It was a few weeks after we moved into the new house. There was an increasingly insistent and rather unnerving sound emanating from the house – it was humming. It wasn’t the electricity, it wasn’t the plumbing, it wasn’t the big chandelier in the dining room. No one could figure it out. It was easiest to hear in my parents’ bedroom, but it was something we were aware of all over the house.
Then one day we came home from an outing and the master bedroom was absolutely alive with honeybees. They’d built a hive in the wall and were coming in through a light fixture. It was like something out of a horror movie.
It was the early 80s and my folks were not savvy enough to know there was such a thing as hive relocation – the creatures were exterminated. I cried. I think my mom did too. No one wanted to kill honeybees. No one was going to willingly have a swarm of them in their bedroom either. The following spring, I was walking home from the bus stop one day and heard it again – an otherworldly humming, part hummingbird wing, part distant aircraft, part didgeridoo. Then I saw them. A huge swarm of bees, moving en masse, billowing and contracting like a Mandelbrot fractal, pausing in midair here, there, somewhere else. I don’t know if they were related to the bees that lived in my parents’ bedroom wall, but they were clearly seeking new digs. They were, in the original sense of it, awesome.
Paul Rollings CC BY
Here are some things you should know about honeybees.
•They are the only insect that produces a food eaten by humans (in addition to the long hours they put in enabling the reproduction of plants).
•They have 170 odorant receptors. Their keen sense of smell enables things like kin recognition, as well as food locating.
•They can fly at speeds of up to 15 mph – that characteristic buzzing sound is their wings moving at 200 beats per second.
•All “worker” honeybees are female. Male bees do exactly one thing – mate. Go figure. That’s presumably why if food gets scarce or conditions rough, the females will kick the deadbeats out of the nest.
•A queen bee, of which there is one in a colony, can produce up to 2,500 eggs per day.
•Every colony of honeybees has a unique scent for member ID purposes.
•Bees are responsible for the pollenization of 80 percent of the world’s plants. Without them you could pretty much say goodbye to fruit. Except durian – bats handle that gig.
•The honey produced by bees is a natural preservative, and contains tons of beneficial nutrients. Including an antioxidant called pinocembrin, which appears to improve cognitive function – and has many medicinal and cosmetic applications, in addition to its incredible usefulness as a food. Also, it’s the only food source we have that literally does not spoil. Like ever. Try and make bacteria grow in it. You can’t.
Upshot? Honeybees are incredibly complex little creatures, but one thing is absolutely plain and simple: you want them around if you enjoy eating. And as has been widely publicized, and their numbers are diminishing.
In 2007 we saw the beginning of a mysterious honeybee phenomenon that has been dubbed “Colony Collapse Disorder.” There are people who will tell you this is a clear and direct result of neonicitinoid pesticides (which seems likely to be at least part of the story). There are people who blame climate change. Many wave an angry fist at “GMOs” without being particularly clear on what they’re talking about. (Look, I’m a card-carrying tree hugger but there have been a multitude of ill-informed and Snopes-worthy conspiracy theories about the mass death of bees.) Basically, we aren’t 100 percent sure what’s causing it, but we know bee populations are unstable and declining. What can you do about it? Well, first of all, don’t spray your house and yard with neonicitinoids.
Also, consider keeping a colony of honeybees at home.
City dwellers, I’m talking to you too. You don’t need to have a farm to have a beehive. A rooftop will do nicely. If you have any outdoor space at all, it is shockingly easy to start making a positive impact on the ecosystem, helping to secure the health and prosperity of a crucial species, not to mention harvesting your own raw, unprocessed honey (and don’t tell the FDA I said this but your friends and neighbors will pay big bucks for any surplus you end up with – good honey is incredibly expensive).
If this idea appeals to you but you don’t know where to start, I found Rob and Chelsea McFarland’s Their book Save the Bees with Natural Beehives is an amazing primer for the bee-curious. It goes into everything that scares you (no, you’re not going to get stung to death, bees do not want that any more than you do – they sting once and they’re goners), gets down and dirty on how to acquire or build a hive, where to put it, how to maintain it (and no, it’s not high maintenance at all; if you have a dog, you’re already committed to a much more rigorous gig than a beehive would be), explains how bees behave and what to do to keep them in fighting trim year-round. It’s a step-by-step guide that has absolutely pushed me off the beekeeping fence – I’m going for it.
Mega-scale modern agriculture’s track record sucks. It’s hurting bees, it’s hurting soils, and it’s hurting us. The farther you get yourself and your family and your community away from it, the better. And you can do a lot without making it your full-time job or spending a zillion dollars on an exotic, eco-freak hobby that will alienate your relatives and brand you forever as a hopeless whackadoodle. Au contraire. You will be modeling ecologically responsible behavior and enhancing the lives of the people around you. More bees = more fruit and flowers. More fruit and flowers = more connection to nature. More connection to nature = more joy. That’s basic math.
Folks, it’s time for more of us to get hive-mindful. Seek out a local expert or help yourself to a copy of the McFarlands’ book via Amazon, your local indie, or check them out at honeylove.org.
An award winning poet and longtime food and wine pornographer, Amy Glynn was first accused of being a “food snob” by her parents at age 8. Her book “A Modern Herbal” was released by Measure Press in 2013. She lives in the SF Bay Area, Ground Zero of the “Delicious Revolution.” She thinks about apples a lot. Follow her on Twitter @AmyAlysaGlynn and on Facebook here.
Main photo by Bob Peterson CC BY