Listening to bees
Amid global bee collapse, one small hive yields lessons
‘I’M GOING to build a hive and keep bees,’’ my daughter said nonchalantly. It was the spring of 2005, and she was a senior in high school. Beekeeping, and writing a paper about it, would be her senior project. The postmaster called a few days later to say that 38,000 bees - ordered online from Navasota, Texas - had arrived. We should come quickly.
Oh, ugh, I thought to myself.
I knew little then about bees - or about their fragile place in the world. But when our daughter went away to college, the bees stayed. Her science teacher and adviser, Ned Bean, said that if we’d keep the bees on our property, he’d take care of them. An amateur beekeeper, Bean keeps seven hives on various properties in our town.
Recently, for the first time, the beekeeper invited me to don a white suit, long gloves, and helmet with face screen. He put on his own bee suit, fired up his smoker, warned me we had a 90 percent chance of being stung, then motioned to me to tramp across the lawn with him to meet the bees. A frisson of fear gripped me as the beekeeper pried off the top of the hive.
Irritated, buzzing bees swarmed around our heads. They were loud. But my panic soon turned into fascination with the drones and worker bees, with their complexity and industriousness, with the wax and pollen and bits of nectar and honeycomb. And yet there were far fewer bees than there might once have been.
When Bean first started beekeeping in town in 1993, he said he easily harvested 500 pounds of honey a year. Now he’s lucky if he gets any, because hives are dying, and new bee colonies need honey to survive the winter. Most winters, at least half or more die.
Across North America, I’ve read, up to 20 percent of beehives have always died annually. But in November 2006, reports started coming in from around the world of losses ranging from 30 to 90 percent of all commercial bee colonies, with surviving colonies so weakened they might no longer be viable to pollinate or produce honey. According to the National Agriculture Statistics Service, there were 2.4 million honey-producing hives in the United States in 2008 - down from 4.5 million in 1980 and 5.9 million in 1947.
Theories abound about the bee crisis, which is sometimes called “colony collapse disorder.’’ In North America and Europe, scientists and beekeepers believe that the global death of bee colonies has been caused by everything from parasitic mites to climate change and environmental stresses, to malnutrition, pesticides, urbanization, and even electromagnetic radiation from cellphone towers, which some say confuse bees so they can’t find their way home.
So why should we care? Without bees, one-third of US crop species would not be pollinated - almonds, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers, and strawberries among them. Today, most commercial agriculture depends on bees shipped in from countries as far away as Australia. This solution has its own risks; migratory beekeeping can spread disease to local bees.
The mysterious global bee crisis not only threatens agriculture worldwide; it’s also a wake-up call to once-clueless suburbanites like myself.
My husband and I no longer use chemicals in the garden, on the trees or lawn. We’ve noticed a burst of gorgeousness every spring with the newly pollinated flowers and flowering trees around our house responding to the bees. We’ve also become ecologically conscious in other ways: We took up vegetable and herb gardening, buy more locally grown food, and stopped using plastic bottles and plastic bags. We compost. I’ve even thought, wildly, about putting a chicken coop on the property and harvesting organic eggs.
Sometimes in winter, lying on the living room couch reading by the fire, I gaze out at the snowy expanse of garden, peer back near the woods to the white wooden hive our daughter built, and actually say a silent prayer the bees will survive until spring.
Ned Bean hopes the bees are finally adapting and becoming more resilient. I hope so, because bees have a lot to teach us. Like canaries in coal mines, bees are warning us. Wake up, I hear them saying.
Maria Karagianis is a writer and social entrepreneur who lives near Boston.