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Tag: honeybees

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…..

illumination: bees’ no lesser labor

ah yes, back to the hive. back to the inner sanctum, the holy hollows, of hundreds of thousands of Apis mellifera, uncommonly known as the western honeybee. more often, simply, the bee.

it is the wax of the bee we consider today, hardly the lesser of the sweet honeybee’s labors.

there is so much to ponder about the great pollinators, your pontificator soon will be percolating. strike that. make it a buzz. as in your brain soon will be buzzing.

consider this: to produce a pound of beeswax, bees must consume roughly eight times that in honey. likened to a sumo wrestler packing on pounds by sucking down steaks before the big match, the bee intent on waxing might be found gas-guzzling nectar.

put another way, it is estimated by those who estimate such things that bees fly 150,000 miles to yield one pound of beeswax.

or, this: 10,000 bees can produce one pound of beeswax in three days.

here’s how it works: the bee, known for short as A. mellifera, sucks up the nectar from les fleurs, from blossoms, from your own lowly rose bush, through a very long tongue. the nectar is then stored in a sac called the honey stomach. when the honey tummy is full, the besotted bee zig-zags back to the hive, and somehow transfers the not-yet-liquid-gold to young house bees, bees 12 to 17 days old, in case you’re counting. the house bees, not unlike a compulsive housekeeper, spread the nectar drop by drop into the honeycombs. while they’re at it, they add enzymes to the nectar to break it down from complex into simple sugars.

because the nectar, back at the blossom stage, is 80 percent water, the bees need to distill it down to its dehydrated essence, a fantastical feat they accomplish through, get this, the fanning of their little bee wings. flap, flap, flap, out goes the water, out of the nectar. turning watery nectar to syrupy honey.

here’s where the beeswax comes in: each little house bee has eight slits on her belly. when it’s time, teeny tiny shavings of wax–flakes the size of the head of a pin, one hundred of which are said to weigh hardly as much as a kernel of wheat–emerge on the bee belly.

what happens next is best put in the words of one holley bishop, author of the utterly mesmerizing, “robbing the bees: a biography of honey–the sweet liquid gold that seduced the world” (free press, $24).

she writes: “… like a construction worker pulling nails from her toolbelt, she reaches for a flake….in an advanced yoga move [she] transfers it to her mouth. there, she masticates it, chewing and working the wax like a baker kneading dough…all around her, other masons are patting and caressing their own scales of wax into place.”

never mind that she switches similes faster than a bee beats its wings. what she’s telling us here is fairly straight-forward: the bees do a helluva job constructing their hexagonally-heavy honey palace. and not only that: each she-bee minds her own beeswax.

when each honeycomb is filled, the ol’ house bees drop one final wax blob, sort of the tupperware lid on the sweet golden goo. in fact, one lid, about the size of a split pea, can take several hours and dozens of bees to assemble.

it is hard not to be awed, not to be wowed, by the fannings and droppings of the wax-wielding bees.

it is ancient, this hushed veneration of bees and beeswax. daedalus of course used beeswax for his flawed wings. and ulysses, in the odyssey, stuffed ears with the stuff, in hopes of blocking the call of the sirens. and, at the cusp of the first millennia, candles as we now know them were born, and, without haste, made their way to the front of the pews. the roman catholics insisted on beeswax. the greek orthodox, too.

in 1855, a thinker named karl von leoprechting wrote: “the bee is the only creature which has come to us unchanged from paradise, therefore she gathers the wax for sacred services.”

clearly, we are not the first to draw a line between the divine and the communal chaos of the hive where, through mystery and miracle, the sap of the back forty is turned into the golden sweet goop we spread on our toast. and the fall-out from the shelter is melted down and dipped into sticks that shine light on our lives.

perhaps this is all more than you wanted to know about bees and their pre-plastic, all-purpose wax. perhaps it’s making your head buzz.

but, in the end, i know one thing for certain: the next time i strike a match to a wick, i will marvel, will drop my head in a deep bow of reverence for the little winged things that laid down their lives for my sweet incandescence.

what if we all did away with those paraffin fillers? what if we vowed that the only candle worth burning was one built the hard way, through the flapping of hundreds of thousands of wings, for hundreds of thousands of miles, through the hard work and labor of A. mellifera & friends?
cast your vote here….