Bees are not always as friendly as their reputation would have us believe with fights to the death and robbery commonplace

The life of a honeybee is a fascinating subject for children to learn
The life of a honeybee is a fascinating subject for children to learn
Have your say

Children are naturally curious about bees

From an early age we teach them that they are basically friendly creatures that just need to be treated with a bit of respect.

To help them recognise the sociable honeybee we often give them a picture book showing a lovely picture of a nice fat stripy bee and ask them to colour it in.

The only slight problem with this approach is that what we are telling them is not entirely true.

Almost all colouring books show a picture of a bumblebee and as a result surprisingly few people can actually recognise a honeybee because they are much slimmer and plainer than most folk expect.

Tree planting projects can apply for grant funding from Bettys Tree for Life project for another year
Yorkshire trees have provided seed specimens for the UK's first national tree seed project at Kew

So, when my fellow beekeeper Mike and me got a chance to go to Cowling School and stand in front of 30 primary school students to tell them about bee keeping, we jumped at the chance.

One of the myths we busted was that honeybees are not always quite so nice and friendly as they are reputed to be.

They may be very social insects but so are humans and both species can become dangerously tribal on occasion.

Honeybees are quite capable of robbing their neighbours, killing each other and individual acts of selfishness that the rest of the community needs to discipline.

Most hives of honeybees contain only one queen yet when that queen needs replacing the workers will often raise three or four potential new queens and let the first one to emerge kill off the others or, if two emerge at the same time, fight to the death to decide who is the fittest.

Hives can also rob each other. If there is one strong colony in the neighbourhood and one weak one there is always a risk that the strong one may start to steal whatever honey it can from the neighbours.

Why fly hundreds of yards and work hard to collect nectar and pollen if you can find your way past the defence guards in next door’s hive?

Once a couple of bees find theft easier than earning an honest living it isn’t long before the new source of food is heavily exploited and that usually only ends one way.

The weak hive eventually dies.

When it comes to giving birth it is often said that only the queen bee ever gives birth and all the female workers selflessly help her.

Usually that is true but it is not at all rare for a few of the workers to try and lay their own eggs.

Since worker bees are incapable of mating this means their eggs are unfertilised and will only ever turn into poor quality male bees.

Sisters of the laying worker bees will therefore usually kill the unwanted offspring and get the hive safely back to a single collective purpose.

Nature is rarely nice, neat and simple. Even the most sociable and well-liked creatures can be ruthless and selfish.

Yet it remains true that honeybees are inspiringly fascinating creatures and are hugely helpful to the environment.

So the best question we got asked by the children was the simplest one.

One child raised her hand and wanted to know: “How can we help bees?”

Our answer wasn’t quite so straightforward. It helps bees if you have plants in your garden that come out and provide food early in the season as this is when colonies most need food and are at their weakest.

Plants like ivy which flower very late in the year also help, as bees use them to build up stores for winter.

Yet bees normally find enough food. What they struggle to cope with is unusual pests and diseases.

So, strangely one of the most harmful things for honeybees turns out to be beekeepers artificially spreading those diseases across continents.

In some parts of the world hives are transported over great distances.

Every spring many billions of bees are driven across the United States to pollinate huge plantations of almond trees. Once they arrive in California, they exchange disease and parasites.

Those problems can be made even worse when bee keepers buy imported queen bees as they also help to spread disease and pests.

British honeybees have been seriously weakened in recent years by the arrival of a varroa parasite that is native to South Asia but proved devastating when it arrived here.

Coping with new parasites and new chemicals is also hard.

Bees don’t like pesticides, fungicides or even herbicides. What many species of bees do like is untended heaps of vegetation.

So, that means there is a very easy way children can help bees.

All they need to do is to persuade their parents to get a little lazier in the garden and do less.

Hopefully, that advice won’t prove entirely unpopular!