They've been busy as the proverbial bees in Bulgaria, as this picture of a dimly lit vigil shows. If you look closely at the jars amid the candles at this church 60 miles south of the country's capital, Sofia, you'll see they contain something rather sweet. It's the town's honey harvest, and it is the focus of a religious festival that pays homage to the hardest-working of insects.
The annual event takes place in the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin church in the town of Blagoevgrad (try saying that with a mouth full of toast and honey), and its Orthodox residents are offering praise to Saint Haralambos, a patron saint of apiarists – or beekeepers. Locals say a holy mass for "the sanctification of honey" and cover their bread with the anointed spread. Soon afterwards, all being well, the weather gets warmer and the land is ready to be cultivated. People here also say honey has healing properties.
The Bulgarians' prayers are probably needed because, in global terms, bees are in crisis. Where once the earth was well stocked with the fuzzy little critters, experts now say the insects are being struck down by illness. And there are implications more serious than just a shortage of honey; many crops (such as cotton and oilseed rape) depend on honey bees to pollinate them. Experts claim it is the result of Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a kind of foot-and-mouth-style affliction hitting bee populations.
At the weekend, John Chapple, the chairman of the London Beekeepers Association, said: "Without bees, life as we know it will not exist." Let's hope the Bulgarians' prayers were heard.