Updated: October 28, 2012 6:10AM
I ’ve always known honeybees were fascinating. Until recently, I didn’t know they are such a metaphor for our lives.
My bees arrived by Federal Express from some state down south. The queen bee had her own private quarters, a tiny little box where she wouldn’t have to mix with the commoners. Her kingdom was ten thousand strong and they poured out of a sealed container ready to go to work. That’s all they want to do — work.
I was prepared. My beekeeper mentor, Liviu Ilciuc, showed me how to assemble the boxes, ordered online, into three towers where the bees would build their hives.
We poured the buzzing horde into a series of slatted frames positioned side by side in each box. Only one month later, I would return to find the frames filled with an architectural wonder worthy of Buckminster Fuller. It was a series of hexagonal cells built of — what else? — bee’s wax.
Each cell was perfect, constructed as if to receive an alien invasion from Mars. Basically, it’s a big storage warehouse. Each storage locker is filled with either nectar or pollen to serve as food for a brood of new bees conceived by the queen at the rate of 2,000 a day. They will take the place of the worker bees, which literally work themselves to death.
Here’s the kicker: They are all female. Yes, there are males, but they have a more specific task — tending to the queen. They protect her, clean her, service her and beyond that they are (for the most part) worthless and die. The nectar comes from flowers, of course. At this point it’s hard to tell who is smarter, the bee or the blossom. As the bee sucks the sweet liquid out as a reward for visiting the flower, it collects the pollen on tiny hairs all over its body. The yellow pollen dust brushes off when the bee visits another flower. Hence, the process of pollination: as important to the evolution of life on Earth as the sun.
Now that the flowers are satisfied, what to do with the nectar? Back at the hive, waiting bees literally suck the nectar from the flying honeybee’s stomach like a fighter plane refuels from an Air Force tanker. They chew it for, say, 30 minutes. Their enzymes break down the complex sugars so it’s a better eating experience for the patronage workers in the hive. The bees fill the lockers with honey and seal it with wax. It takes at least 120 pounds of honey to feed the colony for a year. That’s not bad; I took sixty pounds of it in the first month. It does sound like stealing, doesn’t it? But I gave them a place to stay, I mean, work. And I left enough for the winter. I hope.
But I said metaphor for life, didn’t I?
After three months of tending my bees, I discovered a beast had penetrated their perfect world. It was almost invisible, but I could see tiny specks on a plastic sheet that Liviu had placed beneath the boxes. They were moving. Dreaded mites. They had ridden the backs of my bees from their home in the south. We have traveled so far and so fast that we have outdistanced our own evolution, beyond geography and time. I could see it in the hives. Can my bees fight off the invaders and the pesticides and the viruses that assault their perfection?
More important: If they can’t, can we?
Bill Kurtis donated his fee for writing this column to Openlands, www.openlands.org.