the bees

Volunteers get up close & personal with the Orchard‘s bees; photo courtesy of Ann Schertz.

If I had to pick a favorite animal, it would be bees. All varieties, because each is endlessly fascinating. Something about these tiny guys is so touching, so beautiful & innocent, that it almost brings me to tears. I think it started when I read The Secret Life of Bees and has gradually escalated as my passion for food and sustainability increased.

A month back, I shared a moment with a bumble bee. We were both hovering at a corner on campus, near a bed of newly planted pansies. I was waiting for the bus. He was presumably at war, flickly 90 degrees at a time to survey his perimeter and then diving at each new bumble bee that approached the pansy bed, locking legs and tumbling through the air in a clumsy lump. Occasionally, a high speed chase broke out, zipping around the heads of other students waiting for the bus.

I watched as students swatted and lurched away from the bees. Finally, I stepped in.

They’re not going to sting you. I promise.

The fumbling, pudgy guys will ping into you, but they’re even less aggressive than honey bees. Plus, they lack the toxin honey bees do that cause more pain & irritation. But there’s something about the looming buzz that we immediately find unsettling.

What should be more unsettling is the future of the honeybee.* Honeybees have been increasingly facing colony collapse disorder, their numbers have been dipping due to colony contamination by the chemicals of industrialized agriculture. Recently, they’ve even been struggling with a parasite that turns them into zombees.** Why do you care? Bee Guardian puts it simply:

The world’s growing population means more bees are needed to pollinate the crops to feed more people. According to the U.N. report, of the 100 crop species that supply 90 percent of the world’s food, bees pollinate more than 70 percent.

Now, honeybees are hit with another blow: farmers are feeding them high fructose corn syrup. Beyond just giving them an American belly roll***, it weakens the colony:

When honeybees collect nectar from flowers, they also gather pollen and a substance called propolis, which they use to make waxy honeycombs. The pollen and propolis are loaded with three types of compounds that University of Illinois entomologists discovered can help the bees detoxify their cells and protect themselves from pesticides and microbes.

We’re attacking on all fronts–but the bee isn’t a normal pest. He’s agriculture’s closest ally. So, when you’re in the backyard this summer, give bees a break. Think before you swat, give the bee a bit of space & take a silent moment of thanks. A lot of little guys are doing a lot of heavy lifting to make sure we’re all eating.

Here are some other fun bee facts:

  1. Bees fly in specific patterns that communicate information to other colony members, guiding them toward food sources.
  2. Bee’s knees are real. They gather pollen in pockets on their knees, which they then eat for protein.
  3. When apiarists (beekeepers) smoke hives, the bees aren’t calmed by the fumes. They actually think the hive is on fire & begin eating as much honey as possible to survive whatever comes next. This lowers their defenses in several ways. It blocks chemical signals they send to each other to protect the hive. It’s also like Thanksgiving dinner: after you eat, you’re too full to slap that annoying cousin. Bees get too full to bend & sting. #EpicFoodBaby

*Here‘s a quick guide to differences between the three most common bees you’ll see. Not featured are mason bees, the most peaceful & endearing bee that should be every fruit lover’s best friend.

**This is not to say that other bees are suffering equally, but because honeybees live in colonies & produce a product humans are interested in, they’re the easiest to focus on.

***Grist also has this fun fake-texting conversation about HFCS in the American diet.


About meganbetz

human geography PhD Student at Indiana University; wife, reader, writer, baker, gardener
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