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June 6th, 2017

Hive Dive

BY Christian Ford

I was just along for the ride.

Sometimes family determines what you encounter in life, and so it is that my children, students of a public school best described as renegade, are the gateway to a parade of unexpected things.  Their school embraces serendipity and one day serendipity brought Carl, a local man heavily engaged in beekeeping.  So now bees are part of the life of the classroom.

The timing couldn’t be better because bees — as you must know and if you don’t, you should — are in serious trouble. Consequently, we are in serious trouble, too, given how much of our agriculture is dependent upon bees to do the essential work of pollination. So, as part of his effort to get people aware and engaged, Carl donated a beehive to the school. The students were all in favor but the school district, fearful of bee stings, categorically refused.  (Never mind that the classroom has a decade-old food garden growing just steps outside its door, complete with buzzing bees, and no fatalities reported.)

But you don’t earn your stripes as a beekeeper without learning to work through obstacles.  So a new location was found and the call went out for kids who wanted to “install the bee package.”

Now, I should admit that when I asked my son if he would be interested, I hadn’t paid a whole lot of attention to the details of what we would be doing.  But soon enough we were there, standing in the rain beside a few greenhouses and gazing at a an empty hive.  The students, six of them ranging from second to eighth grade, struggled into their white bee suits and then things started to get weird.

A bee package, it turns out, is not a metaphor but a small wooden box filled with bees. I now know that if you order bees by weight, three pounds will get you 10,000 bees, more or less and that’s what was in the little wooden box faced with windowscreen on two sides. The bees were cold and so they huddled together in a mass that hung from the top of the box. With someone holding an umbrella over the proceedings, the beekeepers popped open the box and removed the Queen. She came in her own tiny box, its doorway plugged with something sweet to eat, a hard candy or a stale marshmallow, either of which will attract the workers to nibble at it until they release the queen. It’s typical of what I was discovering, that the tools and techniques of beekeeping are little different than those of housekeeping.

Our three pounds of bees had come through the mail from California, where an apiary supply whose scale I can just barely begin to imagine had weighed out our worker bees and added a queen before sending them on their journey. That meant that these workers don’t yet know their queen – that is, know her scent – and so the slow process of nibbling her to freedom was part of the plan, time for them to bond with one another.

With the kids taking turns helping, the queen was extracted and the package unsealed and the whole bee society tucked into the hive. Bees flew, and bees landed but even though most of us were armored against attack, no attack was forthcoming. Treated with a modicum of gentleness, the bees were more concerned with exploring this new place  than in exacting revenge for the insults of the process. At the end of forty or so minutes, the bees were roofed into their new home with a supply of food to tide them over until the local flowers would awake from their long and damp winter sleep.  The kids and adults retreated a few yards, used a bee brush to carefully remove stragglers from the outside of their protective suits, and then peeled them off to become ordinary people once more.

I stood and watched the hive for a while.  It looked just like what you’d imagine, the box with the small cloud of insects coming and going,  the proverbial hive of activity as – I imagined – the workers began reconnaissance flights, discovering this new world and returning to dance their reports.

There wasn’t much about the scene that came across as timeless. The plastic greenhouses, the hive frames with premade hexagons to guide the bees in honeycomb construction, the watercolor decoration that the hive had acquired somewhere in its travels, all of it spoke to exactly this moment in history. And yet… and yet there was an inescapable feeling that all of us had just participated in a ritual of profound antiquity.  And we had.

Human beings have been finding ways to sweeten their diet with honey since before cities or even agriculture. Back when we were all hunting and gathering, honey was on the menu. It was fire, our oldest friend and shaper of our evolution, that opened the possibility. Smoke tranquilizes bees, and makes the most primitive form of honey harvest — pulling apart the bees’ nest — possible.

Cave art shows those original honey harvesters at work, and ancient Egyptian art follows, revealing that the hive – a bees nest built by humans – had now appeared, never to depart. Three thousand years ago, beekeepers in the Holy Land were importing more docile and productive bees from Turkey and building apiaries that could produce honey by the ton.

It was an imperfect system, to be sure, with much damage often done to the bees in the getting of their honey. But in 17th century Europe, gentlemen scientists finally puzzled out a new way (or perhaps reinvented secrets that belonged to the beekeeping guilds) and learned to build hives that would allow the harvesting without the destruction of the bee colony. The hive into which we had just installed our package into was part of that change, the familiar plain box invented by William Langstroth in the 19th century.

A little over a century ago, a beekeeper named Nephi Hiller unintentionally changed the entire nature of beekeeping in the US by convincing a railroad to take his bees to California for the winter. Hiller’s goal was to increase production of honey and beeswax by giving his hives access to the more fruitful climate of California. But the tail started wagging the dog when he discovered that farmers would pay for his bees to pollinate their orchards and today the bulk of professional beekeepers make their living by renting out the pollination services, not making honey.

It was the industrialization of beekeeping, now facilitated by diesel trucks trundling back and forth across the country with their loads of insect societies.  The same hives pollinate nectarines on the West Coast and blueberries on the East.  It keeps fruit on the grocery shelves, or at least it has this far.  But it’s part and parcel of the cornucopia of missteps we’ve made and the bees, it turns out, are delivering a warning along with the honey and wax.

Scientists call the extreme bee die-offs “Colony Collapse Disorder,” and it’s been the center of a pernicious mystery — what is causing so many bees to vanish, leaving behind hives populated only by infant bees and queens with no subjects?  Many possible culprits have been identified — parasites, viruses, funguses, the antibiotics and fungicides used to combat them, malnutrition, loss of diversity and neonicotinoid herbicides, now banned in Europe for this very reason.  Climate change looms over all of these, both amplifier and trigger.

For years, scientists attempted to isolate the mechanism of CCD, and for years they were frustrated.  The possible culprits all had demonstrable effects, but none of them would prove out to be the cause.  And there’s a slight but unfunny irony in that the search for a mechanistic cause-and-effect was part of the reason they couldn’t find it.  CCD isn’t so much about what’s killing bees, although that is the end result. It’s about what’s causing the fabric of the bee society to disintegrate and when examined that way, the answer is in plain sight.

It’s “all of the above.”  Bees are finding it impossible to live their lives because everything — insecticides to monocultures to sicknesses to being worked to exhaustion — is simply too much of the wrong thing.

But standing there, gazing at the hive, everything seemed to be just as it should.  The bees were curious and content, the kids were filled with the excitement of their discoveries, the rain had finally let up.  We had just taken part in one of the very oldest human practices, a direct line of experience that trails back, however faintly, beyond the pyramids, beyond Babylon, to places and societies that left no buildings or names.  It was the bees’ world, then, and we were just another animal, too clever by half, that wanted a way to get at the sweet stuff inside.

It would be an exaggeration to call the meeting of human and bee a partnership, but we have traveled together through time. Our two societies are profoundly alien to one another and yet that relationship has endured longer than any human works.  It’s fascinating because it is so fragile — we can only guess at what the bees want or need, they more or less tolerate our interference — but it goes on and on.  It is the imperfection and approximateness of beekeeping that reveals its antiquity and compels us to experience being in the world minus any notion of human mastery.  It’s humbling in the best way, not because it crushes self-regard, but because it liberates us from it.  And maybe in that, the ancient lesson of the bees, there is an answer for the predicament afflicting us both.


Beeboy by mbeo
Hive Color by Keith Ewing
The Keepers Three by Ollivier Girard for the Center for Int’l Forestry Research
Old School Beekeeping by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Wicker Hive by Hans Splinter
Keeper and Comb by Mirjam van den Berg
Hiveway to Hell by Wendy Seltzer