In praise of honey-bees


Our busy pollinating friends are an inspiration to us, and essential to our lives!

With the recent warmer weather I have been coaxed into opening the window in our office at the Cathedral. A wonderful, loud sound greeted me – of busy buzzing honey-bees! I know that some people are a bit oo-er about that, but I love it! The reason for the noise is the presence, just outside the office window, of four bee-hives. There are tending by dedicated bee-keepers – or apiarists to give them their proper name. The bees not only polinate lots of flowers and trees roundabout the Cathedral and its neighbourhood, but also contribute to the honey that is sold in our Cathedral Shop.


Bees have long been an inspiration to us. The Victorians loved them, because they were an example of hard work and industry – something that they held in high regard! One ditty from the era was:


How doth the little busy Bee
Improve each shining Hour,
And gather Honey all the day
From every opening Flower!


At a recent staff meeting in the Cathedral, one of our colleagues reminded us of the example of the honey-bee and how each one has a role to play in the colony. We tend to think of them going out from the hive to find pollen, and foraging for the essential materials with which to build the comb. But even when back at the hive they are active: telling other bees where to find pollen and engaging in the all-important task of regulating the temperature and ventilation of the hive. It really is quite a feat of engineering and community endeavour.


In addition to all that, some honey-bees, especially in Asia, have developed a remarkable behaviour, called ‘heat-balling’. If the hive is attacked by the terrifying Asian hornet, they work together to try and repel it. The hornets send out scout bees to look for a hive. If one finds a hide, it makes its ‘notes’ and looks to return to its own colony to bring back dozens of other hornets. Some thirty Asian hornets can kill off and plunder a hive of tens of thousands of honey-bees in a few hours. But Asian honey-bees have developed a special strategy in order to improve the odds. If a scout arrives, then hundreds of honey-bees surround it – many of them dying in this maneouvre, for the hornet is far larger and has a more deadly sting. But gradually as they all gather in a ball around the hornet, the whole mass heats up. Amazingly the bees can survive a temperature just one or two degrees Celsius higher than the hornet. So they do just enough to cook the hornet, but not die themselves in the process. Ain’t nature grand?! You can see a vide of of it happening on:

It’s not for the faint-hearted! Poignantly, it takes one honey-bee initially to sacrifice itself to trigger the heat-ball. Which, by the way, reminds of what we have just celebrated in the self-sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, for the greater good of all humanity. I’ll leave that thought with you…..


Honey-bees are but one of some 270 types of bee that we have in the UK. Most of them are solitary bees. The familiar honey and bumble-bees that we see more commonly are just the tip of a huge bee-iceberg (not a good metaphor I suppose!). They, and many other insect types, are essential for polinating flowering-plants, including trees and grasses. Our commercially-grown crops would not yield food for us, were it not for the pollinating work of bees. Yet our bees, along with other insects, are under threat from many directions, including loss of habitat and man-made chemicals in the environment. One such group of chemicals are the neoniconitoids, which are used widely as pesticides by farmers. Research suggests that they appear to harm the bees’ foraging ability and therefore their effectiveness as a colony. The chemicals were largely banned in 2013 by EU regulations. In these post-Brexit days, the Government can choose to ‘sit light’ to such regulations. Indeed it authorised their targeted re-introduction recently for trying to deal with a particular threat to the UK sugar-beat crop. The concern is, however, that they may creep back more widely, under commercial pressure. If you feel strongly about this, there is a petition to the Government to debate a complete ban, but it must be signed by 25th July 2022.


So please let’s look after our bees. If you wish to know more about them, how to recognise them, and how to help them thrive, then a great source of information is the website of the Wildlife Trusts.


And, of course, the products of the two Liverpool Cathedrals’ honey-bees can be enjoyed by purchasing their honey from our Shop!


Next time you see a bee, take a moment to give thanks for this remarkable creature, and what it brings to our world.


With good wishes

Canon Neal