October 13, 2011
"Look at how hard they're working," my bee-master Bob Jeffers told me one spring day a decade ago when I was his apprentice. Before entering the hives, we would spend some time observing the activity of the bees outside as they came back in clouds from their foraging expeditions, laden with nectar and pollen. "Do you know what they're thinking? They're thinking of winter."
Most of us are existentialists in springtime, crazy for the moment, living in the warmth of the now. Not so the honeybee colony. Its workforce of thousands is being deployed to ensure its survival during the five or so months here in the Northeast when there are no flowers and the bees remain inside, clustered in a tight ball, shivering their bodies to generate heat, and consuming the stores of honey and pollen they'd built up in the warm season. Our colonies here need at least 60 pounds of honey to last them to the spring.
Right now, in the fall, the colony is preparing for its long winter wait. On warm days, the foraging workers, all sterile females, are bringing in the last drops of nectar from late- blooming plants — chrysanthemums, asters, goldenrods, and their particular favorite, Russian sage. It is at this time that you see many of them on the ground around their hive, wings frayed, exhausted from their labors, struggling to make it home with their cargo one final time. Inside the hive, the queen bee gradually slows down her egg-laying duties from her summertime high of over a thousand a day to almost none by late fall. With no flowers to visit, the production of young halts until mid- winter, when she begins strengthening the colony for the spring. As the weather turns cold, the colony's energies become focused solely on survival; everything unnecessary must be eliminated.
And that includes the male bees — the drones.
The sole function of the drone is to inseminate a virgin queen from another colony; his duty fulfilled, he dies in the process. Other than performing this critical function — and only the most aggressive get the chance — drones are useless. True to their name, they do no work in the hive and just loll about, eating precious honey. Mating occurs in spring and summer; by the fall, those that are left are disposed of.
Standing in front of the beehive on a chilly October day, you may see the eviction of the drones. Bulkier than their sisters and with enormous eyes ("The better to see you, my dear"), they are easy to identify. They are escorted outside by the workers; seemingly confused, they try to return but are prevented by the guards at the entrance. Soon they will die from the cold.
As we witnessed this event some years ago, Bob Jeffers shook his head and laughed ironically. "It's Darfur," he said.
The reason we can take honey for ourselves is that honeybees are hoarders. They will not stop with their requisite 60 pounds but will continue packing it away as long as there are enough flowers producing nectar, enough workers to gather it, and enough space to store it. When nectar dries up in the heat of summer, foraging bees from powerful colonies will invade weaker ones. Mounting an assault like medieval soldiers storming the gate of a castle, hundreds of bees will fight their way past the guards at the entrance of a vulnerable hive and plunder its contents, leaving the abject colony to die of starvation during the winter. Beekeepers call this activity "robbing," and in apiaries of side- by-side colonies it can become pathological, with foragers even ignoring flowers and going after ready-made honey instead, swirling around the bee yard in a frenzy. Once robbing starts, it's difficult for beekeepers to stop it; the best they can do is to plug up the entrances to the victim hives, leaving just enough open space for the bees to defend adequately and to enter and exit for their own foraging.
I had this happen in my apiary this year. It's appalling to open up a hive and see combs that should be heavy with honey sucked completely dry. No matter how strong a colony appears to be, without honey stores it is doomed to die over the winter. In desperation, I feed the bees a sugar-water syrup until the weather freezes, and pure sugar after that. And hope against hope.
A few years ago, a beekeeper named Holly Bishop published a "biography of honey" called Robbing the Bees. Her title refers to humans' long history of taking the bees' food for themselves. Before the invention of the movable-frame hives which we use today, removing honey involved not just robbery but murder — the bees had to be killed to get at it. Today most beekeepers leave plenty of honey for the bees' own use, taking only the surplus. Holly Bishop does not mention the robbing that bees do to each other.
Do not be deluded by the common myth that honeybees are lovable models of altruism. Think of Darwin instead.
And think of our own pathologies of exploitation and extermination, long before and long after Darfur.