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