Friday, 18 June 2021

The Bees' Knees!

 In my first post on Bees, on 11th May, I mentioned our neighbour had begun to keep bees. In fact, his daughter has taken over that responsibility and now has about 30 hives! So today, we’re going to look at apiculture from a more personal perspective.

  Below we see our neighbor and his wife opening up the hive to check that all is well. You will notice they are wearing protective suits and gloves in white. When I joined them to take pictures, they advised me not to wear anything black. Bees are said to associate dark colours with predators – bears and badgers – and can go on the defensive. Current thinking indicates it may be smells that are more disturbing than colour – but why take chances!? They are also wearing netting on part of their helmets. Bees are attracted to one’s breath and a sting on the face can be very painful.                         

Ioannis has removed the frame from the hanging container and is inspecting it. The close-up below shows the bees still hard at work, despite the intrusion.     



 The orange-colored sealed inner cells contain the larvae, while the darker cells on the outside of the frame contain honey. So the frame serves as both nursery and pantry!   


Above we can see the beekeeper tools of the trade. He has a smoker to lull the bees. The smoke can mask the pheromones released by the guard bees once the hive is breached.  It also encourages the bees to eat, a response to the possibility of their having to leave the hive because of fire. Essentially the smoke reduces the likelihood of the bees attacking.

 He will feed the bees to ensure they survive the winter. He has both pollen patties and syrup which you can see him adding in the picture below.                                               

And now for my final section:

Interesting information on bees

  • Soldier bees perform security guard duties all their lives.
  • Regular worker bees will change duties according to their age and the needs of the colony. Before undertaking a new duty, their brain chemistry changes!
  • After a bee stings, it dies. On stinging, it leaves behind some muscle and nerves and part of its digestive tract. It is this abdominal rupture that kills the bee.
  • Bees fly at about 20 miles per hour.
  • Bees have five eyes: 2 large side compound eyes with lots of tiny lenses as well as three ocelli which are simple insect eyes with light-sensitive cells.
  • They communicate via pheromones as well as by ‘dancing’ to convey the location of food sources.
  • Bees are experts at geometry: the honeycomb cell is the most efficient structure in nature as it uses the least amount of wax in its construction.
  • Bees are expert mathematicians. On receiving information, say of six separate food locations, they can calculate the shortest possible route to reach all the flowers.      So that’s why we talk of making a bee-line somewhere!

 I think the information that really made me think was the fact that it takes the lifetimes of 12 working bees to make one teaspoon of honey.   That’s an awful lot of effort- so bear that in mind next time you sample some great Greek yoghurt and slather it with delicious honey.

And finally a little sketch of mine in homage to the honeybee - respect!



Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Bees : The Colony and its Operation.

 In my previous post, we looked at the history of bee-keeping and beehive design. Today our focus will be on the colony itself and how it operates. Each hive will have worker bees, usually one queen bee and drones, each social group design differing and directly related to its function within the colony.


 The DRONES are sexually developed males and each hive will have around several hundred of them on board. When the queen is ready to mate, drones can identify her location by sensing special chemicals, or pheromones, which she emits. Drones die after mating in the air as they have fulfilled their function in the hive which has no further use for them.

A few larvae are fed royal jelly which helps produce a larger bee more quickly. The first virgin QUEEN to emerge from the cell will eat honey, groom herself and then search for rival queens in the hive. Should there be others, they will fight to the death to decide who reigns in the colony. Once the victor is about one week old, she will fly at a distance from the hive, attract the drones to mate with her then, alone, she returns to the hive as the new queen mother. She is now especially well looked after by nurse bees and within three to four days she starts laying her eggs - usually in early summer.

Her main roles are to produce the eggs and she can lay up to 1,500 egg each day at peak time - that number depends on the amount of food that is made available to her. Since she does not forage as do the worker bees, her design lacks some of the components they require to carry out their duties. Her other responsibility is to maintain unity within the colony by virtue of her specific identity and her production of queen substance, the mandibular pheromone which she feeds to her nurses and who in turn share with the rest of the  colony.  This secretion helps drones identify an unmated queen as well as inhibits worker bees from developing ovaries and from rearing new queens. Her usual life span is about two to three years. As her capabilities decline, worker bees will begin feeding larvae, one of which will be reared to take over her role

There will be several thousand WORKER BEES  in each hive and their life span is generally only between 5-6 weeks, but over winter can survive for 4-6 months, thereby ensuring the continuity of the colony for the next season, as they keep both the brood and the queen warm and fed in the  cold weather. The workers are sexually undeveloped females since, as fertilized eggs, they have been fed more of a honey and pollen mix and less royal jelly than those destined to be queens.  Worker bees are the smallest in size but more complex in design, which reflects the diversity of duties they may have to perform.

Their main duties are to:

  • Gather pollen and nectar
  • Make wax, build honeycomb and produce honey
  • Clean and defend the hive and regulate the inside temperature
  • Care for the brood and the queen bee.

Their duties are dependent on their age and the needs of the colony. Only in the last few weeks of their lives do worker bees go outside the hive.

Their foraging outside is what produces the bees’ food store. They collect nectar, which is the excess plant sugar found at the base of flowers. They store nectar in their stomachs till they return to the hive; during this trip an enzyme in their stomach turns this sugar into diluted honey. This they deposit in the comb cells which other worker bees will fan with their wings until the excess water evaporates, leaving pure honey, their carbohydrate food store.

But worker bees are not purely honey harvesters.  To ensure theirs is a balanced diet, bees also collect pollen which contains both healthy fats and proteins. Pollen is the powder produced by the male part of the plant. Since plants cannot fertlise themselves, the bee helps perform this task by scattering pollen onto the female plant parts during the collection process.   


Bees also produce propolis which has as its base a resinous substance they collect from tree buds. When this is mixed with their saliva and beeswax it produces a sticky substance which they use as glue.  With this they seal cracks in the hive as well as reduce the entrance size to keep out the cold in winter months. Propolis is said to have anti-bacterial properties and has been found to help wounds heal.

In order to create worker bees and queens, one final substance is required: royal jelly.   Bees working as nurse bees eat fermented pollen and add gland secretions to produce it. This is fed to the larvae at critical times and determines how their development will proceed.


Above we see   how the worker bees tend and help to produce a healthy brood. Next time we call someone ‘a busy bee’, perhaps we can appreciate more fully the full semantic import of the metaphor!                                     

Tuesday, 11 May 2021

Bee-keeping throughout history.

 We are becoming increasingly aware of how important bees are. Undoubtedly they are important for our food production: as well as supplying us with honey, their pollination activities are required by 30% of the world’s crops and 90% of all plants in the world. However, because of climate change, increasing use of pesticides as well as loss of habitat, the number of bee colonies is in decline.

Our neighbor has recently begun keeping bees, which prompted me to look a little closer at these beautiful, fascinating insects.


We see early depictions of man collecting honey from wild bees around 10, 000 years ago. He began to keep colonies of wild bees and wooden boxes, pottery vessels and straw baskets served as hives. The domestication of bees probably began around 4,500 years ago in Egypt as evidenced in their art form. Tomb inscriptions of around 650 BC outline in detail the production of honey, featuring cylindrical hives and jars containing honey. This was clearly a valuable commodity: sealed pots of honey were found in Tutenkhamun’s tomb. Below we see examples of 14th century hives.


The Ancient Chinese were aware that the quality of honey was affected by the quality of wood used in the hive boxes. Around 2000 BC the Ancient Maya had actually domesticated a species of bee which was stingless and today such species are to be found in Australia.

In prehistoric Greece, apiculture was fairly well developed in the Mycenaean culture; in Knossos hives, smoking pots and instruments to extract honey were found. Later on, Aristotle outlined in-depth information about bees and bee-keeping.

 It was clearly, then, a valuable industry.


 However, early bee-keepers were destructive, using the same collecting methods as hungry bears. The wild hives were broken up and honeycomb was procured at the expense of everything else: eggs, larvae, the entire colony – all destroyed.

Perhaps the most important role in apiculture was that of the mediaeval monasteries, institutions which were then like universities in that they maintained great stores of knowledge. For the monks, bees’ wax was particularly important for their candle-making, while honey, as well as being a natural food-sweetener, was used to make mead, an alcoholic drink created by fermenting honey with water. In the 18th and 19th centuries, monks developed methods whereby bees’ lives were preserved during the harvesting process.

The Swiss naturalist, Francois Huber is generally regarded as the father of modern bee science. There were two major developments that greatly assisted beekeepers and their art.

1) Improved beehive design

This allowed for the parallel array across the hive of suspended wooden frames where the bees could fix the comb to be filled with honey; this comb could be removed with little disturbance for the bees.

 The bottom board holds the entrance to the hive and above it we see a series of boxes called supers. The deep super contains the queen, the bees and the babies. Above this is the excluder, to prevent the queen accessing the honey stores above, yet allowing the smaller worker bees to go back and forth about their business.                                   

The honey supers are their production units – and the bee-keeper’s harvest. Final covers protect the entire hive.2)The bee-space concept was the final development step. It was discovered that the distance between the suspended frames needed to be at least one centimetre.  A larger space would encourage the bees to build honeycomb, but a smaller space would be filled with propolis, a glue used to construct their hives. This was not preferable since it distracted bees from honey production and hampered the removal of the comb.

Delving into how a bee colony operates, we can appreciate the true complexity of nature!            

Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Farewell, Leondaris!

 We have just said goodbye to our well-loved Leondaris. He has kept us company, entertained us and, above all, he has been a member of our family for nine full years. He was a strong character and his presence is hugely missed.

A local couple had found him abandoned by the roadside and, although they took him in, having a very small garden, they could not keep a puppy that was clearly going to become a big dog.  Z saw their electronic post and went to see him. Adorable though the puppy was, it was that he got on so well with the couple’s cats that won Z’s heart.   


And so Leondaris came to stay. He immediately made himself at home and was a really cheeky wee pup with initial inability to control his ears – often in a one-up, one-down state!

And, as Z predicted, he got on well with our cats. Below he’s bidding Prunella a good morning in the garden.


In this next shot he’s reclining in the sun with Mr Mao – both instinctively able to suss out the sunniest spots and shady arbours as day develops.                                            


He was a great guard dog: the slightest sound would have him thundering down the path, throwing his weight against the outside gate to inspect instantly. A local tradesman, unaware we had a dog, once rang the outer bell. As we answered we heard him shriek – he was suddenly face-to-face with our canine constable!


Leon thoroughly enjoyed gardening with us and I always took a wee break from the weeding for puppy-cuddle-time. He welcomed guests and Konstantina, a regular visitor while she studied at the university here, was a firm favourite. His soft eyes could melt hearts – Chrissie said he was The Most Beautiful Dog. Ever. David had to stand – or try to stand - his exuberance as Leon rushed to embrace him, both paws of David’s shoulder. High impact! Margaret, sunning poolside on the recliner, watched in dismay as the naughtie proudly disappeared at high speed with her new sundress trailing from his mouth – eugh!


Here is one of my favourite shots of him. He was too intrigued by the snow to stay out of it. Mind you, his thick coat meant he was impervious to the cold.                                           

 Our doggie enjoyed his food and one of his real favourites was watermelon flesh and juice. In that preference he greatly resembled his master.                                   

With very heavy hearts we paid the vet/ferryman to help him more speedily on his way.     We hope he finds a puppy paradise where he can run free once more, chasing birds and butterfly shadows to his heart’s content.

 Dog  speed  - kalo tou taxidi!

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

Greek Bicentennial Celebrations.

 Our bicentennial celebrations went off very well and, although there was a biting wind, the sun shone brightly on guests and participants.

 Around the world countries honoured this special event by projecting related images onto their well-known buildings and landmarks. Below can be seen the San Francisco City Hall, Sydney Opera House, the Empire State Building, and the San Francisco suspension bridge.                                  

The Niagara Falls made an even more spectacular sight shaded in blue.





For me one of the most impressive lightshows came from Sao Paolo: their series of images included one of the national flag along with the Parthenon, images of an athlete and tumbler on a background of the Olympic Laurel wreath and, finally, with a touch of humour, the ubiquitous Greek talisman- the evil eye.


 Another country that merits mention is Haiti, being the first to recognize Greece as an independent state. This was a poor country formed by a slave uprising which defeated the French in 1804. The then Haitian President expressed his regret that they had no funds to donate, but arranged for a huge shipment of  25 tons of coffee to be sent, to be sold to buy weapons for the revolutionaries. What a wonderful example of support and solidarity!  

Of course, throughout Greece statues have long commemorated the freedom fighters of 1821 on whom the very existence of the current Hellenic Republic firmly rests. One that made an impression on me is that of Theodoros Kolokotronis on Stadiou Street just before it merges with Syntagma Square.  


He is easily identifiable by his kilted tunic, flowing locks, voluptuous moustache and unique helmet which he obtained when he served in the British army. This stood near the trolley stop I used every working day to get home to Paleon Phaliron. Invariably there was no trolley there and I had to wait for the next one. The statue proudly shows this great general leading his men into combat, but to me he invariably seemed to be saying,  'You just missed the number 30 – it went off in that direction 5 minutes ago!’

Another famous character is the Lady Captain Laskarina Bouboulina who personifies the significant role played by women in the national struggle. She was a ship-owner from Spetses who not only donated her ships to the national fleet but personally fought on board. Not so well-known, but equally intrepid, was Domna Visvizi, the widow of a Thracian shipowner, who similarly donated to and fought for the war effort. 

 The celebration is not over, however, as lots of exhibitions and special events have been organized throughout the year which we look forward to enjoying.

And on March 25th we shared one experience with the rest of Greece: at midday we sat down to the traditional meal of battered cod and garlic sauce. Everyone eats the sauce so no one can complain about what one waiter in Paleon Phaliron used to call ‘the garlic perfume’ of the others!                                           

Zito I Hellas - long live Greece!                 

Saturday, 20 March 2021


 March is a busy month this year! We’ve just celebrated Tsiknopempti (Smelly Thursday) where mouth-watering smells of roasting meat on outside spits mark the last meat-eating day before Orthodox Lent begins. 

 Last week we celebrated Clean Monday,  the beginning of the 40-day Orthodox Fast. Though religious festivals, essentially both entail sitting with family and friends round a groaning board, one full of a variety of meats, the other of seafood, vegetables and pulses.

But next week we will have a very special celebration. 25th March is always observed as the day Greece gained her independence from the Ottoman Empire. And, of course, there is food associated with that day: cod fried in batter. Most houses will proudly bear the national flag on their flagstaff.  But this year is the Bicentennial and, though Covid-19 restrictions will undoubtedly put a damper on things, there WILL be a celebration. The lady in charge of the organizing Greece 2021 Committee, Gianna Daskalaki, trained lawyer, and former MP, was also President of the 2004 Olympic Games committee. That event was undeniably a huge success so we are expecting great things from her once more.

Here she is at one of the celebratory events recently. She is well known for her impeccable dress-sense, as demonstrated by her outfit of a traditional-style waist coat and sash, but it was her handbag, specially designed for the Bicentennial celebrations, which had Greece all a-Twitter. It was a limited-edition piece, in the style of a purse which was clearly inspired by the foustanella, or kilted skirt, worn by the national guard. I love her style!


 For those of us who had to mug up on Greek culture and history as part of our naturalization process, the struggle for independence is a topic we are fairly familiar with. During the 400 years of Turkish occupation, the Greek language and culture still obtained, but there were always little pockets of resistance against the occupying force. There were, within and outside the country, sympathetic groups and secret organizations – some inspired by the French Revolution – who supported such resistance in a variety of ways. The real concerted effort, however, began in 1821 in the Peloponnese. This wave of resistance, powered by politicians, military personnel, clerics and ordinary Greeks, spread throughout the mainland. Despite a series of defeats, the Greek forces continued to fight bravely. As they gained ground, they went so far as to draw up a constitution and vote in a government, yet the Great Powers refused to acknowledge it since it was revolutionary in nature.

The odds were really stacked against the establishment of the Hellenic state, especially when the forces of the Turkish Sultan, Mahmud II, were supported by those of the Egyptian Leader, Mehmet Ali, and his nephew, Ibrahim. However, when the Western forces decided to come to the assistance of the Greeks, they sent a united fleet to join the Greek fleet, defeating the Turko-Egyptian forces and ending the war in the Peloponnese at the decisive Battle of Navarinou  in October 1827. The European powers, especially Britain, decided to give their support to a free, independent Hellenic state as provided by the Treaty of London on 3rd February 1830, ratified by Britain, France and the Russian Empire. Ioannis Kapodistrias a diplomat, became its first Governor, with its capital at Nauplion.


 It is a very sobering thought that back then, the Greek borders extended only to about Arta-Lamia, in Central Greece, and did not contain many of its islands. In 1912-1913, the land area doubled, but it was not until 1947, when the Treaty of Paris allowed for the transfer of the Dodecanese islands from Italy, that the Greek borders came to constitute Greece as we know it today. In addition since she gained her independence, she has known much turmoil: she endured WW1 then the Nazi Occupation from 1941-1944, she suffered internal unrest during the Civil War form December 1944 to October 1949,she bore the hardships of the military dictatorship from 1967 to 1974.

I mention these facts not to detract from the celebrations but to acknowledge that this state is a relatively young one who has encountered much in her short life.                                    

She has every reason to celebrate her hard-earned independent identity. Below we see the symbol of the Bicentennial – 200 years after the Uprising, Greece 2021.Special guests at the celebrations are: Mikhail Mishustin, Russian Prime Minister, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife, Brigitte, as well as our very own Prince Charles and Camilla. They represent the Western Powers who helped Greece gain her free status.

 I am looking forward to the events and our flag will definitely be unfurled for the occasion!

Monday, 8 March 2021

March, the Martis and the Eleusinian Mysteries.

 We’ve just welcomed in March and the traditional greeting in any new month is ‘Kalo mina’ - ‘May you have a good month’.  Folklore says if March comes in like a lion, she will go out like a lamb …. and vice-versa!

 In Greek there is a saying: Martis, gdhartis kai kaloupokaftis literally translated as ‘March the skin flayer and fence-post burner’. This makes reference to the unpredictable weather: the hot sun can burn your skin, yet the cold can force you to burn the fence stobs when fuel is used up at winter’s end.

It is a month of hope – and good cheer, we all need that! We look forward to longer, milder days, trees in blossom, the equinox will happen shortly and spring proper is not far away.                                                 

For this month in Greece people traditionally wear the marti: a simple bracelet made of woven red and white threads. This tradition is said to date back to the Eleusinian Mysteries, or secret rites, which took place annually at Eleusini, situated between Athens and the Peloponnese.  The rites performed there are in three phases and reenact the abduction, the search for and the return of Persephone. 


 Persephone the daughter of Demeter, the goddess of agriculture and fertility, had the delightful task of painting all the flowers of the earth, thus she can be said to personify spring.

According to the myth, before completing her task, she was abducted by Hades, the god of the Underworld. The distressed Demeter caused a dreadful drought and, to ease the suffering of gods and men alike, Zeus intervened and allowed Penelope to return to her mother.

 There was, however, a rule in the Underworld, that whoever ate or drank there was doomed to stay forever. Since Hades had tricked Persephone into eating 4-6 pomegranate seeds, her penalty was to return to the Underworld for 4 to 6 months every year. During her daughter’s annual absence, Demeter neglected her duties of cultivation.

It is interesting to see how inclusive these events were since women and slaves were allowed to attend. There were two requirements that allowed attendance:

1) being free from ‘blood guilt’ i.e. not having committed murder……. and

2) not being a ‘barbarian’ i.e. being able to speak Greek !!

 During initiation ceremonies, participants, who were obliged to swear an oath of secrecy, wore red thread called the kroki tied round their right wrists and left ankles. And this is what we continue when we wear the Marti.                                      

 It is a tradition that has spread and the bracelet is now worn in other Balkan countries, though its significance and related practices may vary a little. In North Macedonia it is called the martinka, Albanians refer to the verore, while Bulgarians wear the martenitsa.

Jewellers, of course, offer more up-market pieces of adornment, which may be made of gold or silver, and have precious stones – often the blue-eye talisman - woven into the design.


Traditionally, however, this is a very simple bracelet made of hand-woven red and white strands which may have little trinkets threaded onto them. The red and white threads are said to represent health and fertility, strength and purity, respectively. The martis was believed to confer health, good luck and protection in general on the wearer. It was even said to protect from the strengthening sun rays and prevent sunburn. 

Some wear it till it disintegrates, some take it off at the end of the month, while others do so only once they have seen the first swallow of the season. Then it may be hung on a branch of a tree in the hope the swallow might use it to build her nest.

So there we have it: a beautiful tale designed as an explanation of our seasonal changes.     And a tradition that we share with Greek culture from days long gone to the present time.

 Kalo mas mina – may the month be kind to us!