heartbreak in the hives

it’s not every day we interrupt our homefront meditations to bring you the news, but it’s not every day the honeybee lands on the front page of the newspaper that’s dropped on your front stoop.

sadly, today is that day.

the honeybee, Apis mellifera, is, as you know, or might easily imagine, one of God’s creations that we love best. (see “illumination: bees’ no lesser labor,” 01.24.07)
and the honeybee, it seems, is in distress. serious distress.

suddenly, starting last fall, beekeepers all over the country were opening their hives and finding nothing–no bees, no dead bodies, no obvious culprits, either. “apian ghost towns,” the chicago tribune called it.

hundreds of thousands of colonies–millions and millions of honeybees–dying off, across the map.

at first, the keepers of bees were calling this strange occurrence “fall dwindle,” or “disappearing disease.” but then, underlying and amplifying the alarm, just last month a swarm of bee brains put their heads together in a task force and realized this was not some seasonal decline; they renamed the mysterious and vast wiping out of bees from coast to coast, Colony Collapse Disorder. egad, capital letters.

no one has a clue what’s wreaking all the havoc; the beekeepers, it seems, are truly baffled. it might be pest, or the modern ways some have come to manage hives. it might be, worst of all, some environmental scourge.

to date, 24 states across the country count themselves among the seriously afflicted; illinois has yet to raise its tattered flag. but, beekeepers say, it’s never a good idea to open your hive before the daffodils are in bloom, so in many states they just don’t know what they’ll find when they finally lift the lid.

what’s at stake, according to the bee people and the newspaper that landed on my stoop, is, of course, the $150-million-a-year honey industry, but worse, the honeybees’ pollination of crops across the U.S., valued at $14 billion annually. (what they do, when all is well, is truck in billions of bees in boxes, and let them do their thing among the would-be fruited plains; problem is, all is not now well, and there’s no buzzing in the fields.)

that would mean, my friends, your produce bin, severely done in. and grab your almonds while you can, because almond growers in california haven’t a clue what they’ll do without their bees.

about three decades ago, an apiculturist, that’s someone who studies bees, estimated that one third of what humans eat is a direct result of honeybees’ pollinating labors, the way they nuzzle their nose in the fuzz of every blossom that must be passed from pistil to stamen if bearing fruit is to occur.

the national research council figures three-fourths of all flowering plants require pollination to bear fruit.

far as i’m concerned, though, all this number pinning only begins to lay out the breadth of the disaster.

here’s a dabble into the depth: no economist will put numbers to the loss of wildflowers, but already in the u.k. and the netherlands, scientists have correlated the decline in honeybees and flowers. it’s a vicious cycle: bees rely on certain plants, plants rely on certain bees. what’s lost is the ephemeral wild flower, beacon of fragile beauty, bursting through the earth with reckless and random abandon.

but what else of the noble bee might we stand to lose? the wax, illumination in its early stage; a wonder healer called propolis, believed to cure or stave off everything from the common cold to asthma to festering wound; the colony itself, model of cooperation and getting the job done, even if an autocratic civilization, what with madame queen bee ruling over all her winged minions.

when i am distressed about the bee, or just plain curious about the buzzing creatures, i turn to sue hubbell, who has been described as “a latter-day henry thoreau with a sense of the absurd.” once a beekeeper in the ozarks, she wrote, “a book of bees,” (houghton mifflin, $12) back in 1988, bits of which originally ran in the new yorker. she puts together words that drip like honey from the hive.

i wish i could have called her to get her read on this disaster, but, alas, i could only turn her pages, remind myself of why it is i am so gaga for the bees.

on page 53 she tells us, “beekeeping is farming for intellectuals.” already, i am more than hooked. not that i consider myself any sort of intellectual. but i know that all sentences that follow will send me to the moon. and they did.

she goes on to tell that “the greeks spun tales about the god of beekeeping, aristaeus. pliny wrote about bees. aristotle observed them, puzzled over them and reported his findings. virgil made bees the subject of his fourth georgic, a part of the series of poems with agricultural themes.” classicists, she tells us, insist that virgil’s purposes were political, that he used bees as a vehicle for his clearly political leanings, to prove his civic points, pointing all the while to the workings of the hive.

but isn’t that the very thing that makes us drool at the thought of bees (and not simply their golden honey), the very fact that bees might be a model for whole civilizations?

and then we come back to the wildflowers. there is nothing left but sadness, when considering that the tender and the robust, both and all, would be helpless in the wind if it weren’t for the busy flapping bee, ferrying most essential pollen from one sweet throat to another.

and what would be a world without strawberry? or berry of any sort? or the apple or the peach? would it be a world in which i would want to dwell?

the honeybee it seems is hardly afterthought, although most of the world, save for all those beekeepers and honey lovers, think little of the bee in the course of any day.

it’s curious to note that back in ancient times, there grew a great myth, the myth of aristaeus, that had as its crisis point the wiping out of all the hives.

it makes me wonder if there’s a lesson to be learned, if only we will listen to what’s unfolded in the millennia of long ago.

here’s the story: aristaeus, it’s told, was the son of cyrene, who despised spinning, weaving, “and similar housewifely tasks.” she preferred to hunt wild beasts. apollo, you might remember, once watched her wrestle a lion to the ground and fell so in love with her, he carried her off to africa and built a palace there for her.

after their love child, let’s call him ari for short, was born, apollo ditched cyrene, and cyrene, longing for the wild, in turn ditched poor ari, leaving him to be raised by nymphs who, among other tasks, taught him to raise bees in terra cotta pots.

when grown, aristaeus wandered out of libya, and amid his wanderings stumbled upon eurydice, a wood nymph, who happened to already be taken, the beloved, it seems, of orpheus. (and you thought modern soap operas were twisted? well, hold on, it gets better here…)

not-smart ari, according to the story, tried to rape eurydice, but she ran, through the woods. in her hurry, she did not see a big fat snake right there on the path. don’t you know, this being a greek legend, she tripped right then and there over a tree root. the snake, of course, bit her and she died from the poison. orpheus, heartbroken, grabbed his lyre and started to pluck. hades, god of the underworld, was so moved by the beautiful music, he was going to let eurydice out, but only if orpheus promised not to look at her until she was safely in the sunlight. alas, ol’ orph couldn’t help himself, looked back, and lost her forever.

the other gods, so furious at ari, punished him by killing all his bees. he had no clue–sound familiar?–why all the bees had died, so he went off in search of his mother, mistress of wild things. he found her living under a stream, a fine place for a wild mama. she knew nothing about the bees, but sent him off to proteus, the god of many shapes, who might have a clue. ari ends up having to wrestle proteus to the ground, insisting he hold one shape until he tells what happened to the bees.

to make a too-long-already story a mere tad shorter, suffice it to say that much sacrifice was involved, but at last, the gods relented and a swarm of bees appeared to ari, who promptly stuffed them back in terra cotta pots.

grateful for the forgiveness of the gods, ari and his pots of bees settle down and live a relatively uneventful life, except for when his son gets turned into a stag, then torn to bits by a pack of 50 hounds.

all this is to say that, perhaps, just maybe, the gods are buzzing mad at something that we’ve done. and we, like ari, must do something rather drastic, something sacrificial, should we ever have a hope of once again seeing swarms of honeybees in our terracotta pots.

it’s either that, or a life that might be hades-ruled, a life spelled h-e-double l. i can’t imagine. no strawberries. no beeswax candles. no wildflower tossing in the wind. it makes me shudder.

whither the honeybees?

record your heartbreak here…..