It’s difficult to think in terms of geological time. For example, if we could watch a DVD of the earth’s 4.54 billion year history condensed into 24 hours, the first honey bee would appear 30 seconds before the end of the movie
and the first upright human being (australopithecus) 1.5 seconds from the end. Civilized man would flash so fast across the screen as to be invisible to the viewer.
In the last minute of that movie a lot happens, not
least the angiosperm explosion when, for reasons that have not been adequately explained, flowering plants developed with color and scent. Most of the dinosaurs lived all of their lives without seeing a flower as we know it.
Because they are anchored to the soil, and unlike animals, insects and birds, plants cannot go out in search of a mate and therefore either release pollen on the wind or exploit colorful blooms and sweet nectar to recruit versatile partners
in their determination to extend the life of their species. The resulting seeds of this intricate dance form the basis of a healthy diet for humankind.
North America has in excess of 20,000 species of insect pollinators
and Pennsylvania has at least 400 species of native bees but their solitary habits, often irascible temperament and preference for a narrow range of plant species are a poor fit in an intensive agricultural system. Hence apis mellifera was introduced to this
continent in the early C17th first from Germany and later from Italy by colonists who valued these relatively docile, collaborative and communal insects for the array of crops they pollinated and the honey they produced (Cane sugar was not used as a
popular sweetener until later in the same century and beet sugar only in the C19th.) Honey bees not only had a long and tried history in Europe, they also had a mystical and spiritual significance, although that was probably not why the religious orders
kept them in such profusion; the honey was used to make mead as a communion wine, the smokeless bees wax candles were valued in the cathedrals where they would not spoil the precious art work on the walls, and the propoplis as well as the honey was used
for healing purposes in the infirmary.
Over the last 60 million years (30 seconds in our DVD analogy) honey bees made two remarkable discoveries. The first was that if they reduced the moisture content of nectar to about
18%, and covered it with a layer of wax, the resulting honey could energize the colony through the winter and feed the brood in the early spring. Secondly, they learned to communicate through dance and thus coordinate and concentrate their foraging to
maximize efficiency. All this using a brain the size of a sesame seed.
Fast forward now to the 20th century (or less than 1 millionth of a second on our DVD) and what President Eisenhower famously called
the Military Industrial Complex as diversified family farms made way to huge conglomerates producing a single crop over thousands of acres and using heavy machinery to spray noxious combinations of insecticides, herbicides and fungicides, many of which
were bi-products of toxins developed in the First and Second World Wars.
These consortia invoked a different dance, one that involved the placement of enough honey bees in the right place at the right time before applying
the insecticide treatments that would otherwise kill them. Hence the growth of commercial migratory beekeepers.
Simultaneously northern beekeepers came to rely on large southern operations for mail-order packages
and queens delivered in time to expand their apiaries or to replace winter losses so that robust colonies might be established before the spring nectar flow. But in each of the last four years, winter die-offs and colony collapse have destroyed as much
as 30% of the nation’s colonies, leading to a new emphasis on raising local queens from proven genetic stock that are acclimatized to northern conditions.
When millions of Americans moved to the cities in
the first half of the C20th they left their colonies behind, and with the destruction of natural habitat those bees diminished. The solution certainly includes science but it might also include once again the concept of the backyard hive and not only
in the less built up areas. It is, after all, the urban areas that have the greatest variety of flora and the least use of harmful chemicals in domestic gardens, even allowing for those we put on our lawns. Some cities are leading the way –
Vienna, Austria, has an average of 34 hives per square mile within the city limits. Others, sadly, still suffer from restrictive ordinances which equate bees with livestock or are based more on ignorance and fear than on an enlightened and intimate
view of the natural world.
Honey bees have figured out a way to do the amazing things that they do AND to take care of the place that's going to take care of their offspring, which means having their genetic material
remain 10,000 generations from now. And that means that we have to find new way to do what we do without destroying what gives the bees, and us, life and sustenance. Fortunately there are millions of little geniuses willing to gift us with their
best ideas. Lets have a conversation with them because the next millisecond of our DVD might well determine what happens in the following 24 hours.