One of the most mesmerizing moments of my life was standing under a crabapple tree in full bloom and being surrounded by the chaotic motions of hundreds of honeybees. Until that point I had always seen bees either in hives or else by themselves on individual flowers. As a child I had been stung often enough to learn the lesson of leaving bees alone, but despite the little warning bell telling me that standing in a cloud of bees was a bad idea, I couldn’t convince myself to move away. To the bees I was simply part of their environment and as uninteresting as the branches of the trees which held the undisputed object of their interest, the blossoms. Just like the branches, I was something to be avoided in their busy flights back and forth, and occasionally, for whatever reason, a bee would not be able to turn away in time and would fly straight into me, fall a few inches, and then recover and continue on its way.
Years later, during apple butter making, I noticed a familiar buzzing sound among the relatively soundless movements of the yellow jackets and other wasps which are attracted to the sweet smell of cooking apples. On a closer look, I noticed a single honeybee amongst probably 50 yellow jackets trying to find their way into the pot (as an aside, using a household box fan to blow over the top of the pot when cooking outside helps to keep insects at bay in this situation – they follow the aroma to the pot but can’t quite overcome the breeze and will end up “hovering” a foot or two away). As the day progressed more and more honeybees arrived, and by the end of that day I realized that those were the first honeybees I had seen in several years.
As with many things, we quite often don’t appreciate that something is gone until we are reminded of it after the fact. I do not know if the bees had been around and keeping a low profile, or if they truly had disappeared and a new colony eventually moved in to take their place. Colony Collapse Disorder has been a growing topic in the news over the last several years and refers to a combination of several diseases and parasites that are leading to an unprecedented decline in the number and health of bees across the world. Was this perhaps the cause of my lack of bee sightings?
Whether it is CCD, bad luck, or any other factors, I have decided to consider bees an endangered species within my area of responsibility. Not only will I avoid actively disturbing them, I am also taking steps to try and encourage their appearance and survival. While I could claim a higher purpose, this is really driven by my selfish desire to have bees around to pollinate my fruits and veg.
In terms of practical steps to help protect bees, some of the things I am doing are:
1) Avoiding the use of pesticides until after petal-fall
2) Encouraging the growth of a seasonal mixture of wild and garden flowers
3) Attempting to provide suitable nesting habitat and materials
4) Encouraging others to see bees as partners rather than pests
That said, if find myself faced with a “kill or be stung” moment, I will probably opt for kill first.