Bee’s knees

Not really the knees, but filled pollen baskets. That’s what stopped me in my tracks inside the Presidential gardens. As I tried to take a better picture, a plainclothes security man appeared at my elbow and said “You can’t stop to take pictures.” Without taking my eyes off the bee, I said “But photography with the phone is allowed in the garden.” He replied “But it doesn’t mean that you have to take a photo of every flower.” I conceded that point, but argued that I hadn’t, I wasn’t even so interested in the flower. It was the bee I was looking at. But he didn’t stay to listen to me; other knots of people attracted his interest.

Bees do not feed on nectar alone. While carbs are good for giving them energy, all individuals, especially the growing larvae, need proteins and fats. That comes from pollen. Bees are not being altruistic in taking pollen from one flower to another in order to further the reproductive success of plants. They harvest pollen, and nectar, in order to feed themselves. The sexual favours to plants are incidental. Hairy species of bees just carry the pollen in mats of hair called scopa. But these red dwarf honey bees (Apis florea) have pollen baskets, corbicula, on the tibia of their hind legs instead. I haven’t noticed them so full before. I wish I had panniers built into my legs; it would be a very useful alternative to plastic shopping bags.

10 images from year 403 which I liked on second view

For my post on the last day of the year 403 ME, I decided to look through the photos I took of the past year and pull together all those which still looked interesting to me: water birds scolding, wheat fields ripening, water buffaloes wading into a lake, and other such. Even as you look at them, the earth is speeding towards that special point in its orbit, that place where it is closest to the sun, the perihelion: that unique point from which one can truly count the beginning of a new year. The earth has been falling since July, picking up speed as the year ends. It has been moving faster and faster as it whizzes downhill, towards the new new year. Tomorrow, as it turns past that mark, it will begin to lose speed as it climbs up to July again.

Yellow grass
Tsechu in the Hemis monastery
How many Chital (Axis axis)?
Cattle egret turn into tractor egrets
A coot leaves behind disturbed water as it takes off
Micro green forest
Make way! Make way …
St+Art Mumbai: art must be engaging
Red dwarf honeybees (Apis florea) having a water cooler moment
Roadside tyre repair shop
A hospital can be beautiful
Two long-billed pipits (Anthus similis) confer
Cactus flower: angiosperms come in such variety!
Hog deer (Axis procinus): now you see me …

White Dahlias

A cousin who was almost exactly my age died of a sudden massive heart attack at a family wedding. I hadn’t seen him after 2019, but he had looked perfectly fit in the photos that his son and daughter had sent us in these months. He was his cheerful self whenever we chatted. We were in the same class in school, and I broke the news to the rest of my old class. There was a uniform sense of shock, “Not him! So many of us are in much worse physical shape.” We did not travel for his rites; his sister advised us to visit his family later. When we saw them in the last two days we realized that she’d made the right call. His wife was talking to him in their hotel room when he died, and that shock will take a long time for her to process. In that time she will have to talk about it again and again, and she will need people to listen to her.

Since early 2020 eight people I knew well have died in the same manner: a sudden massive cardiac incident which gives no opportunity for intervention. Some of them have had elevated blood cholesterol. Others, not. Is it that in the last two years I have reached an age when many in my social circle become susceptible to such cardiac incidents? The dead range in age from their late 40s to the early 70s. I’m past halfway through this age band. If it is the age profile of my social circle which is producing this effect, then this apparent epidemic should have started a decade ago. So that cannot be the explanation. The only other thing that has happened in the last two years is the pandemic and its vaccine. Three of the people died before the vaccine was available, so Occam’s razor tells us that the deaths are not due to the vaccine. None of those who died had reported being infected. Could it be that they were among the asymptomatically infected? Or was it stress which killed them? No one has been entirely free of stress these two years. The questions multiply. Or is that just my reaction to the randomness of death?

A white and yellow Wednesday

Cosmos in Bikaner’s Lalgarh palace garden are full of bees this spring. Industrious little red dwarf honeybees are at work individually, not bothering to gang up on other insects. Perhaps in this hot desert land there are not so many other insects which need flowers.

I decided to go with a softer focus for this pair. I wonder whether it works.


All I wanted to do was to take extreme close ups of flowers. Unfortunately, winter is the time when all the bees and butterflies throng to flowers and refuse to give you a clear shot. As I took the featured photo I saw two bees which seemed to be nuzzling. By the size and colour they were the common dwarf honey bees (Apis florea). I played back the photo. Not nuzzling. What were they doing? Were they pushing about another insect?

I took a second shot. OMG! The horrors seem to be bullying a smaller insect. Should I report them to the mother? But they are known to be aggressive and territorial. Mother probably would probably laugh me out of the brood chamber. Before I could make up my mind the two had flown away with a smug and satisfied air. I looked back at the flower for the poor insect they had been nudging about, and I found that I couldn’t remember which of the many flowers I’d seen the bullies on. At least I got photographic evidence of their aggression.

Deep dive

The dwarf honeybee (Apis florea) that you see in the featured photo caught my attention because of waggling bottom. I’ve heard about their language of dance, so I’d imagined they would be supple, but this was quite amazing. It wagged its whole body to work its way deeper into the flower in order to reach its cache of nectar. Never having seen such a diligent bee, I took a photo. The flower was spectacular too.

A compound flower. The photo on the left focuses on the disk flowers, the other on the ray flowers.

I’ve written posts on compound flowers before, explaining the failure of Fibonacci numbers in accounting for the number of petals. This is a wonderful example, although I don’t know what the flower is called. A large flower like this has a central disk, where bees find nectar, and large petals on the outside. If you look closely, the center is full of tiny fully formed flowers, which are called ray flowers. The “petals” around it are each a separate flower, which are called disk flowers. Here you see that the disk flowers are actually each also a complete flower. You can tell that they have no separate chamber for nectar, because no pollinator comes to them. It’s a fantastic missing link between simple and compound flowers.

Tagetes and Apis

Does anyone really want to know that the name marigold is a mistake? That when these showy flowers were imported from South America, they were mistaken for a different European flower? That they could be called by the genus name Tagetes? Or that they are part of the Aster family of flowers, the Asteraceae? Or that the flower in the photos here belong to a cultivar of the species Tagetes erecta, also known as African Marigold, although it comes from Mexico and therefore should be called Aztec marigold? Or that the flowers are edible, and are used to produce edible yellow and orange dyes? I don’t think so.

What people are really interested in is the very supple red dwarf honey bee (Apis florea) shown in these photo. That’s because this pan-Asian species is the original honey bee from which all other honey bee species seem to have descended. In common with all honeybee species, queens mate with multiple drones and their eggs produce drones, workers, as well as future queens. Interestingly, workers often lay unfertilized eggs which can go on to produce viable drones. If these drones then start to impregnate the queen, then one of the half-sisters gains a reproductive advantage over the others. Such a disruption to the cooperative in the colony is not tolerated by the other workers, and they all police this by eating up eggs which have not been produced by the queen. Any attempt by a worker to give special treatment to a queen egg fathered by her own father is also policed. This kind of “worker policing” behaviour is inherited by all honeybees. The lives of bees are not as mechanical as I’d thought once. Bee hives are societies, and they have conflicts and their resolution, just as other societies have.

The waste land

Sunrise in Bhandup pumping station was spectacular. The vegetation dripped with water; either there had been a short shower late at night, or the ground was saturated with water and the vapour had condensed through the night. A shot against the rising sun gave the golden photo that you see above. The light changed rapidly, and part of the fun in photography was seeing the change.

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,

Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell

And the profit and loss.

A current under sea

Picked his bones in whipers.

The Waste Land, by T. S. Eliot

When I walk through the waste lands inside Mumbai, where nature has reclaimed the space abandoned by people, I do not quite feel as if I’m in a forest. You cannot forget the ghosts of the city: the boisterous boys cycling by in a rush, the distant infrastructure of ports, the paved roads falling into ruins. I am constantly reminded of the short fourth section of T.S. Eliot’s poem, The Waste Land.

Two hours later the light was beautiful, warm, and full. Perfect for catching this hovering honey bee (genus Apis). From its small size and colour, it was probably a red dwarf honey bee (Apis florea). With an exposure of 2.5 milliseconds, my photo sees an invisible blur of wings! Wingbeat frequencies have been recorded for several kinds of bees and flies; the wings beat slower in hover, and the records say that there would be around one beat in about 2.5 ms for bees. Clearly that is not true for this one; that blur indicates a significantly faster beat. Human muscles cannot move that fast for that long. The biochemistry of converting sugar into energy is the same in insects and mammals, so it is the actual muscle which is different. Fascinating thing to follow up on.