This week I had one of those bizarre encounters with Nature an urbanite like myself rarely experiences. Our neighbour in the US had told us about an incidence a couple of weeks ago where bees started swarming around an old china cabinet he was installing. Fascinated he’d watched as ten bees became a swirling mass of ten thousand, and, thankfully, instead of calling the bug exterminator he’d remembered a retiree he knew who was a part-time apiarist. In a few hours the bee charmer had smoked and incited the new queen out of the centre of the hive and into his own high-rise transportable hive decked out with honeycomb trays and state of the art amenities no doubt. He then whisked them off to their new home at the edge of a lemon and lime orchard – from wild bees to working bees. After that the bee charmer walked our neighbours property looking for the source of the new queen (apparently US hives spilt from Feb. to May releasing a new queen ready to establish her own hive and always within a short radius). He could find no evidence of the source hive.
Listening to this anecdote over Margaritas I thought no more of it, except I have had a big interest in bees and their hive mentality for years. There has always being something fascinating about the notion of the collective consciousness, the idea that an individual creature could sacrifice itself – even it’s biological reproductive abilities – for the greater good of the hive (I’ve written about the Naked Mole rat in this context in this blog previously). Perhaps this fascination stems from an admiration for a collective psychology which appears to be the antithesis of the self-seeking individualism that seems to defines what it is to be human – at least from my own Western cultural perspective. Too often the hive mind-set is seen in a negative, frightening light – machine-like. I’m reminded of the Borg in Star trek movie First Contact, also featured throughout Next generation series whose queen (sort of Wicked Witch of the West meets discipline Mistress meets Cyberman) seduces Captain Picard, annexing his individuality so that he’s hooked into the ultimate mind melt/union/climax. The loss of independent thinking, individual identity and the notion of the hero maverick capable of autonomous decision and action are depicted here as no only un-human-like but also, by inference, un-American. But the hive is an extraordinarily efficient and successful (in evolutionary terms) entity. As confirmed by the global spread of the super colony of Brazilian ants recently observed – whose abilities to communicate internationally will shortly rival that of the internet! Bees have been around for about 120 million years – lot longer than humans. Which was another reason why I took the worldwide reports of the mysterious deaths of bees extremely seriously. It felt like some biblical prophesy ‘…And the sky will become as black as sackcloth and the bees will stop buzzing…’ Another close friend of mine is the son of an Almond Farmer in Southern California and they were extremely worried about the falling American Bees population as almonds are entirely pollinated by bees. No bees, no almonds – you can imagine the potential devastation as it ripples down the food chain.
Anyhow, a day after listening to my neighbour’s story I suddenly noticed several bees entering and exiting an underground utilities box in our driveway. Immediately I called the bee charmer who turned up half an hour later with smoker, transportable hive and face veil. Blithely I told him that the bees had only been there a couple of days thinking they were the spill off from the neighbours hive. He lifted up the lid of the utilities box and began pulling honeycomb after honey box out each crawling with hundreds of bees. The hive had been there for about a year and a half and the bee charmer told me it was almost certain that the queen who had tried to set up a mew colony next door was from this wild hive on our property. He laid his own empty wooden hive next to the utility box/hive and, after smoking the queen out, enticed the rest into the wooden transportable hive.
He finished in the afternoon and told me he would collect his hive at seven that night, giving the forty thousand bees or so who were still out in ‘the field’ time to wing their way home and crawl into the safety of their new hive before it got taken away to its new location miles away. Before he left I asked him about whether he’d noticed the fall-off of the bee population in the United States generally. The good news is that he told me that compared to a couple of years ago he’d noticed that the size of swarms had started to double, and he’d felt convinced that they were recovering. Wow, another piece of economic optimism.
When we returned later that night the hive was gone and there were only a few forlorn bees buzzing aimlessly around the now blocked entrance to the old hive. But then, to my horror, the next day there were a few more lost bees buzzing over the abandoned ‘vacant’ lot. After about three days there were a small pile of about fifty or so dead bees all lying sadly on top of the utility box, the location of their old, now empty, hive, the entrance of which had been blocked. Foot soldiers who had returned home to find it didn’t existed anymore and who, confused, had flown around in circles until dying of exhaustion. And I know I’m anthropomorphizing like crazy, but I’m telling there was something undeniably heroic about the sight.
Note for my Australian readers I shall be appearing at the Brisbane Writers Festival 9th of September until the 13th of September.