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.”
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.