning the walls has an important function there. First, the bees remove loose particles, fungi and other microorganisms. “Like professional upholsterers,” says Tautz. If the walls are smooth and clean, a thin layer of propolis follows, a resinous mass that has a disinfectant effect. This creates a healthy climate with optimal air humidity.
Honeybees are actually forest animals
It is thanks to Ingo Arndt that many of these hitherto unexplored secrets are revealed . For two years, the native of Hesse captured the mysterious hustle and bustle of the naturally nesting colonies of Apis Mellifera, the Western honey bee, with his camera.
“Honeybees are forest animals. Amazingly, they have never been observed in nature before, ”says the award-winning wildlife photographer. Almost 30 years, he travels around the world hunting for spectacular motifs. He portrayed grizzly bears on the Alaskan Pacific coast, stood face to face with alligators in the Everglades in southern Florida and roamed Patagonia to get pumas in front of the lens. He photographed the predators for seven months and at that time thought that nothing would ever top this story.
Until a little later he did two young biologists doing research accompanied in the Hainich National Park in Thuringia and experienced the wild bees up close. “These are often races that have escaped breeders, although they do everything to avoid that,” he says. If the escape is successful, the swarm finds a new home in the forest. Arndt was immediately impressed by the little rebels. The only question was: How do you photograph them in 20 meters altitude?
The solution came by heavy transport from the Steigerwald – a fallen beech with an empty woodpecker cave. Ideal to set it up as a beehive in the home garden in the Hessian town of Langen, of course with the necessary approval. In the back, Arndt built an observation hut with a removable glass window for photography, installed red light that the bees cannot see, and watched curiously. For hours. He had spent dozens of days there, sweating terribly in the hot summer.
Many colonies fail to colonize trees
The settlement of the cave is a highly critical phase . Most colonies fail to gain a foothold. “That was also my biggest fear,” says Arndt. So he was all the happier than last year. From May it buzzed in the cave.
Since then Arndt has made many exciting discoveries . He watched the bees storing pollen, finely sorted by color, cleaning their queen, feeding them, even taking their droppings away. How they grow up in hatchlings, hatch, keep themselves clean – and their greatest enemies, the hornets, “cook” in the bee nest. The carnivorous intruders are neither bitten nor stung, but enclosed in a kind of ball made from living heater bees and heated to death.
“Sweet kisses for hot bees”
In addition to such martial scenes, there were also touching moments in the nest. For example with the so-called tanker bees, which supply exhausted heater bees with honey. Tautz ’doctoral student Rebecca Basile discovered this behavior years ago. “With a wink, she called the corresponding chapter of her dissertation, Sweet kisses for hot bees,” says the biologist.
Arndt was able to capture many such rituals. Meanwhile, he practically maintained a dedicated line to Jürgen Tautz. “For God's sake, take photos as much as you can, nobody has ever seen that before,” advised the bee expert. And Arndt took pictures. In the end there are more than 80 000 pictures were taken. Magnifying lenses and flash units were used to photograph the moving flying insects. The photographer spared no effort, even built a special flight tunnel with light barrier for his “pets”.
And how it tastes the honey of wild bees?
Today the bees still live in his garden. “I'll keep going,” says Arndt. As soon as the book was finished, inquiries came from television stations and production companies. He started filming three weeks ago. A lot of tinkering, but he likes that.
What actually happens to the honey? “I don't harvest like the beekeeper with the centrifugal machine,” explains Arndt. If he controls the bees, he simply cuts off a piece of honeycomb and bites in. And, does it taste good? “Sure, very good actually!” He says. The taste is very diverse, you can tell from the pollen alone. When the collecting bees can visit a wide range of plants and flowers, the pollen loads have all possible colors.
A bee colony works like a brain
“With bees you can really grab everyone, that's incredible!” Says Jürgen Tautz. We could learn a lot, especially from the wild peoples. Food and energy would always be distributed equally, regardless of the work done. “There are no losers in the bee colony,” says Tautz. Not a single bee is allowed to starve.
What particularly surprised him in the tree was the fact that a large part of the workers hooked their legs and a flexible network underneath the honeycomb across the whole tree forms. The resulting “sack” can be wide or narrow-meshed, as required. A possible explanation is that it serves to regulate the climate and the temperature in the cave.
“Basically, a bee colony works like a brain in which all cells are connected,” says Tautz. The temperature in the beehive is always even. Especially in the brood area, the temperature is constantly 35 Centigrade. “This is crazy, because it corresponds almost exactly to the human body temperature,” says the expert.
Males are superfluous, here there is the matriarchy
In addition, bee colonies are a wonderful example of radical feminism. “The bee state is a purely female state that works extremely well,” says Jürgen Tautz. All workers are females. Only once a year, around the early summer, the queen deliberately places up to 2000 male. She has such fine valves in her body that she can place exactly one sperm in an egg cell. Females always develop from fertilized eggs. If the queen leaves an egg cell inseminated, a male, the so-called drone, hatches in the end.
- Reading tip
Ingo Arndt, Jürgen Tautz: honeybees. Mysterious forest dwellers. Knesebeck Verlag, Munich 2020, 192 Pages, 38 €.
Compared to 50 000 Females are hardly worth mentioning the number of males. Your only life's work is to mate the queen. Interestingly, that has nothing to do with sex or reproduction, explains Tautz. “Bee drones have no fathers,” he says. This discovery was made by the Silesian pastor Jan Dzierzon around 200 years. “He got really upset with the bishop because he said that the Virgin Mary was not the only one who could give birth to a son without a biological father,” the expert says with a smile.
Caution, please do not irritate!
But even in a perfectly organized matriarchy, bees are in a bad mood. “They are already defensive animals,” says Ingo Arndt. Anyone who wants to get closer to them must exercise caution. The photographer had to experience this painfully on his own body when he sometimes opened the window in his observation hut to take pictures. “After the second stitch in the eye, I always put a veil over my head,” he says and laughs.
The 20. May is World Bee Day. A wonderful opportunity to observe the life of these mysterious forest inhabitants up close, which are invaluable for biodiversity and intact nature. With Arndt's book, this is guaranteed without the risk of stabbing.