Bee on yellow flower

Watching a rather drunk and bellicose diner berate a sommelier over a tainted bottle of wine, an old friend once wisely said to me, “You can tell a lot about people by the way they treat waiters.”

His point was simple, and well made – when in a position of power, it is how people behave to those over whom they have authority that reveals their true self.

Just as it is easy to love people who are loveable, (and therefore no great recommendation for one’s own character – because actually what’s tricky is loving un-loveable people), it is easy to be deferential, courteous or caring of our equals and our betters, usually through a cocktail of self-interest and cowardice.

It is much more a testament to our true natures when we treat the serving, the weak and the helpless with dignity and concern for their well-being, when we don’t strictly need to for any other imperative than good manners and a general good-naturedness. Consequently I will never do business with people who are rude to waiters, or shop assistants, or bus conductors. It is a simple filter which has served me well.

I was reminded of this in our swimming pool the other day. Since her earliest years, my daughter has been rescuing bees who have incautiously splash-landed in our pool. This is mainly because she has always had a soft spot for any living thing, and can’t bear to see little beasties suffer, with the notable exception of cockroaches. (She doesn’t like this poor, much-malinged beetle, not because it is indicative of an unclean pantry or worse, but merely because she is nervous of any animal predicted to be the only likely survivor of a nuclear war. Or to put it another way, they just creep her out.)

Her concern with bees also stems from the fact that, when she was an itty-bitty kid, she heard that bees were dying out, and the world could end up destroyed because of the subsequent collapse of plant life. This wasn’t helped by the delightful Jerry Seinfeld labour of love “Bee Movie”, which adults took as a yet another vehicle for Seinfeld to be witty, sardonic and get the gal, and she took as true science.

Since then, she had made it her personal mission to preserve all the bees she possibly can from what would otherwise be an ugly aquatic death in our pool. And before someone says “But bees can swim!” because they flap their wings and go round in circles in the water, (you can find proof on YouTube), yes, they do stay afloat for a while but surface tension prevents them taking off again, so once in, they inevitably drown.

And sure enough, Wikipedia is full of the on-going problem of bee losses, to wit:

“As plantings have grown larger, the need for concentrated pollinators at bloom time has grown. At the same time populations of many pollinators have been declining, and this decline has become a major environmental issue today.

For example, feral honey bee populations in the US have dropped about 90% in the past 50 years, except for the Southwest where they have been replaced by Africanized bees.

At the same time managed honey bee colonies have dropped by about two thirds. In North America, during the winter and spring of 2006 – 2007, there was a considerable decline in commercially managed honeybee colonies, with losses of about one third of honeybees population.

This event is named colony collapse disorder, and has appeared in 35 states of USA affecting honeybees, reporting losses in honeybee colonies as high as 80 to 100 percent for some beekeepers.”


However the good news is that we may not, in fact, be headed for a catastrophic bee wipeout.

Dr Denis Anderson, who works for Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, is yet to be convinced that it’s actually happening at all. As reported in the newspaper Stock and Land, Dr Anderson – an expert on threats to bees – just can’t buy into the story of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). “CCD is a recently invented term for an old disorder: winter losses,” Dr Anderson suggests. “Commercial beekeepers in the US have always accepted winter losses of 10-20 per cent.”

Or to put in simpler terms, bees die in times of hardship, like everything else, and in particular, bees die when it gets cold. Or when they dive-bomb swimming pools.

Anderson suggests better record keeping is merely making a well-known phenomenon better understood and more widely publicised. And researchers at Pennsylvania State University and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, Robyn Underwood and Dennis van Engelsdorp, argue that huge losses of bees are a well-understood historical phenomenon, not a recent scare. You can find their paper here: If you’re lying awake wondering how your next bed of roses will get pollinated, or worrying about the extinction of all life as we know it, it’s a fascinating and reassuring read.

Meanwhile, our pool continues to fill up with dozens of bees, whirring their little wings helplessly after dropping in for a quick drink turns into a potentially lethal error.

Coastal Banksia

The beautiful flower of the Coastal Banksia … full of yummy nectar.

The Coastal Banksia Seed Pod

This is what is left when the birds and bees have enjoyed the flowers – and this is what can mangle a pool drainage system in seconds flat.

My wife enters the pool at least a month before she can normally be tempted in, and scoops up curled, dried leaves that have fallen off the Banksia integrifolia which dot the surface of the pool with annoying regularity, and uses them to gently, carefully shepherd the half-drowned bees safely to the brick surround of the pool, where they sit and preen themselves in a worried fashion, wandering about and flapping for a while, before unexpectedly taking off and soaring away, usually into a nearby tree, or perhaps into the endless sea of blue overhead, finding their way back to the hive, presumably.

(By the way, dear reader: whoever planted the tree nearby the pool, generations back, by the way, was an idiot. It is now 20 feet tall and sheds leaves and dead flower-cones constantly, although it is a magnet for Wattle Birds, and various rosellas and parrots, which is some small consolation. Now widely known as Coast Banksia or Coastal Banksia, B. integrifolia was previously known by a range of common names: Honeysuckle, White Banksia, White Bottlebrush and White Honeysuckle; and some older sources refer to it as Honeysuckle Oak. In my humble opinion, it should, however, be called The Pool Murderer, as its dendritus has completely blocked the pool pump at least twice during this summer alone.)

I watch my wife from the shade of the tree, and after a while, whilst my normal instinct would be to scoop them out unceremoniously with a net and dump them over a neighbour’s fence, or more likely still, spray the surface of the pool with a hose and drown the little buggers quickly, (and then allow the ever-vigilant Kreepy Krawly to clean them away off the bottom so no-one treads on them), I find myself, somewhat to my own confusion and amazement, ferrying them back regularly to the brick coping as well.

In the space of half an hour I probably rescue fifteen or more.

What’s more, I am a fool to myself, because later research reveals that they are, indeed, worker drones, sent on a mission from the hive to find a reliable source of water, which then return home and tell all the other thirsty bees where to find a drink.

So every one I liberate from a watery grave probably results in a dozen more finding their way to me, and I simply can’t rescue them all. Indeed, the internet abounds in ghastly chemical concoctions to be placed in containers around the pool, to catch and drown the drones in increasing numbers, until eventually the hive becomes discouraged and stops heading your way.

The least horrid suggestion I found was to provide an alternative source or water for them to access, such as a bird bath with rocks in it for them to climb onto, to be placed between the pool and the hive the bees are coming from. So, as I do not have a clue where that is, tomorrow will find me watching bee after bee with deep concentration and intent, trying to divine from which direction it is approaching. I will then provide an alternate water source that will save them some flying time, and hopefully a number of kamikaze bee drones will live a little longer to boot. What’s more, I can then use the pool without fear of treading on one of their corpses.

Whilst I do not panic and lump dwindling bee populations in the same basket as global climate change, I am pleased I am doing my little bit to offset any current decline in their numbers. Although it makes such a negligible difference to the world’s eco-systems, I feel better for doing the right thing, where before I would have been thuggishly exterminatory and uncaring. After all, the hymn is All Creatures Great And Small. I am giddily proud of my tiny acts of redemption and also that after a moment’s thought I had the wherewithal to follow my wife’s lead, and that she had, in turn, followed our daughter’s innocent act of generosity of spirit.

Because, after all, that is how compassion spreads, isn’t it? When we follow tiny, perhaps insignificant examples and surprise even ourselves, instead of relapsing unthinkingly into our essentially brutish nature.

Today, bees. Tomorrow, each other?

You never know. It could happen.

  1. Yolly, how do you know that this isn’t the apian equivalent of flying to Dignitas in Switzerland?

    Having made the decision that their lives aren’t worth living. simply being a ‘worker’ isn’t fulfilling and their dreams of West End stardom and a hit pop record will never come to fruition, for which I blame the plethora of reality tv pumping out vacuous programming telling all and sundry that their worthless lives will be enhanced by subjecting themselves to nationwide ridicule, is it any wonder that beaming this tripe over the ether is being picked up by insect life who are being driven to suicide.

    What your family’s ‘kindness’ really manifests itself as is some insect version of The Samaritans, only the bees aren’t making a plea for help, they’ve tried to shuffle off this mortal coil only to be rescued by some do-gooder without so much as a ‘by your leave’.


    • Yes, well, there would seem to have been an unexpected spike in insect suicide then, Andy. At least in one little corner of the world. Clearly the role of popular culture in insect despair should be further investigated 🙂


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  3. Richard Ember says:

    I remember having dinner with a friend who snatched the plate away from a waiter, accused him of being ‘Basil Fawltey on Speed’ and was generally quite irritated with the waiter. Now, who was that?


  4. Daniel Hunt says:

    The only Bee sting I have ever received was in that pool. I remember standing there with half an onion applied tenderly to the sting by instruction from Jenny, whilst Caitlin googled whether the treatment had any scientific basis. As I recall it did not, but we had a grand old laugh! Miss you all


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