The Joy of Bees

A long time ago when our children were young and we lived in Albuquerque, Denis traveled a lot. The reason I mention he traveled a lot is because when he was out of town there was some kind of cosmic balance that shifted and it did nothing to favor me. Thus trips to the ER, little fires in the kitchen, escaped animals, and most annoying, the times when our bees swarmed, happened when he was gone and I was left to deal. It was easy to imagine him in El Paso drinking Corona, eating chili rellenos someone else labored to make, and having lively conversations with students and staff about theology and culture while I tried to capture bees from a neighbor’s yard who was calling the police and demanding I be arrested.

It was a time in our lives when we were determined to live simply, become urban farmers, and eat healthy. (I admit tanning rabbit hides in the garage didn’t work. Just five minutes at midday was hot enough to give a lizard heatstroke. My dreams of stitching rabbit hides into mittens, slippers, and rugs perished when the hides rotted with such ferocity the odor would have killed a dung beetle) In all the books I read no one mentioned any of this would be difficult or dangerous.

Still, there were rewards. Raising honeybees made us admire what they do. That is, if you can call owning two hives – Raising Bees. All we did not know didn’t stop us from ordering that first queen and her escorts. When they arrived at the post office, we picked her up in her little wooden box with screened sides and even though we gently placed it in the back seat of our car – in unison 14,000 jostled bees raised their voices about an octave. I began to wonder if simple living wasn’t more like poking a crocodile in the eye and running like crazy.

That began our three year venture into honey, sticky fingers, and a bad-tempered queen who faithfully passed her personality on to thousands of aggressive children who swarmed in our neighbor’s yard when the hive grew too crowded. We kept on despite the risk – a risk mostly due to keeping the hives on the top of our flat-roofed garage, meaning Jerem & Sember, ages 4 and 2, frequently climbed the ladder to check them out; they could get up there, but had trouble getting down. Eventually I’d notice them gone missing and find them wailing on the roof with little clouds of bees buzzing round their heads (I know. Remove the ladder, but somehow I didn’t think of that.)

Anyway, I became very fond of the honeybee. They do things like make you praise orchards and flowers, bake honey buns for your friends and family, and thank God you aren’t required to lay 2,000 eggs a day. I say this even though on honey extraction day every surface in my kitchen and dining room got coated with a sticky amber glue. Not only did the bees find their way back inside to reclaim what we’d stolen from them, the kids industriously helped by licking the countertops and table.

Loving honeybees also makes me wonder about such things as mowing and paving every square inch of habitat I own and the consequences of herbicides and pesticides poured on crops and lawns, and whether in the end it will make any difference to them or us.

Colony Collapse Disorder
This history is one reason I noticed stories that began showing up in the press early this year. It began in the fall of 2006 when honeybees began to mysteriously disappear.

David Hackenberg, one of the first keepers to bring this to the attention of entomologists at Penn State, had just ferried his hives from Pennsylvania to Florida for the winter. He is a commercial beekeeper with thousands of hives that are contracted by farmers to pollinate certain crops. Beekeepers move hives around the country stacked on wooden pallets on flatbed trucks and unloaded by forklifts wherever whatever needs pollination. Annually, 15 billion dollars worth of crops depend on the bee for pollination. For example, California’s almond crop, which is the largest in the world, requires 1.5 million hives to pollinate their orchards. Without 60 billion bees to work the blossoms I wouldn’t be snacking on toasted almonds or spreading almond butter on my toast – the only way Margie can relate to incomprehensible numbers.

When Hackenberg checked his hives last November his bees had vanished. He opened the hives and they were simply gone. It wasn’t like they were lying dead around the entrance, they’d just disappeared, leaving behind eggs, larva, and brood. It was eerie. By the end of winter he’d lost 2,000 hives without explanation. Soon beekeepers all over the U.S. who checked on their hives in late fall and winter were reporting nobody home. No one knew where they went. The epidemic is so widespread it received a name: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Here in Rochester at the Farmer’s Market I met Marvin Schul, a quiet man in a faded seed cap and plaid shirt, who sells honey. His table was lined with plastic honeybears and glass jars full of a light golden honey. “Sweet clover honey is the best; light, flavorful, I love it,” he said. I learned that out of the ten hives he owns, he’d lost nine to CCD. But he’s hopeful; this summer that one hive has produced more honey than he’d thought possible. He smiled and shook his head. He’s waiting for fall to see what happens. No one knows if the collapse will continue. Meantime, many keepers have gone bankrupt and are leaving the business.

No one knows what’s caused this bee pandemic. It could be stress, an unknown virus, pesticides, or a combination of many things. The bees they do find and dissect from infected hives are full of mites and sick with every infection known to bee-dom. It’s as if their immune system is utterly collapsed and they have a kind of bee AIDS. The phenomenon is so odd and so disturbing that Ian Lipkin, an epidemiologist from Columbia University, the researcher who discovered West Nile Virus, has logged into the race with other researchers to find the cause.

We do know that without bees to pollinate crops like apples, pumpkins and blueberries, there would be little or no harvest. It is estimated that one out of every three bites of food we take is because bees exist. Years ago, Albert Einstein made an interesting statement when speaking of the complex interrelatedness of all things on earth: “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years left to live.” We can hope Einstein is wrong, but some scientists call bees the canary in the mine shaft. Miners used to take a canary deep into mines, and if it suddenly died because of an undetectable toxic gas, it was the signal to get out fast. In the case of the death of bees it may indicate an earth problem (too big for me to comprehend) we’ve contributed to – from the way we Weed ‘n Feed our lawns to drinking bottled water by the boatload and adding billions of plastic bottles to the environment. (Scientists have found that plastics increase levels of estrogen in the environment which is thought to interfere with the reproduction of insects and animals and is possibly linked to early onset of puberty in young girls.)

Natural pollinators or wild bees have been in trouble for a while now. They play a specific role in the survival of thousands of species of plants. Since the 1990’s researchers have noted 90% of this native population has disappeared. This merely adds another layer to the mysterious fading of other life forms – coral reefs, kelp forests, amphibians, wild flowers, sawfish.

Save The BEES!
I heard someone say that people involved in mercy ministries are annoying. He said it fondly with no disrespect – just an observation that wherever there is trouble there are single-hearted people trying to help. Hang around them for too long and they will convince you to fight Aids in Africa, save the wild salmon in the Columbia River, and stop drinking bottled water. Hearing about one more trouble can make me feel hopeless.

I’ve thought a good deal about what it means to care for creation. How do we not give up when all around us there is misuse and destruction? And, c’mon, what difference will it make if, to store half a cut lemon, I turn it upside down on a little plate instead of grabbing a plastic baggie and adding to the land fill?

There is a Psalm that fiercely attacks my sense of despair over the groaning of creation.

You answer us with
awesome deeds of righteousness,
O God our Savior,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
(Psalm 65:5)

Wherever the dead zones in the sea exist, (Did you know that where the Mississippi River enters the Gulf of Mexico nothing lives anymore in an area as large as the state of New Jersey?), wherever bees die and flowers disappear God is there. I love the phrase, O God, our Savior, the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas. We know that one day there will be no more suffering for human kind, but we also know God is Savior of all creation, and it will one day be restored to its glorious original state. As Julian of Norwich put it: “All will be well and all manner of things will be well” because God is, even now, in the process of bringing all things under the reign of Jesus.

In the face of disaster, we don’t stop caring for people because recovery seems hopeless. We don’t abandon friends who suffer a terminal disease. We don’t stop telling them to hope in God. In the midst of earthquakes and hurricanes, war and disease, in the midst of things crashing down we touch the person next to us. We offer a cup of coffee, we pray, we haul debris.

Anne Lamott writes about a friend who showed up on her doorstep during a time of great need and announced: “I’m going to clean your bathroom today.” To Anne it was very humbling to have someone else cleaning globs of stuff off her toilet, but she also realized these were the hands of Jesus tending to the most lowly parts of body-life.

In the same way while we wait for Christ’s return and his restoration of all things, we don’t stop caring about his creation. It groans along with us awaiting our redemption, and being faithful in this small square of reality is not crazy or useless. I know it’s not like I’m going to bring the bees back homes or get Conagra to stop factory farming. Even if I’m really, really polite and say please, please, not another container store with it’s acres of black parking lots and thousands upon thousands of lights, no developer is going to listen to me. However, I can do little things. I recycle glass and plastic even if my neighbors don’t. I can feed the birds and leave the wild pollinators alone.

For the past two years we’ve used an organic fertilizer on our lawn. Some kind of corn product thing that works pretty well. This year on our city lot, 150 feet by 50, the earthworms were so prolific a pair of robins raised three batches of babies on our front porch. Finches nested in our hanging plants. A pair of chipping sparrows hopped through the spirea eating insects. The wren sang a deafening song and made a tiny nest of sticks in a birdhouse under the eaves. Goldfinches, mourning doves, nuthatches and woodpeckers come to the feeders. Dozen are crazy about the bath – squabbling and squatting in the middle to splash their wings. They come, despite three major hotels, two restaurants, a gas station, one of the largest privately owned hospitals in the U.S., and a Caribou Coffee Shop (joy) within two blocks of our house.

God, “the hope of the ends of the earth” must agree with me that bumble bees are beautiful insects – right up there with neon-colored damsel flies – they really do buzz and bumble. The weight of their bodies is enough to make flowers sink and sway, so on a windless day you know right where they are by the gentle waving of flower stems here and there in the garden. If you look closely you can see the little balls of pollen they collect in a sac on their hind legs. Yesterday their loads were yellow, today bright orange. They are so busy gathering nectar from catnip and hostas they pay no attention to me. It turns out they have a special gift for pollinating tomatoes – tomato blossoms hold their pollen in tight little chambers where the grains are trapped like salt in a shaker. A bumble bee has to grasp the flower and give it a rapid fire buzz; the intensity of the vibrations shake out the pollen. Honeybees don’t do this. We used to see more bumble bees in our yard but not anymore. So when I noticed one in my backyard today I took her pic though she refused to pose for it.


Resources: “Not-So-Elementary Bee Mystery,” Science News, July 28, 2007. “Stung” by Elizabeth Kolbert, New Yorker, Aug. 6, 2007.
“The Vanishing” OnEarth Magazine, Summer 2006.
“Deadly Interplay of Nature's System Architecture” by Richard Thomas Gerber,