Years ago I met a man at a writing workshop who had also come under the enchanting spell of honeybees. He had begun to keep bees at a time when unbeknownst to the average beekeeper, a deadly scourge had begun to spread among the beehives.
During the winter of 2006-2007, some beekeepers began to report unusually high losses of 30-90 percent of their hives. As many as 50 percent of all affected colonies demonstrated symptoms inconsistent with any known causes of honey bee death:
**Sudden loss of a colony’s worker bee population with very few dead bees found near the colony.
**The queen and brood (young) remained, and the colonies had relatively abundant honey and pollen reserves.https://www.epa.gov/pollinator-protection/colony-collapse-disorder
As beekeepers would come to find out. Honeybee hives cannot sustain themselves without worker bees and would eventually die. This combination of events resulting in the loss of a bee colony was called Colony Collapse Disorder.
The most immediate killer would eventually be identified as Varroa Mite, evidently imported from Asia, where bees had learned to adapt. But for the European honeybee, they were defenseless.
Though, as 40+ year bee researcher Mark Winston has said, it’s not just one thing that is killing the bees, it’s “a thousand little cuts”, including habitat pollution and destruction, chemicals and our industrialized agricultural system which assaults bees regularly with glyphosate/herbicides, fungicides, pesticides, GMO’s, and practices that destroy any natural habitat in lieu of big subsidized mono-crops such as corn, soy, barley, wheat, etc.
This man told me his story with tears in his eyes. Where he lived, in Ohio, state governments grappled with too little information and an increasing epidemic of hives infected with varroa mites(which literally attach to a baby bee in the nest and suck the juices out of them over their lifespan, causing parasitic wing deformation and other diseases). Without knowing what was infecting honeybees or how it could impact the bee industry, they finally advised all beekeepers to set their hives on fire to stop the spread.
The man told me of his young son who eagerly asked to go with his dad that day to visit the hives. When the father told him to stay home and why, the child bravely said he “wanted to be with the bees”, even in their hour of death. They wept together as the father sealed the hives and poured gasoline on the hives and set them on fire.
Today, I can hardly bear to write this story. It makes my heart ache and my stomach churn.
As beekeepers, we know the rest of the story…
We no longer destroy our hives. We have learned to live with the decimation of our hives, the 40-55% losses each winter. We have learned to get back up each Spring and try again with what we have left. Honeybees continue to fly and swarm and pollinate—though there are way fewer.
The race is on. Can honeybees evolve and even adapt to mitigate all the disastrous things they face from human practices, lowered immune systems and the dreaded varroa mites? Can bee research make genetic advances that will assist?
Varroa is no different than COVID 19 virus. It is the to the bee family what the Bubonic plague, SARS or MERS or any epidemic virus has been to humanity. The global family, like the honeybees of the 20th century, is rendered defenseless against such potent viruses. They come as silent killers, invisible initially to the eye, but it can take apart the whole Hive. Viruses, like varroa, are clever and adaptable and mutational.
What, I wonder, is the wisdom of the hive, the ability to Think Like A Bee, in our own hour of a deadly scourge for the global human family? As we will increasingly face what bees and other creatures have already faced due to the absolute degradation of our environment, what can we learn?
I have more questions than answers these days…but I have observed a few things from my years of being mentored by the bees.
We are all interconnected. For many years now, beekeepers have been saying, “Bees are the canaries in the mine”. Actually all living beings have been mirroring back to us signs and signals of what is coming…what is visited on one planetary community member will eventually affect us all. We are not immune from each other’s ills. In a sense, the future is here. All the assaults and insults we have visited upon our planetary immune system have ravaged not only her, but the immune response of all creatures and beings that depend upon her. Climate change and pathogen spillover is real, according to Dr. Michelle Barry of Stanford Global Health Center. Climate change, deforestation and changing ecology is happening. Animal and human ecology is colliding as humans invade and dismantle ecological communities.
Hive mind is the only way through this. We can no longer act as isolated entities. Actually, we must work as inter-species, humans and the natural world, acting together to solve the ills assailing us. I have tried to assist my bees to strengthen their immune system as a hive, I have tried to mitigate the varroa and other terrifying assaults on bees by keeping them in places where farming practices are organic and life affirming. Where all life is honored. Not just humans. How can we as humans listen to our natural systems for wisdom — how they are organized, their resilience and adaptation? How can we listen to other human communities besides our own tribal affiliations as we seek answers together?
Collaboration. Whether viruses or varroa, we have the information together to help and heal the whole. Think Funghi and bacteria. The plant and living organism world has answers for us, and we as humans can offer safe harbor for all living beings from our backyards to our agricultural, forests and wilderness areas. We can act with deep respect and reverence in relationship with the rich biotic community that we humans live within. We are only one building block of the whole network. We all depend upon the web of life.
Gratitude. In a time of COVID 19, everything we receive is abundance. Sharing and not hoarding is critical. I am humbly aware that the gifts of the hive are ostensibly free of charge. Honey, pollen, propolis, royal jelly, even stings to boost my immune system. Yet, without gratitude, I will exploit, take for granted, take more than my share and not understand that these gifts are not free, ultimately. They require bee size back-breaking work and commitment from the hive to be sustainable for the whole community.
Social Distancing in the hive is not possible with honeybees. They literally live on top of one another and swap spit regularly. But we have learned that too many bees crammed into beeyards with poor conditions, lead to sharing of parasitic mite disease, mites and all kinds of other diseases. Spacing out hives allows them room to be healthy and safe, to thrive. It is a paradigm shift for how we care for our human communities—that we all become “haves” of good housing, healthcare, community resources, clean air, water and food.
The good news is, I still get to visit my bees, and actually all of nature is open to visitors in this time of social quarantining, or “cloistering” as my pastor calls it. It’s a good time to think together about this “new normal”. It is a time of paying attention and being more deeply present to our interior lives and our families, our neighbors. It is a time to put into place new practices as a human family. One that honors all living communities.