In Other Words Bee Time: Lessons From the Hive by Mark L. Win­ston and The Big Seven by Jim Har­ri­son

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - — Sandy Nel­son

Why med­i­tate when you can catch a tran­scen­dent buzz at the near­est apiary, im­mersed in a steady, Om-like drone. On “bee time,” writes Canadian bi­ol­o­gist Mark L. Win­ston, the tempo changes. “Fo­cus in­creases, aware­ness height­ens, all senses cap­ti­vated. … It’s a full body ex­pe­ri­ence be­ing among the bees. First you hear the sound, the low hum of tens of thou­sands of fe­male work­ers fly­ing in and out of their hives. … Smells and tex­tures bom­bard the senses next, the sweet odors of beeswax and honey, the stick­i­ness of plant resins col­lected by the work­ers to plug holes and con­struct the base of their combs. And then there are the bees them­selves, walk­ing over your hands and fore­arms as you lift and re­turn combs from the hive, the sub­tlest of touches as their claws lightly cling and re­lease, the gen­tlest of breezes as their wings buzz be­fore tak­ing flight.”

But bee time is run­ning out, Win­ston wor­ries, with a third of hon­ey­bee colonies dy­ing around the world each year from the com­bined ef­fects of dis­ease, mar­ket-driven agri­cul­tural and bee­keep­ing prac­tices, and dis­rup­tions of habi­tat and cli­mate. “A world with­out bees would be al­most im­pos­si­ble to con­tem­plate and likely one in which we would never have evolved in the first place,” he writes. The con­se­quences of an unchecked fall in the pop­u­la­tion of man­aged and feral bees would be cat­a­strophic to ev­ery living thing that re­lies on the in­dus­tri­ous in­sects to pol­li­nate crops and sus­tain nat­u­ral forests that shel­ter an­i­mals, con­vert car­bon diox­ide into oxy­gen, and sta­bi­lize soils. The 20,000 known species of bees “are vi­tally im­por­tant to hu­man economies and to the world’s wel­fare be­cause of their pol­li­nat­ing role in both agri­cul­tural and nat­u­ral ecosys­tems,” writes Win­ston, who spent 30 years at Simon Fraser Uni­ver­sity in Burn­aby, Bri­tish Columbia, work­ing with man­aged colonies. The value of bees to global agri­cul­ture ex­ceeded $200 bil­lion in 2008, with a third of all crops de­pen­dent on or im­proved by in­sect pol­li­na­tors, mostly bees.

Judg­ing by the 10,000-year-old paint­ings of bees and bee­keep­ers on the walls of Span­ish caves and in sim­i­lar pre­his­toric set­tings in Africa and Europe, peo­ple have long ap­pre­ci­ated the hum­ble honey maker. Bees ap­pear in elab­o­rate por­traits in the tombs of Egyptian pharaohs and in the holy texts of the world’s ma­jor re­li­gions. An­cient philoso­phers mar­veled at the so­cial or­ga­ni­za­tion of the hive, and con­tem­po­rary re­search has deep­ened our un­der­stand­ing of bee cul­ture and com­mu­ni­ca­tion. “Mod­ern science,” Win­ston writes, “has only con­firmed what our an­ces­tors knew in­tu­itively: hon­ey­bees are as so­phis­ti­cated in their so­cial be­hav­ior as we are in ours, shar­ing with us a bond that is un­com­mon among the earth’s many crea­tures.” In a life that lasts 25 to 30 days, a bee per­forms dif­fer­ent tasks based on its age and com­mu­nity needs. “They make rad­i­cal ca­reer changes ev­ery few days, go­ing through seven to ten or more ‘pro­fes­sions’ dur­ing their brief lives,” and they col­lab­o­rate for the wel­fare of the col­lec­tive. They even make time for R & R.

Since branch­ing off from the wasp fam­ily 125 mil­lion years ago, the bee has evolved to adapt to fluc­tu­a­tions in cli­mate, food sup­ply, and habi­tat. But re­cent trends in bee­keep­ing and agribusi­ness are over­whelm­ing the re­silient in­sect. Where the fam­ily farmer once ro­tated crops and left com­mer­cially in­signif­i­cant plants un­mo­lested, to­day’s fac­tory fields are planted with sin­gle crops, and com­mer­cially in­signif­i­cant com­peti­tors — de­rided as “weeds” — are sup­pressed by her­bi­cide sat­u­ra­tion. The lack of plant di­ver­sity cou­pled with con­stant ex­po­sure to deadly chem­i­cals un­der­mines the diet and im­mune sys­tems of bees, mak­ing them vul­ner­a­ble to nat­u­ral pathogens. Bee­keep­ers share the blame for colony col­lapse dis­or­der, Win­ston ad­mits. The use of pes­ti­cides in the hive to kill vi­ral, bac­te­rial, and fun­gal or­gan­isms adds to the toxic soup, and the in­creas­ing use of mo­bile api­aries to cope with re­gional bee short­ages am­pli­fies the stress on pol­li­na­tors.

The de­scrip­tions of a colony in eco­log­i­cal melt­down — with work­ers turn­ing on each other and fight­ing for re­pro­duc­tive dom­i­nance — are eerily sim­i­lar to what hap­pens when hu­man so­ci­eties im­plode. But Win­ston in­sists peo­ple can learn from bees how to live in syn­ergy with other species on an in­creas­ingly crowded, stressed planet. “Bee­keep­ing’s fu­ture can be found in the mid­dle ground of smaller, lo­cal op­er­a­tions with a few hun­dred hives each, in­te­grated into an agri­cul­tural sys­tem that is com­pat­i­ble with sta­ble, sta­tion­ary api­aries,” he writes. Some of those api­aries will be ur­ban ones, ben­e­fit­ing from the bi­o­log­i­cal di­ver­sity more preva­lent in cities than in mod­ern farm­lands and from the con­tri­bu­tions of wild bees. “Our de­ci­sion ei­ther to em­u­late hon­ey­bees by opt­ing for the col­lec­tive good or to pur­sue per­sonal in­ter­ests and in­di­vid­ual gain may be the de­ci­sive fac­tor in the suc­cess or fail­ure of our re­sponse to con­tem­po­rary en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenges.”

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