Is the Honeymoon Over?

January 1, 2009

By Jennie Durant ’99 MFA ’06
Photography by David Tejada

Durant holds a hive smoker, used by beekeepers to calm bees down to harvest honey or examine hives.

There's something particularly sweet about the first time you fall in love, especially when you're falling in love with honeybees. I remember when I first laid eyes on a buzzing, crawling hive box frame of apis mellifera, commonly known as the European or Western honeybee. I was living in the Philippines on a Fulbright grant in spring 2007, and decided to visit a small resort, the Bohol Bee Farm, located on the southern island of Bohol. Vicky Wallace, the Filipina owner and an avid beekeeper, created her sanctuary over the past 10 years. She dedicated her resort, a small farm plus a collection of hexagonal buildings nestled around an organic restaurant, to teaching locals and tourists about organic farming and the importance of bees.

Once I held the thriving hive frame in my hands, I was sold. I stayed at the resort for 10 days to study beekeeping. In the process, I became a master of bee trivia, sharing my new enthusiasm like a recent convert. Did you know, I'd ask visiting tourists, that bees have been around for more than 30 million years, and that they are the only insects that actually produce food for humans? Did you know that more than 90 percent of all bees are female, led by a queen that maintains the hive through her pheromones?

If the tourists let me, I would go on to add: the queen bee also only mates once, you know, and during her mating flight she'll mate with several male bees, known as drones, who will die mid-air when she rips out their thorax post-coitus. This usually got a grimace. Now that I had them, I'd explain that it takes about 550 worker bees (all female) to produce one pound of honey from about two million flowers, and that the average honeybee — who will only live for approximately three weeks — will only contribute about one-twelfth of a teaspoon during her entire lifetime. And did you know, I'd ask, breathless, that bees communicate navigational facts by dancing? I'd tell these facts in between bouts of eating honeycomb, finally consuming so much that I made myself sick.

The honeymoon didn't last long. I couldn't avoid the plethora of news stories about the alarming bee population decline. It was as if I'd fallen in love only to discover my sweetheart had a terminal disease. Suddenly, beekeepers and scientists around the world were talking about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a mysterious phenomenon claiming beehives at alarming rates. In the United States alone, bee populations had declined by almost 40 percent.

More than a year has passed since I first read about CCD, and there's not enough concern about this issue. The devastating reality of CCD isn't just the loss of the beekeeping industry, or not having honey to put in your tea or on your toast. We're seeing a breakdown in an already overstressed agricultural system, a fundamental fissure in our food ecology that may change life as we know it.

Unfortunately, we live in a culture that is largely disconnected from its food production. Most people, younger generations especially, have no idea how to grow their own food, much less how it gets to their plate. As a result, we have no idea how much we depend on bees. Bees pollinate more than 30 percent of our crops and are vital for the pollination of 87 out of 118 of the most important crops worldwide. Bees don't just produce honey; they provide us with the plants and food we love. Peaches, onions, berries, soybeans, almonds, sunflower seeds and coffee (yes — coffee!) are just a few of the plants we'll lose without the honeybee. Even milk and cattle are at risk, since alfalfa and clover, which are fed to cattle, are pollinated by bees. Once we begin to explore the many strands of the food web, we quickly see that without bees, our agricultural system will unravel.

The bee's role in China's agriculture has become poignantly obvious. For 3,000 years, farmers in the Sichuan province have grown their famous pears with the help of bee pollination. However, in the 1980s when the Chinese expanded pear production, farmers began using high quantities of pesticides, and the system began to fall apart. Today, there are no bees to pollinate pears. Instead, locals walk around with ladders and "pollination sticks," which they dip into bottles of pollen and brush on the open, fertile blossoms. In short, the farmers now pollinate by hand.

I had a similar moment of my own several years ago, also in the Philippines (I've been there four times, the first time as a student at Saint Mary's). I volunteered for six weeks on an organic farm an hour outside the polluted Manila metropolis. The other volunteers and I were asked to design a farm on several acres razed after years of sugarcane farming, creating the vegetable beds and planting the first crop there in years. On one of my first afternoons on the farm, I helped dig vegetable beds — exhausting work in clay soil. I paused for a moment to wipe the sweat from my face and zoned out.

Something struck me as I stood there, surrounded by blooming flowers. The garden was silent. There were no insects. No bees. No butterflies. No hummingbirds. Some deep, frightened emotion welled up as I thought about what that meant. How dead must a place be to have no pollinating insects buzzing through a blooming garden? The Philippines is a tropical country that should be teeming with life. What had happened here, I wondered, to make them all go away?

Scientists do not agree on a definitive answer to the cause of CCD, though many clues point in a certain direction. When news about CCD came out in fall 2006 through spring 2007, the public and media circulated all kinds of theories — from cell phones to varroa mites (a bee pest), from beekeeping practices to rumors of the apocalypse. Yet when researchers explored the main symptoms of the disorder, they began to cross most of these theories off (though they haven't given much time, I imagine, to the ones about the apocalypse).

What makes CCD so hard to figure out is that the bees exhibit undocumented behavior: when beekeepers open their hive boxes to check on the bees, the boxes are empty, save for a sick queen and some doomed bee larvae. This is strange because a hive will rarely leave behind a queen, honeycombs and larvae, the three things they are programmed to protect. If there were a large hive die-off, typically a beekeeper would find a mass of bees just outside the hive where they had crawled out or been pushed out to die.

Only one culprit has duplicated the mysteriously empty hive results during CCD research, and that's a pesticide called Imidacloprid (IMD), trade name Gaucho, produced by the chemical giant Bayer CropScience. IMD alters the bees' navigational abilities, preventing them from finding their way back to the hive. Bees leave for the day, get "drunk" on small amounts of IMD, get lost on their way back and die in the cold night. Over the past 10 years, beekeepers in France waged a war against Bayer to get the pesticide off local sunflower populations, and beekeepers here in the U.S. are beginning to wage a similar battle. So far, Bayer denies any legitimate connection to the bees' decline.

Until we know the actual cause of CCD, it's hard to know exactly what to do about it. I try to help the bees survive in small ways by taking beekeeping classes, purchasing organic local honey and produce, planting flowers that bees pollinate and learning and teaching about bees. I even tried my hand at beekeeping once, but due to a poorly constructed hive given to me by a beekeeper, the hive now sits empty, the bees long gone.

I often look at that empty hive and think back to that intoxicating moment when I first held a buzzing frame of bees in my hand — the scent of honey thick in the air, the orchestrated, almost hypnotic movement over the sticky comb. Once you get over your fear of bees, there is something absolutely inspiring about them and the work they do for humans and the planet. My hope is that other people will fall in love with bees soon enough to save them, before we find ourselves in a silent field of flowers, longing for a relic of a much sweeter past.

Jennie Durant is a 1999 Integral Program graduate and a 2006 graduate of the Saint Mary's MFA in Creative Writing Program. She lives in the Bay Area and was among "Tomorrow's Leaders" in the November 2008 O Magazine for her HoneyMoon Project to teach business development skills to women in Africa through beekeeping.