Colony Collapse Disorder is another metaphor of our time as our civilization speeds toward the brink, pedal to the metal. Like Thelma and Louise, we are apparently going out at full speed. The bee population is failing at an alarming rate. There are lots of theories as to why. My guess is that it’s like anything else—an accumulation of things over time leading to chronic problems that have their own momentum.
There are some things we could live without: cable news, Coke, running shoes, Netflix and Facebook, blogs, V-8 engines, Spud Puppies. There are certain things we cannot do without. Specifically, food (and water). Spud Puppies have their place, I suppose, and they do resemble food, which reminds us that food is important and that bees are crucial to food production. So, Colony Collapse Disorder is something that we need to be mindful of and try to do something about.
There is a lot of momentum to the backyard beekeeping movement, hobbyists who keep bees to aid in pollination. There is also traction for “natural beekeeping” that is using more natural forms of hives—the Top Bar or Warre Hive or even using open frames in the traditional Langstroth hive. The loss of bees clearly can affect human survival so it seems important that we do whatever we can to propagate bee colonies.
I am five days into being a beekeeper and could be the cover boy for Beekeeping For Dummies. But I can already answer one question that everyone asks,” Will the little fuckers sting you?” The answer is, they will if you screw up.
I went into this deal expecting to get stung, looking forward to it even. Of course, I had conditions. I didn’t want to get stung on the face, didn’t want bees to get under my clothing. Let’s be honest. I was ready to be stung on the hands only and limited my exposure. I’m pretty certain that if you know what you are doing and understand hive behavior better than I do that you could go a very long time without getting stung. Stinging is defensive behavior. The guard bees will sting you when they think the hive is being threatened. You can work in the garden all day along with foraging bees and not have a worry about being stung. You’d have to go out of your way to provoke a foraging bee. Most of my stings over the years have come from stepping on a bee (and I’m only talking honeybees in this stinging disquisition. Your wasps, hornets, yellow jackets, etc. are another cup of bee).
So I wanted to make sure the queen was out of her little cage and remove that cage so that the bees wouldn’t draw comb around it. I read that you should hold the queen cage low in the hive so she’d stay in there and pull or cut the little screen that covers her cage. I pulled the cage loose, brushed off a bunch of bees clustered on the cage and lowered her down where I started to cut with a knife when bam, bam, bam, bam, bam. They hit me fast. I dropped the queen cage, turned my back on the hive and walked away scraping stingers off the back of my hand and went and got a pair of thick gloves.
The stinger on a bee is an interesting mechanism. It’s got three parts. There are two barb-like structures that work their way into the skin and a central groove that allows the venom to flow from the sting gland. I recall scraping several of these off as I moved away from the hive. Only one percent of the population is allergic to bee stings. As it happens, most of us can take quite a bit of bee venom. One source I read said ten stings per pound of body weight. The little bee makes the ultimate sacrifice when going for the sting. She will die in a few days having left muscles and her poison gland behind.
Bee venom is apparently a joy for the chemist to study. It includes all kinds of biochemically and pharmacologically active substances: histamine, dopamine, melittin, apamin and more. Some have possibly heard of bee venom therapy where one is intentionally stung several times. This therapy has long been practiced in Europe. Curiously, my arthritic knee did not hurt for twenty-four hours after the bee stings.
So, what has this got to do with Transition? Well, Transition is about self-sufficiency and self-reliance. We need pollinators and a bit on honey wouldn’t be bad either. It’s amazing how many people have told me in the last few days that they “used to keep bees.” The Transition Movement encourages us to re-skill. I don’t know if we’ll be successful beekeepers this year. But, ultimately, we’ll figure it out.
And, if you hear about a honey bee swarm on the island, give me a call. I’d like to try to catch one.