Buzzing with bees

July 25, 2012

By Lisi Niesner

An unsettling night followed this story. It felt as if something was scuttling on my skin. It was a tickling feeling which made me scratch and I saw bugs bustling around in my mind’s eye. In the morning I could not remember exactly what I had dreamed, but the one thing I knew, all night long I had heard the buzz in my head.

I got plenty of mosquito bites, a bee sting, and on top of that several times I encountered stinging nettles and thistles while shooting Vienna’s city beekeepers. The Austrian organization Stadtimker, retains wild bees and honey bees in the city area of Vienna. Everybody who has a little garden or a roof-top can join and make room available for one or more bee hives. The beekeepers build up the hives and fully care for them generally once a week.

The hives are placed on prominent buildings in the city center: On the roof of the Austrian chancellery, the State Opera or the Burgtheater, just to mention a few of the most important. The organic honey and even cosmetic products can be purchased in some cooperative shops in Vienna.

I joined beekeeper Felix Munk while he cared for the honey bee hives on top of the chancellery, in the gardens of Belvedere palace, and next to the oil port. He supplied food and water, changed honeycomb and checked the development of the bee colony as well as the weather resistance level of the hives.

I love assignments where I can wear the work clothes of my subjects. In this case I put on a long-sleeve white protective vest with a netting hat to keep the bees off my face. Felix told me just one simple instruction: Do not wave your hands when a bee appears. I believe everybody is well aware of this advice, but apparently not everyone sticks to the rule. I can definitely say there is no reason to freak out. Lots of bees buzzed around my head or sat down on my bare hands. I even reached into a little box full of bustling bees and not one responded to this intrusion at all.

I try to avoid lots of numbers and scientific content in my stories but while traveling on the bee bus, I learned a few interesting things: The honey harvest can decrease by up to 60 percent during a rainy summer when the bees stay in the hive and eat the honey reserves; a battle between two queens can take up to five hours – in most cases the younger queen wins; the bee venom is a medically recognized treatment for rheumatism; a worker bee’s life only takes around six weeks and it literally works to death; 60 percent of the pollination is done by wild bees of which 500 different species appear in Austria.

Sergej was another city beekeeper at the Lobau location where the organization has its own queen bee cultivation. Sergej used a smoker to simulate a forest fire while he shared a bee colony to create a second one, giving them a new queen. Bees started drinking or simply tried rescuing the honey and were too busy to sting when they smelled the smoke. Beekeepers say that bees can remember bad experiences and call aggressive bees “the sting bees”. Lucky me, I met this kind of insect. I was photographing and one bee decided to sit down on the ISO button of the camera. A few seconds later a thorn stuck in my finger and the bee’s death was imminent.

Now, I can barely remember the buzzing sound, the scuttling feeling is gone, no more pictures of nonexistent insects and my finger is no longer swollen. For today, I find bees very likeable animals.

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