No, this is not about your religious education; it’s about the plight of the poor honey bee. Anyone who read The Secret Life of Bees was no doubt charmed- and sadly misled- about the lives of these so very clever and important creatures- and the sort of people who make up the backbone of the beekeeping business. The bees are not happily waggling about in their own backyard fields of clover and the bee keepers are not large gently magical black women who know how to heal a heart. I grew up terrified of bees, for no good reason. The terror reached panic proportions the couple of summers I spent sitting out in the yard with my eyes patched: then I could just hear what seemed like such a menacing buzz but not keep my eye on them. I never did get stung. Once I threw myself off the top crossbar of the swingset and drove my barrette into my skull trying to avoid a bee- but I never got stung. Over the years and more and more as I grew to enjoy gardening, I realized they were my friends and not the least bit interested in me unless I upset their course of progress. I learned to gently brush them out of my face and hair and knew that, in the cooler days of early autumn, it was okay to just pick one off a fall raspberry I wanted and move her onto another.
I’m sure most of you know more about honey bees (Apis mellifera) than I do but here’s the one paragraph synopsis for those of you who don’t. (We keep two hives at the farm at the zoo and I have to be able to give a ‘bee chat’ should the occasion arise.).
A bee hive or colony has a queen, the lone breeding female who spends her reproductive years laying eggs madly
and when she can’t do that any more the others sting her to death or drive her out, oh wait, that was just drift from the past few day’s posts and then there are male drones and sterile female workers. Naturally, the female workers do damn near everything. They clean house when they are young and feed larvae in comb cells, then they move on to building cell combs and arranging supplies and finally they get to go out and gather pollen as foragers. At this point in their lives they are also expected to start entertaining the troops with the ‘waggle dance.’
The waggle dance is one of nature’s more amazing feats. It was first described by Aristotle in 330BC and has been the source of considerable scientific curiosity ever since. Although the dance varies from species to species of honey bee, the gist is the same: it is GPS sophisticated beyond your wildest dreams as the dancing bee explains where the best pollen can be located right down to the inch. They take into account distance, height, wind speed, and the relative position of the sun and they communicate it with a sexy spin of the thorax and abdomen- sort of a bee belly dance. Then there is some more theory about the added role of pheromones and so forth; suffice it to say these fascinating insects are a natural wonder. Or, rather, they used to be. Natural, that is.
I was so naive that until recently I didn’t realize that nowadays the vast majority of honey bees spend their time on the road, in the backs of refrigerated trucks, as they are moved from farm to farm and offered for service. I always had an image, left over from my own childhood weekends on the family farm, that farmers all had beehives (I was afraid of those white boxes) and bees took care of business in the general vicinity. My grandfather wasn’t a “beekeeper” per se, but he knew, as did his neighbors, how to keep his bees happy and some honey coming off the hive each year.
In actuality, most industrial, commercialized farmers rent bees to do the job of pollination. They arrive at the appropriate time on large trucks. Honey bees provide over 14 billion dollars worth of service in the way of crop pollination in the United States and some agri-industries are almost 100% dependent on the humble honey bee. For the almond crop, the bee is the only thing; they do all of it. For apples and berries, they provide 90% of pollination. Squash is also between 90 and 100% bee pollinated, same with pears- and while we could do with a few less zucchini, I really need my pears. Not all crops are dependent on honey bees; corn, which cross pollinates, has no need of them. But then, of course, there’s the matter of honey, beeswax and FLOWERS. I repeat, FLOWERS.
Bees are sensitive little creatures. They are influenced by various life events at the most subtle levels: temperatures, population density, location, hive conditions. Any imbalance results in rises and drops in the pheromones that bees put off to communicate with each other about whether to be calm, reproduce, make honey, look for new digs, supercede or swarm. Swarming behavior, all by itself, is a subject a person could study for a long time. Old fashioned laissez-faire beekeeping depended upon the capture of swarms to replenish beekeeper colonies and early season swarms were especially valued because they are large and strong. Later season swarms are smaller, with older bees. An old English ditty says:
A swarm of bees in May is worth a load of hay;
A swarm of bees in June is worth a silver spoon;
A swarm of bees in July isn’t worth a fly.
These days, for the industrialized beekeeper, losing a swarm of bees is akin to a dairy farmer losing all of his calves. You can easily find lots to read about honey bees and their amazing social order and important roll in our economy and it’s all pretty interesting- and that brings me to CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder.
For a few years now, beekeepers had been noticing more serious fluctuations (downward) than normal in bee populations and as they first began puzzling over the causes they named it Fall Dwindle Disease. What started as unusually heavy die-off in colonies now manifests as whole colonies just disappearing. With 30% losses last fall, this year saw a decline of 70% in the honey bee population. Let me say that again: SEVENTY PERCENT in more than 24 states. They just weren’t there. Hives emptied out by the
hundreds of thousands millions but not as any organized swarms of healthy bees that could be rounded up and hived. Just gone, presumed dead. The remaining dead bees in the colonies showed much higher levels of pathogens. Scientists began to speculate. Research studies right and left, grant money. What could possibly be causing Colony Collapse Disorder?
Here is where I start to shake my head. Call me simple, go ahead, it applies- and yet. We use massive amounts of chemicals, particularly pesticides on field crops. The most notable is a lovely new pesticide that is particularly effective against a tobacco beetle and, Lord knows, in the cycle of waste, politics and lung disease, we need a healthy tobacco crop. Did anyone check with the bees before we started spraying this stuff all over? We load thousands of hives on the backs of trucks and drag the bees from pillar to post: one beekeeper brags that he hits the almond crop in California in February, and five more states in the next 7 months. (There is an interesting article here about this annual bee migration by truck.) Bees that have the most delicate and finely tuned GPS on the planet among man, car or beast- well we snatch up their homes and drive them hinter and yon. You know and I know what happens when you spend too much time on airplanes, trains, public transportation, right? We know what happens at the beginning of each school year when children go back into that bustling, bouncy germ pool on the playground, right?
I’m not switching subjects on you here, but yesterday I was in the children’s zoo, explaining to young campers how clever the North American Black Bear can be. He can learn to learn. He can extrapolate and use information gathered from one event or experience and apply it to another. Now when I ponder this whole bee problem, I’m thinking we are not smarter than your average bear if we are wondering why the honey bees are stressed and flying around in aimless circles, why their immune systems have collapsed, why they are dying and disappearing in droves. If I were more sophisticated in my thinking I too might want to understand the specific ramifications of neonicotinoids, a new class of pesticides, on the honey bee’s sense of direction.
As it is I am wondering, once again, about OUR sense of direction. And where we will be when there are no more honey bees? Finally, I’m wondering why we can’t think as clearly as the black bear about the consequences of our own behavior. Terrorists? Worry about bees for a bit.
(all these pictures are from a little walk about Garfield ark Conservatory where I found two healthy hives of bees. And that reminds me, I didn’t put it in my sidebar, but just drop me a note if you want to borrow one of my photos. Thanks.)