You can add clairvoyance to the list of Wendell Berry’s many talents. Eleven years ago, in an essay for Orion Magazine, he wrote, “If we make the world too toxic for honeybees, some compound brain, Monsanto perhaps, will invent tiny robots that will fly about pollinating flowers and making honey.” This spring, Harvard University announced the first successful controlled flight of a “RoboBee” that could take the place of real bees and natural pollination.

It would be funny if it were not so sad. This past winter, a third of US honeybee colonies died or disappeared in a phenomenon scientists call Colony Collapse Disorder. More and more, the culprit is believed to be certain pesticides, fungicides and herbicides that may be killing bees or adversely affecting brain and nerve functions. In April, Europe announced a ban across the continent, the first in the world, to prevent the use of a kind of pesticide known as neonicotinoids. Activists in the United States are suing the EPA to impose a similar ban.

The world would be a lesser place without the honeybee. A quarter of our diet depends on their pollinating skills, but we also admire their beauty, and grace. Observe. The environmentalist and writer Bill McKibben narrates this short film, “Dance of the Honeybee.”

BILL MCKIBBEN: Let’s think about bees in a hive, they go out every day when the temperature is high enough. There’re not like other farm animals, they’re this weird wonderful cross between wild and domestic and they head out into the open world and they come back as it were, with reports about that world, you know, what it’s like miles away. So one little bee yard some place is a kind of hub for understanding whole huge swath of territory. Understanding whether it’s been farmed well, or treated as kind of a monoculture. Whether it’s being saturated in pesticides or whether it’s producing a wide beautiful variety of flowers of all kinds.

There’re sort of accomplices in figuring how healthy and together our landscapes really are. One of the reasons I like being out with bees is that you do sort of slow down and enter their world a little bit. I think they’re quite beautiful, I like watching -- I confess -- I like watching in early spring the first few days of bees coming back with pollen and just sort of looking at the pollen in their saddle bags as they return and seeing what color it is and figuring out where--what tree it must of come from whatever. And there’re beautiful and that you get a sense of indefatigability, I mean, this is an impossible task to, you know, three grains at a time produce enough honey at time to keep the colony alive over the winter, and yet they do it and there is something quite beautiful about that too.

I think most bee keepers are fascinated by bees themselves. This perfect example of the idea that humans could cooperate with another species to both of their mutual benefit we don’t have very many examples of that in our society but that’s what a bee hive is.

I mean honey bees are, like everything else on our planet, under all kinds of duress. I mean, the world in which we jointly inhabit is changing with enormous speed, so none of the patterns that any of us are used to exist in same way anymore. Bees are under treat because landscapes keep changing, we get better at everything that we do and take more cutting of hay, you know, we leave less time for clover to just sit there in the field. Life is speeding up for them just like it is for us and really neither us is coping very well with the results of that.

So, I mean, what we could do to help bees is exactly what we can do to help ourselves, try to slow down the pace of change in the world around us. Human societies aren’t going to be able to cope with rapid climate change and neither can most animal societies, bees included. Human societies can’t cope, turning everything into monoculture, neither can bees, they are a remarkable reminder for the need for a certain kind of stability, in terms of things like climate and the need for a certain kind of variety, in terms of landscape and what’s around us. We need to be making at this point in our society some wise decisions about the years ahead and so we need to be using some of that same focused and determined decision making that bees has successfully employed over a great many millennium.

Clip: “Dance of the Honey Bee”

Previously aired October 4, 2013

Bill presents and introduces the short documentary Dance of the Honey Bee. Narrated by Bill McKibben, the film takes a look at the determined, beautiful and vital role honey bees play in preserving life, as well as the threats bees face from a rapidly changing landscape. “Not only are we dependent on the honey bee for much of what we eat,” says Bill, “there is, of course, a grace and elegance they bring to the natural world that would diminish us all were they to disappear.”

Producer, Director, Photographer & Editor: Peter Nelson.
Narrator: Bill McKibben. Original music: John Powell. Audio: Merce Williams.

Intro Producer: Lena Shemel. Intro Editor: Paul Desjarlais.

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  • Charles Shaver

    Re: disappearing bees: not presently recalling exactly when, I do recall hearing of colony collapse disorder (CCD) about the time I heard of the federally approved use of monosodium glutamate (MSG) containing Auxigro on crops in groves and fields. If MSG can effect bees the same way it effects me (since the 1980 U.S. FDA approval of the expanded use as an alleged ‘flavor enhancer’ in commercial foods) the bees may simply be too fatigued to get back to the hive and/or just forget exactly where the hive is.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for offering this wonderful bit about honeybees along with the Wendell Berry interview. We have got to stop poisoning our world with no regard for the balance of nature. Our government should be protecting this balance instead of furthering corporate interests.

  • patricia hollack

    this is a beautiful doc… too bad the it underscores what ‘big business’ is doing to this awesome entity…
    and we the public have no voice in their not only killing the bees but forcing farmers out of business for not buying and using their products which also harm us consumers without our consent or knowledge… where is our lobby …we have none… the only answer: we must educate and VOTE.

  • Evolution

    Thank you for this. It is a beautiful example of a microcosm of life that is emblematic of the beauty and fragility of our interactions.

  • Anonymous

    Honey bees pollinate over three billion dollars worth of food just in the US so they have had advocates fighting for them and the growth of honey bee keepers fighting to keep their hives from dying. They have been fighting for over a decade to help the honey bee. The brown bat is dying out as well but they eat insects and no one makes money off of them so it hardly gets talked about. Once people start to die from insects I think you may hear more about it but how many people will die because very, very little is being done to help the brown bat.

  • susan

    Have You Saved a Bee Today? ✿ Bee Petitions to Sign and Share! ✿ #SaveTheBees

    ✿ buzzz ✿ buzzz ✿ buzzz ✿

  • Anonymous

    we must stop gmos and pesticides and herbicides from killing the wildlife, bees and us! gmos have to go!!!

  • TJP

    There is a mis-attributed societal wide fear of bees. This is due to their physical similarites to wasps.

  • Lausten North

    What we are likely to lose is an imported (European) hybrid. What we need is to encourage a more genetically diverse range of pollinators so we don’t suffer the same fate as the Irish during the potato famine.

  • Anonymous

    Great commentary and cinematography. The reality of bees runs much deeper than food. If we are creating an environment so filled with toxins, hazards and practices that we can’t keep bees alive what does that say about us? Plus, we focus on the bees that beekeepers like myself deal with. What is going on with feral bees and insects is just as bad if not worse.

  • k l m

    A wonderful piece. Except that the music is too loud and makes it very difficult to hear the important message.

  • Anonymous

    It’s sad to say but the EPA is becoming part of the problem as it distracts in a effort to protect big agribusiness that it should be regulating.

  • dd

    I share that.. they are so beautiful. I love the bumblebees most. Later in the summer they take to sleeping in my mallow flowers which close up around them in the evening. Morning when the flowers open they are there and warming in the sun. I was amazed when I first saw this and I fear for them and for us.

  • Judith A. Cartisano

    Both lovely and sad. I have turned my backyard into a refuge of sorts for bees and other insects, letting whatever decides to grow there, grow. Plants like mullein, evening primrose and milkweed have grown there without any “help” from me. And the bees are there in fairly large quantities, feasting on the variety, along with grasshoppers, ladybugs, fireflies, crickets, beetles, spiders and butterflies. Each one of us with a backyard could do this. Together we must have many, many acres of land we could keep pesticide free and reclaim for bees.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for covering this very important story, Bill Moyers.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you. Sharing w/ my friends in Ecuador who have bees and are battling the same foes

  • Tommy Carrig

    The endangered are the collateral damage of overpopulation and over production. Monarch butterflies dwindling due to round-up ready crops and killing their milkweed. All of the “Save the____” groups need to organize into a more coherent effort.
    I did a Youtube on the problem.

  • dd

    so beautiful and their cousins the bumblebees too. They are the pollinators for tomatoes and other bees cannot free the tomato pollen from the plant. Bumblebees are also dying from the pesticides.