The invitation came from Susan Friedman, whom I met on the weekend with Joanna Macy, and whose native plant gardens were part of Retaining Paradise. The Work that Reconnects workshop was held at Canticle Farm, an urban farm in Oakland, a more or less rectangular open space created by combining the yards and gardens behind a collection of houses. During the weekend the bees swarmed, meaning that the queen, responding to pressures in the hive, led a large number of her subjects out to form a new one. For an afternoon, thousands of bees hung in a mass on a sturdy tree branch, while scouts went looking for new sites. In the meantime, a beekeeper on someone’s speed dial was called to put the swarm into a new hive box and take it to another farm.
This extraordinary event led Susan, already thinking about having a hive on her property, to find a class on beekeeping. Though it had never occurred to me to do such a thing, when she asked me if I was interested I immediately wrote back, ‘Of course.’ So there we were, on a hot June Saturday, in a demonstration garden a couple of blocks from San Francisco’s City Hall. Our teacher, Mark, was an utterly engaging bee geek, who punctuated his opening talk with continual delight at the intricate, fascinating life of the bees he is clearly passionate about.
Though I had no expectations about my fellow students beforehand, I was surprised at how young everyone else was, starting with Mark. We were a small group, but still, the idea that there are six young, urban professionals interested in spending a golden summer day learning about keeping bees was very heartening. Because keeping bees is, in it’s broadest sense, keeping the world.
Bees were here with the dinosaurs. The relationship between bees and flowers is 130 million years old. Starting in the paleolithic era, cave drawings all over the world include scenes of figures climbing ladders to get honey, buzzed by a swarm of bees. People have written about their fascination with bees and the joys of honey ever since the alphabet was invented. But they may not survive the world we have created. And we may not survive without them.
Mark took us through the basics of hive life: the development of the queen and her prodigious task of laying up to 2000 eggs a day. The myriad, unceasing tasks of the female workers who do all the work of the hive. They tend the queen, feed the young, forage for and store nectar and pollen, make honey, create wax, clean house, vibrate their wing muscles to regulate temperature. All lives are brief: queens can live for five years, though are considered productive for three. Workers live about a month and a half. The far fewer male drones, whose only job in life is to fertilize queens from other hives, die in this task or by being ejected from the hive at the end of the summer. So, to keep the hive going, new life needs to be constantly fostered.
Their work ethic is prodigious. One pound of honey means that 10,000 bees have flown 75,000 miles in short segments, visiting up to 8 million flowers. A good forager will have brought back a total of 1/4 teaspoon of nectar in the course of her life. She’ll also bring water, and pollen collected on her bristly hairs or in pouches on her legs. As she flies from flower to flower in search of nectar, she leaves some of her pollen load on the next flower she visits, and picks up more, performing the crucial task of pollination as she goes.
The highlight of the class was donning bee suits and opening the hives. Bee boxes with portable wooden frames of comb long ago replaced the round, impenetrable beehives that meant bees had to be killed to harvest honey. We pulled out the hanging frames and watched the bees at work. Mark suggested dipping the end of a twig in the honey and holding it to the bees’ heads. The tiniest imaginable red tongues zipped out to lick it off. He showed us the queen, which he had marked with a green dot.
All this time the bees were very calm. We were well covered, though I was soon unconcernedly pulling my gloves on and off to take pictures. But after a while the bees began to buzz and fly more dramatically, the result of getting too warm on that hot day, and anxious about the well-being of their tribe. So we closed the boxes again.
Our class was not about native bees. Beekeeping is devoted to the imported European honey bee, Apis mellifera, whose communal lifestyle and behavior make it a mobile pollinating force for agriculture, and a prolific source of honey. But all bee populations are excellent pollinators, some native ones far more so than the honey bee. All are losing ground dramatically. In the last 120 years, we’ve lost half of our native bee species. There is no one cause, and the problem, though far more acute now, was first noted in 1860.
Even then, loss of habitat to growing urbanization and industrialization, along with widespread clearing for agriculture, were among the culprits. Since World War II, intensive farming has done away with the old hedgerows between fields, full of varieties of wildflowers and brambles. Vast fields of wind-pollinated grains have no flowers for bees to forage. Vegetable farmers largely harvest crops like lettuce and radishes before they flower and go to seed. That leaves fruit and nut trees, and vegetables that develop from the ovaries of flowers, like squash.
But even in places where such crops are abundant, as in the Central Valley of California, bees are rapidly losing ground. When they don’t kill the bees directly, pesticides, especially the neonicotinoids introduced in the 1990s, damage their nervous systems, impairing their ability to navigate and forage, thus weakening the whole hive. Any loss of vitality leaves bees prey to mites and fungi that can devastate the colony.
Monoculture is another issue. The almond groves in the Central Valley bloom for three weeks. Before and after, if there are no native hedgerows, and no flowering ground covers, there’s nothing to keep the mostly non-colony-forming native bees in place. The honey beekeepers load their hives onto trucks and move them to the next crop, a potentially stressful lifestyle that may also be impacting those bees.
What would life without bees be like? From a human perspective, we would lose most flowers, most fruits, vegetables, nuts, coffee, tea. Our diet would consist largely of grains and meat from animals that eat those grains. Without clover and alfalfa, the dairy industry would falter, and beef prices would skyrocket. We would have lettuce for salad while the seed supply lasts, but no cucumbers or tomatoes, and no oil or vinegar. No jam or jelly, no strawberry shortcake in June, no pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. No lemonade or orange juice. Our most nutritious vegetables — like broccoli, carrots, onions, kale — would be gone.
Cotton clothing would disappear. Our gardens would be green. No more fields of wildflowers. The 20% of flowers pollinated by butterflies, beetles, and hummingbirds would still exist, but butterflies are also disappearing. All ecosystems would eventually diminish as bee-pollinated plants died off in alpine meadows, grasslands, forests, wetlands, deserts. The ability of these systems to regenerate soil, filter water and clean the air would be impaired, endangering more and more plants. Eventually, all living things could be under threat.
Thus the loss of bees is far more than a human problem. Because of the threat to agriculture, farmers and scientists the world over have been working to figure out why we’re losing bees and what to do about it. But though the solutions are challenging, and the sudden collapse of colonies devastating, it isn’t hard to figure out why bees are struggling. We’ve produced a planet that is inhospitable to them. And, as I wrote when contemplating the loss of lichen to climate change, a world that’s inhospitable to our fellow inhabitants may soon be inhospitable to us.
Instead of trying to harness the bee to our needs, we would do better catering to theirs. If we create a world where they can flourish, chances are far better that we will, too. Among the answers: organic farming and gardening. Bee friendly hedgerows dividing farm fields and native flowering groundcovers among crops. Regenerative agriculture. Sustainable development. Preservation and restoration of habitat. Gardening with natives — the plants native bees evolved with — like the bee-loved flowers accompanying this post. This is the quilting together of restored habitat I wrote about in Retaining Paradise.
In the end, it all depends on how we think about these things. We can choose to look at the world from a bee’s point of view, or a forest’s, or a river’s. Or from the perspective of an intact ecosystem. By and large, our culture and economy don’t support this way of seeing. We contemplate a meadow that took 4.5 billion years to evolve and see it as a potential shopping mall. We see driveways and houses and swimming pools. As understandable as this view might be, given our culture, and to some extent our needs, it’s destroying the world we depend on.
Without bees, flowers may never have evolved. Without flowers, and their nutritious fruits, we may never have evolved. We share over a third of our genes with bees. Our connections with our fellow beings, as with the planet we all arose from, are profound. What if instead of seeing bees as merely useful, or fascinating, or in the way, we could see them as kin? With such a shift in vision, gardening, farming, and habitat restoration become ways to foster the vitality of our cousins as well as ourselves. We become a vast extended family — flowers, fruits, bees, soil, water, humans — weaving the fabric of life together.
I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.