Thursday, June 9, 2011

Vanishing Bees

Growing up, I was absolutely terrified of "bees," the name I used for a variety of tiny monsters with dreaded, piercing stingers and stripy yellow and black backs. I was destined to get stung, I reasoned, if one of them came near me. As a child I was always afraid of any creeping, crawling thing, but my exceptional fear of bees and wasps was sealed when I was about seven years old. One evening, I bolted outside the second the last bite of dinner was consumed so I could ride my bike in the waning hours of daylight. As I pulled my bike out of the garage, I unleashed the wrath of a yellow jacket. It chased me up the sidewalk until my hero arrived: Jack, the burly tough-guy next door, who lifted one gigantic work boot and smashed the creature underfoot.

I spent my entire childhood running in this manner from bees and their kin. While conventional wisdom holds that a person confronted by a bee should stand like a stone, lest flailing arms and screaming scare an insect into stinging behavior, I held firm to my own belief that running was a more effective evasion method. And it did work for me – over the three and a half decades of my life I have never been stung.

I held on to my fear of nearly all creatures of the order hymenoptera for a very long time. That fear worsened as I grew up and read books like A Taste of Blackberries, in which a young boy dies from an allergic reaction to bee stings. My grandma is allergic to bees, so I figured that I might be, too. All the more reason to flee on sight of any yellow-and-black-backed insect.
A few years later, I met my husband, a man with almost no fear of bees. He spent hours as a boy trying to capture them with honeyed jars and, unlike me, was able to distinguish between a honey bee and a yellow jacket wasp. When we were hiking and confronted a fuzzy bumble bee, he'd try to pet the thing. I later had three children by this man, and amazingly, they displayed the same bee-loving behavior. My firstborn daughter so loved the little creatures that she continued to try to capture them as pets, even after she was stung.

Having children who spent hours at play turning over rocks in search of arthropods piqued my own curiosity about all insects, including bees. So I bought an insect field guide and began to learn the difference between the "gentle giant" bumble bees and the aggressive hornets. I learned that the horrifying Ichneumon wasps with their excessively long stingers have no interest in humans (their "stingers" are actually ovipositors used to inject eggs into the insect prey they parasitize). The more I learned, the more my fear melted away. That fear was replaced by enchantment, curiosity, and fascination. My husband's macro-photos of insects, including various bees, helped me to see the beauty of their world. Here's one of his photos, of a bumble bee pollinating a flower:

Photographer: Steven T. Zydek

Soon, I became interested in honey bees in particular, due to their manifold virtues. Honey bees are amazing creatures. They are organized in a way that suggests high intelligence, though their human-like civilization is more innate than learned. Bees are crucial pollinators. Without them, many of our most prized fruits would not, well, come to fruition. And of course, bees provide us with delicious honey and fragrant, useful beeswax. The more educated I became about these creatures, the more I loved and respected them.

Naturally, then, I was disheartened to learn about the recent rise of what has been dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder. Honey bees, it seems, are disappearing. CCD is a mysterious and potentially disastrous dilemma. Bees aren't simply dying overnight, leaving their corpses in mounds around their hives. If this were the case, perhaps it would be easier to trace the source of the problem. Instead, worker bees – the small female honey bees that collect pollen to feed their young and care for the queen -- are simply disappearing, flying off in confusion and dying when they can't find their way back to the hive. The disappearance of workers ultimately causes a hive to collapse over a span of a few months.

Many theories have been bandied about as to why the bees are disappearing, from climate change to cell phone radiation to industrial beekeeping methods and even supernatural phenomena. A couple weeks ago a study was released that again pointed the finger at cell phones as the culprit, indicating that their signals are confusing and killing bees. So stated this article shared across social media.

But cell phones are not the real cause of CCD, say beekeepers interviewed in Vanishing of the Bees. We recently viewed a screening of the documentary at Unity Church in Wauwatosa. The film largely blamesneonicotinoid pesticides as the cause of CCD. These chemicals work not by being sprayed on the leaves of crops, but within the system of the plant (hence the name "systemic pesticide"). Theorists point to treated plants as having a detrimental effect on bees, who do not die instantly after exposure but bring tainted pollen back to the hive. Over time, larval bees, who have been reared on toxic pollen, grow up confused and disoriented and are eventually incapable of leaving the hive without wandering too far and dying.
Abroad, some beekeepers and apiarists are so certain of the link between systemic pesticides and CCD that they have worked to successfully ban neonicotinoids. Cf. and

In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency will not take a strong stance against neonicotinoids as the cause of CCD. They say research isn't conclusive enough to institute a ban. Why? According to the film, studies conducted by chemical companies stating that neonicotinoids were not harmful to bees (adult bees did not die within a few days of exposure to these pesticides) were submitted to and accepted by the EPA as proof that these pesticides are not causing CCD. Here's the EPA's statement on the issue.

Whatever the cause, if CCD continues it may have a devastating impact on humans, as well as bees. According to the film, bees are required to pollinate a third of the food we eat, from fruits to tree nuts and many things in between. Without ample honey bees, farmers are required to ship bees out of state to do the pollinating of select food crops, causing food prices to rise. Without any bees, we will simply not be able to enjoy many fruits, nuts, and seeds. Can you imagine a world without apples? Pumpkins? Sunflowers? It boggles the mind to think of the impact of the death of honey bees. In addition to the threat to many of our staple foods, Colony Collapse Disorder is perhaps symptomatic of environmental toxicity that is bound to have an effect on all life – human included.

What can be done to stop the death of bees? Until the cause of CCD is determined, it may be difficult to completely eradicate the problem on the residential level. That said, there are things any citizen can do to help protect bees. Find (or host) a screening of a documentary like 'Vanishing of the Bees' or the similar film Queen of the Sun. Plant bee-friendly plants in your yard, like sunflowers, pumpkins, and bee balm (Monarda). Cease from killing dandelions and clover in your grass – they are important food sources for pollinators like honey bees. Commit to keeping your yard chemical-free. Don't fear honey bees – they help us survive and make the world a beautiful and healthy place. They rarely sting humans unless bothered. Take a beekeeping class through the University of Wisconsin Extension's Urban Apiculture Institute. Lobby the government and the EPA to work harder toward finding the cause of CCD.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, educate yourself about insects. Know your bee and wasp varieties and avoid killing honey bees (if you see a swarm, DO NOT spray it with pesticides – most people fail to realize that bees are at their most tame when they are swarming. Call a local beekeeper and he or she will collect the bees for you). As citizens we have to stop believing the hype about "bugs" and learn to tell the difference between beneficial insects (without whom would mean certain death for humans) and true "pests."

Here are a few more bee-related resources:

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