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April 21, 2007

The Impassioned Plea Of A Bitter Bee*

[by litbrit, who wishes everyone a happy and thoughtful Earth Day]

It's Earth Day tomorrow, April 22nd, and word has it that Mother Earth has registered her wish list at every grocery store, gas station, and recycling center in the nation.  What would she like from us, the human residents who seem hell-bent on partying long and hard in her beautiful home and then leaving the place a mess?

At the top of the list is a request that we start considering some of our smallest critter-neighbors, the bees.  Albert Einstein either did or didn't have this to say about bees:

"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

And while some bloggers are busy devoting time and bandwidth to proving or disproving that it was indeed Einstein who made that dire prediction, I'd like to point out that regardless of who said it, bees are in trouble.

And so, therefore, are we.

In a potent closing monologue last night, comedian and political pundit Bill Maher had a lot to say about bees, and birds and humans, too:

Well, guess what? The bees are disappearing. In massive numbers. All around the world. And if you think I'm being alarmist and that, "Oh, they'll figure out some way to pollinate the plants..." No, they've tried. For a lot of what we eat, only bees work. And they're not working. They're gone. It's called Colony Collapse Disorder.


But I think we're the ones suffering from Colony Collapse Disorder. Because although nobody really knows for sure what's killing the bees, it's not al-Qaeda, and it's not God doing some of his Old Testament shtick, and it's not Winnie the Pooh. It's us. It could be from pesticides, or genetically modified food, or global warming, or the high-fructose corn syrup we started to feed them. Recently it was discovered that bees won't fly near cell phones -- the electromagnetic signals they emit might screw up the bees navigation system, knocking them out of the sky. So thanks guy in line at Starbucks, you just killed us. It's nature's way of saying, "Can you hear me now?"


Maybe you don't need to talk on your cell phone all the time. Maybe you don't' need a bag when you buy a keychain. Americans throw out 100 billion plastic bags a year, and they all take a thousand years to decompose. Your children's children's children's children will never know you but they'll know you once bought batteries at the 99 cent store because the bag will still be caught in the tree. Except there won't be trees. Sunday is Earth Day. Please educate someone about the birds and the bees, because without bees, humans become the canary in the coal mine, and we make bad canaries because we're already such sheep.

Global warming, overflowing landfills, rainforest destruction, and an imperiled food supply are not inventions of the oft-derided Left. Neither are they alarmist soundbites set forth to pave the way for the Great Socialist Takeover Of All That Is Capitalist And Wonderful, which is to say, used the way other alarmist soundbites--Saddam has nukes!  Gotta fight 'em there so we don't have to fight 'em here!  Hair gel and Evian water can bring down planes!--were employed to achieve all manner of political objectives, from instilling fear and compliance in a population to offering a flimsy, plastic justification for pouring the nation's blood and treasure into the voracious war machine.

No, the threats to our environment are not only non-partisan, they're very real.  The ice caps don't give a rat's bottom if you're red, blue, or green--they're melting anyway.  The disrupted and destroyed ecosystems have no political affiliation, either.  And as man and his machines intrude on heretofore untouched rainforests, and tropical viruses once contained deep within begin their outward creep--first to rodents and primates living at the perimeter, then to humans--the microbes will fell us all.

Which is, by the way, how I believe the world as we know it will end: not with a bang, but a whimper.  Not with a meteor collision, not with a bomb, but rather, with the world-wide deathblow of a tiny organism, one that rises to power when humans, via their ongoing destruction of Earth's complex ecosystems and precarious balance, finally remove every possible obstacle that might have protected us.  Those who survive the floods, famine, and disease wrought by global warming will then have to contend with unprecedented outbreaks of tropically-bred hemorrhagic fevers like sabia and ebola, to name just two lethal viruses, as well as yet-unnamed and undiscovered ones.   In true virus fashion, they will take an opportunistic view of our devastated populace.

And that will be that.

Regardless of your politics, I hope you'll think about the bees this weekend, as well as the many ecosystems--all interdependent, all quite fragile and easy to disrupt--that keep our planet and our species grooving along.

*My first name, Deborah, is Hebrew for bee; my second name, Mary, means bitter.

April 21, 2007 in Science | Permalink


it is no surprise if bees vacate the planet.
the stars have disappeared from our skies.
.....i believe that our disconnection from nature is part of the reason for so much psychosis.
we are separated in spirit from our lifeline.
......the beauty around us is vanishing.
humbled by nothing, we have taken dominion instead of stewardship.
....we think we are gods, but are more like reckless children, to whom nothing is sacred.
....boring into the sacred rock of the grand canyon to create a glass skywalk...we stop at nothing.
we are creating hell out of paradise.

Posted by: jacqueline | Apr 21, 2007 12:40:34 PM


A Little road not made of man,
Enabled of the eye,
Accessible to thill of bee,
Or cart of butterfly.

If town it have, beyond itself,
'Tis that I cannot say;
I only sigh, - no vehicle
Bears me along that way.


Nature CXI

The Murnering of bees has ceased;
But murmuring of some
Posterior, prophetic,
Has simultaneous come,-

~~ Emily Dickinson

Posted by: jacqueline | Apr 21, 2007 1:11:20 PM

an apology to Emily..
nothing should mar her poems.
the first line of her poem reads:

"The Murmuring of bees has ceased;"

Posted by: jacqueline | Apr 21, 2007 1:17:28 PM

If we're less than 5 years from total doom, why even bother trying to fix anything? Might as well just hold your family and friends close for as long as you can and the hell with the rest.

Posted by: fiat lux | Apr 21, 2007 1:19:25 PM

fiat lux

we must work to heal the world
in any way that we can.
tikkun olam.
we must try to hallow the world
in the place where we find ourselves.
holding our family and friends close
is also a great part of that healing.
in Love we trust.

Posted by: jacqueline | Apr 21, 2007 1:50:41 PM

Err, Colony Collapse Disorder was first identified in 1896.
So we've all been dead since 1901?

Posted by: Tim Worstall | Apr 21, 2007 1:56:39 PM

No, at the top of the list is the plea that
we stop having so many damned babies.

Posted by: joel hanes | Apr 21, 2007 1:59:23 PM

I have mixed feelings about this particular problem. I do so for several reasons. One of the myths we are raised on is that every plant is dependent upon bees, and not just any old bees, but honey bees (ie., Apis mellifera).

The reality is not like that. The reality is that myth helps us maintain a particular way of growing plants, but it's not as though the plants have to have honey bees.

How many of you have any idea how many species of bees there actually are?

Better yet, how many of you know that before Europeans arrived humans in the Americas did just fine without them?

You see, they are not native to this continent........

They're immigrants, brought here by the English colonists. Some of the Native Americans of New England called them "white man's flies".

They were.

The reality is more complicated than the bad news by itself is.

Oh, and by the way, even without any bees, we will still have the grains. The grains are all grasses, and all of the grasses depend upon the wind for pollination.

Not bees.

Posted by: oddjob | Apr 21, 2007 3:22:43 PM

Einstein was a physicist, not a biologist, let alone an entomologist.

Posted by: oddjob | Apr 21, 2007 3:25:07 PM

Err, Colony Collapse Disorder was first identified in 1896.
So we've all been dead since 1901?

While the document was interesting, I'm not sure what you mean by your question. Should we just not worry about what's happening with bees? Should we just forget about trying to do anything that lessens the ways in which we pollute this world and interfere with its other inhabitants - inhabitants upon which we depend? Of course, there is also the fact that litbrit did not say that we have already been doomed by what has happened, nor did she even say that losing all bees would destroy the earth. But litbrit does want to take this seriously.


What you say is true. However, the North America that did just fine without bees was quite a bit different than the North America we have now. I'm rather attached to fruit and vegetables and would like to keep them around here, even if my local grocery insists upon importing them from Chile and Argentina whenever they can.

Posted by: Stephen | Apr 21, 2007 3:36:07 PM

All true, but that goes to what I was saying. I have my suspicions that there are other ways to use bees to pollinate that would require a different sense of land use, but not one that would be a huge bother, except that Americans have an ugly habit of taking a dim view of "undeveloped" land.

Calling such land undeveloped betrays a bias that the natural world is useles......

Posted by: oddjob | Apr 21, 2007 4:59:13 PM


I believe it is a false conclusion to decide that we must have honey bees or we will die. They are seriously cool insects, but concluding we must have them is based more upon ignorance than anything else.

Posted by: oddjob | Apr 21, 2007 5:01:42 PM

The Dutch have developed a way to use a bumble bee species in their greenhouses. Honey bees are utterly useless in greenhouses.

Posted by: oddjob | Apr 21, 2007 5:03:47 PM

Did you know honey bees are actually fairly ineffective pollinators of apple trees? Let them loose in an apple orchard and you know what they usually spend most of their time on?

The dandelions blooming under the trees..........

There are bees in the genus Trigona which are far, far more effective pollinators of apple blossoms.

Posted by: oddjob | Apr 21, 2007 5:05:49 PM

Honey bees are also reluctant pollinators of blueberries and cranberries.

No, we don't have to have honey bees. We tell each other this because we don't know any better.

Posted by: oddjob | Apr 21, 2007 5:06:52 PM


that is very interesting information.
years ago, i had a book called Dancing Bees, by karl von frisch. it was a fascinating account about the life of honeybees.
the book doesnt seem very available anymore.

Posted by: jacqueline | Apr 21, 2007 5:23:00 PM

I believe Von Frisch is the only entomologist who has ever won a Nobel Prize. In the 1960's I believe he shared the one for physiology/medicine with two other gods of animal behavior research, ornithologist Nikolaas Tinbergen and behaviorist Konrad Lorenz. Von Frisch's work is one of the enduring marvels of biology!

Posted by: oddjob | Apr 21, 2007 5:55:50 PM

(I just checked. Actually the prize was awarded to them in 1973.)

Posted by: oddjob | Apr 21, 2007 5:59:13 PM

do you know if honeybees frequently change their locales if they are not domestically colonized?
or if they return after long periods of time?

there was an old beebox that had been left on a part of my property. there were no bees in it for years. it seemed really ancient and partly dismantled,
but i always enjoyed looking at it.
.....then, a few months ago, i heard a great hum near some trees that were in blossom. it sounded like a droning engine in their vicinity.
...i followed the sound, and sure enough, it took me right to the old beebox. it was filled with bees!!!!
i was amazed to see it inhabited and full of life!
...however, now that the trees have stopped blooming, the box is empty just as before.
it was uninhabited for years....do you know if this is customary?
...also, where i live, there have been highly unusual numbers of gentle bees this year. blooming trees in my area have been swarming with bees, and they are not aggressive. the trees sound like they have motors! i pass right next to the trees and they are completely unfazed.
i wonder if that is the species of honeybee that is being referred to.
we also have been having an abundance of monarchs and swallowtails. more than i recall in previous years.
i am so glad they are all here!

Posted by: jacqueline | Apr 21, 2007 6:45:04 PM

No, that's not what they do. I am certain what happened was you had a swarm in your tree. It examined the bee box, but found another locale it preferred and moved on.

Honey bees have an unusual way of reproducing because unlike other insects (where even if they live "socially" [and that has a very specific meaning the way I'm using it right now] in colonies they reproduce by sending out individual reproductive females, or male-female pairs if termites, to found new colonies, each by themselves), they reproduce by colony. Once the colony is big enough it will divide in half, with half of the adults leaving with the queen, and then the remaining half rears a new queen who mates and takes over.

The half that leaves is known as a "swarm", and moves en masse, with all the workers always remaining close to the queen except for a few who fly off to scout for a new place to found a new colony (or "hive"). After examining places the scouts return to the swarm and "dance" to indicate where they've gone. Other scouts respond to the bees who dance the most vigorously by flying off the indicated place. Then they return and dance themselves. Over a day or two a variety of places is whittled down to just a few as returning scouts dance with greater or lesser degrees of vigor, with others going to do the same. Finally, in a mechanism not yet well understood, once only one potential site is being danced about, the swarm flies to that site and sets up house.

Generally speaking, bees are quite gentle unless you mess with them when they're near their hive. Bees out foraging among flowers will never pay any attention to you at all unless you try to crush them or trap them with your body. Honey bees aren't given to stinging people unless they perceive a threat, because a worker honey bee only stings once! The stinger is barbed, so once it's used when the bee leaves the back end of her body will be ripped off and she will die.

Posted by: oddjob | Apr 22, 2007 12:24:42 PM

(Oh, one correction. If you're out among flowers, wearing a floral or sweetly scented perfume, honey bees will show interest in you, but only for the few seconds they require to determine that while you smell kind of like a flower, you are not one. Honey bees generally respond very positively to the same sorts of scents we ourselves like. In that way they differ considerably from many flies and also dogs.)

Posted by: oddjob | Apr 22, 2007 12:28:50 PM

(If you swat at the intrigued honey bee during that time, you run the risk of getting stung because it now may decide you are a threat to it and its hive.)

Posted by: oddjob | Apr 22, 2007 12:30:22 PM


Honey bees are a mixture of brown, gray, and black (depending on subspecies, and there are at least four here now, plus hybrids between them all), while yellow jackets are always only yellow and black. Honey bees are also far hairier than yellow jackets.


Honey bees have exactly zero interest in meat. They get all the protein they need from other sisters in their hives and from pollen.

That's all. Honey bees eat honey, pollen, exudates from their sister workers, nothing else.

Yellow jackets have a strong interest in meat at certain times of year, as well as sweet things. That's because of their own life histories, which are distinctly different from honey bees.

Posted by: oddjob | Apr 22, 2007 12:43:02 PM


thank you so much for sharing all of that concisely detailed information. i really appreciate the time you took to do that.
...like all living things, their way of being is fascinating. i will save your post and read more, as my interest in them is reawakened.
i wish i still had that wonderful book, "dancing bees".

thank you again for sharing.
you were bee-ing most gracious!

Posted by: jacqueline | Apr 22, 2007 2:21:07 PM

Thanks, although I must confess it comes naturally to a pedant....... ;-)

Posted by: oddjob | Apr 22, 2007 3:06:41 PM

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