The Magazine

Honey Trap

The buzz about bees is not necessarily good

Sep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By TEMMA EHRENFELD
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Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee, / And live alone in the bee-loud glade, wrote W. B. Yeats while living in London. Nearly a century later, Sylvia Plath, who kept hives with her husband, composed five poems about bees in the very same house. To these Londoners, bees represented nature; yet at a time when bees are endangered around the world, they are thriving in big cities. 

The buzz about bees is not necessarily good.

The buzz about bees is not necessarily good.

Among the curious facts recorded here is that Berlin (followed by New York) holds the world record for abundance and diversity of wild urban bees: Two hundred species forage in parks, botanical gardens, community and backyard gardens, window boxes, and weed-infested lots and roadsides. You’ll also learn that bees can be solitary, that giant orchid bees make a deafening noise in tropical jungles, and that some bumblebees can fly through snowstorms.

But when we think of bees, we most often think of honeybees. Their hives are like cities: complex systems of many moving members that require constant coordination and food from far-flung terrain. Like all urbanites, honeybees appreciate a variety of food, and, as is the case with other kinds of bees, cities now offer them more kinds of plant life for foraging than suburbs and farmland do. That’s fortunate, because the urban eco-chic taste for local food has created a boom in city beekeeping. The Paris Opera House keeps hives on its roof, and restaurants are rolling out signature dishes infused with rooftop honey. Yields are higher in Paris than in hives in the nearby countryside, probably because city flowerpots provide a rich diet: An analysis of pollen in Parisian honey revealed more than 250 different floral sources, compared with 15 to 20 in batches from rural areas.

Outside cities, honeybees (and other bees) are dying fast. In the spring of 2006, many beekeepers around the globe went out to their apiaries and found that the adult worker bees had mysteriously vanished and presumably died. The trouble, now called “colony collapse disorder,” has continued, with about a third of all colonies dying each year. The danger goes well beyond shortages of honey: Plants need bees to reproduce. 

Colony collapse disorder has not been attributed to any one pest, disease, or manufactured toxin; researchers suspect a baleful synergy among pesticides, or between pesticides and pests. One study found 121 pesticides in a sample of beeswax comb. Are we approaching a tipping point in chemical overload—and not just for bees? Mark L. Winston thinks so. Corn is vulnerable, he says, for the same reasons bees are: Ever more pests and diseases lead farmers to apply more toxic chemicals, inducing resistance, while “too excellent weed control” eliminates habitats that sustain nature’s controls. 

Like many calls for change, Bee Time is repetitive, without taking on opposing viewpoints. Winston’s proposed remedies are, however, relatively modest. Industrial-scale honeybee keepers move their hives from place to place and rely on chemical tools; he urges a shift to smaller, stationary operations and to cropping systems interspersed with hedgerows and blooming weeds. Naturally, he’d also like us to emulate the honeybee social model, at least a bit. Like human societies, hives need order; if a queen dies suddenly, bees can collapse into violence, attacking each other and the beekeepers. 

But the life of a bee is better than you’d guess. Despite the name, worker bees spend two-thirds of their time doing nothing—creating a reserve for periods of stress in the hive. Being a “worker bee” suggests boredom, doing just one thing, but the worker bee’s primary job evolves throughout its life, which runs about a month. Would life be better if we weren’t overworked and experienced automatic career change as we aged? Winston also makes much of the fact that bees never multitask. They’re egalitarian, too. 

His portrait of an ongoing conversation within the hive is, indeed, striking. When worker bees meet, they frequently stroke each other’s antennae (which receive pheromones and floral odors) for as much as a minute, while extending their long mouth parts to lick each other’s tongues and legs, which can taste of fresh nectar and pollen. Organs in the legs detect vibrations directly from other bees or transmitted through the comb. A returning forager may tremble or shiver if receiving bees aren’t taking her nectar load fast enough.

That bees communicate was first established more than a century ago by the philosopher Maurice Maeterlinck, who let a foraging honeybee find a dish of sugar syrup and return to the hive, then trapped her as she left it so she couldn’t lead the way for others. Still, bees from her hive quickly appeared at the dish. Had they followed a smell? Evidently not—because they showed up even when the dish was many miles away, and downwind. 

Since then, scientists have concluded that honeybees report on food sources by dancing. A forager back at the hive will grasp another worker and vibrate, signaling that it should migrate to the site of a “figure eight waggle dance.” In the dance, a bee vibrates while running forward, indicating the distance to the food, and then turns and circles back to the starting point. Observing bees can see the direction of the food by the angle of the dance on the comb relative to the sun’s position. If the food is especially good, the bee vibrates more intensely and makes more circles. The observers sometimes squeak, apparently asking for details; the bee responds by giving the squeaker a sample of her load. 

Sometimes Winston goes too far afield—the chapters on bee-inspired art, religion, and social work projects are dull—but most of the time his lyricism inspires awe of these necessary insects, as when he describes approaching a hive: 

First you hear the sound, the low hum of tens of thousands of female workers. .  .  . Smells and textures bombard the senses next, the sweet odors of beeswax and honey, the stickiness of plant resins. .  .  . And then there are the bees themselves, walking over your hands and forearms .  .  . the subtlest of touches as their claws lightly cling and release, the gentlest of breezes as their wings buzz before taking flight.

Temma Ehrenfeld is a writer in New York.