I used to be afraid of bees. Their electro-static buzzing sounded a warning and reminded me of times I’d bumped into the wrong bee at the wrong time. The shock of their fiery sting was always in complete disproportion to the miniscule red lump that lasted just long enough for me to run to Mom for Bactine.
Then, I started growing food. After two seasons of harvesting dinner out of my back yard, I found myself sitting on the ground one afternoon, nestled among robust Hubbard and Ambercup squash vines. I studied the voluptuous blossoms that trumpeted sweet music into the air as bees gathered exuberantly. Two, three, sometimes four bees collected in one flower, crawling over one another, all singularly focused on the pollen deep inside the orange bell. I watched as they helicoptered out to hover, reconnoiter, then re-enter the same blossom from a more advantageous angle — or veer off elsewhere for fresh plunder.
Some bees were clumsy, with sticky pollen particles weighing them down, the pollen baskets on their legs overflowing. They reminded me of plump ladies in fuzzy slippers and robes teetering out on their front porches to pick up the morning’s newspaper. Other bees fresh from the hive (and meticulously cleaned by their sisters) darted in and out unencumbered, their fuzzy bodies slick and shiny. The few bees to notice me flashed sparkling green-and-obsidian black eyes, coding a message some primordial part of me almost understood. I felt like waving back.
A few days after my visit to the squash blossoms, I ate lunch outside with some friends. Sticky soda had spilled on the picnic table, and large crayon-yellow bees gathered. My friends swatted and flinched, moved away from the spill, and eventually left for less buzzing seats. It was then I realized I had lost my fear of bees.
I was concerned that the bees were wasting their time on vapid corn-syrup-sweetened soda rather than finding more fortifying flowers. I forgot to worry about getting stung. Besides, yellow jackets and hornets are to blame for our fear of the sweet, docile, hard-working honey bee. If you’ve experienced a nasty sting striking from out of nowhere, blame those wasps, not the pollinators feasting on the garden.
What I noticed that afternoon among the squash blossoms was the passionate industry of the bees. I realized that this timeless collaboration between blossom and bee is what has kept me alive all these years. I’d not put this together before.
In the quirky documentary "Queen of the Sun," directed by Taggart Siegel (who also directed “The Real Dirt on Farmer John”), Michael Pollan says that 40 percent of our food is pollinated by bees. (Another source says as much as 60 percent of our fruits and vegetables depend on the honey bee.) Pollan notes that it’s a lucky coincidence that human tastes and bee tastes coincide. The flowers bees love to wallow in yield fruits, vegetables, and scents we love to consume.
Unfortunately, just when I’m learning to appreciate bees, to see the link between their survival and mine, they’re collapsing, dying off in mysterious and not-so-mysterious ways. “Queen of the Sun” covers a few reasons for their demise.
First, monocultures. When nothing but almond trees covers 600,000 acres of land, and the trees bloom for only two or three days each year, bees cannot survive there. Bees typically forage within a two-to-three mile radius of their hives. It’s a lot farther than two to three miles to get out of those gargantuan almond orchards for the bees to find flowering food during the other 363 days of the year. So bees must be trucked in to pollinate the almonds.
Those bees come to California almond farms from as far away as the East Coast, traveling through different seasons and climates, forcing the bees to constantly renegotiate their geography. Shipping bees this way exhausts them and lowers their immunity, making them susceptible to disease.
Worse, a possible second reason for the honey-bee collapse is that commercial honey bees are fed corn syrup. We sustain these vital soldiers of fruits and nuts with our fake, inferior version of honey, which provides the insects with too little nutrition to work relentlessly.
Finally, even minimal back-yard insecticide and herbicide spraying can kill off an entire colony of bees. If even one bee gets infected with a spray after visiting a blossom on that tree, it can sicken the whole hive, which by midsummer is 60,000 bees strong.
When a honey bee returns from outside, worker bees immediately clean and restore their sister pilot to optimal flying condition. By doing this, the three or four worker bees get infected, move on to the next flier coming in for repairs, and spread the poison rapidly throughout the entire colony.
Apparently, some sprays direct users to apply the chemical in late evening, when the sun is setting. This is when bees have already headed home, so they are less likely to come across the spray. But, as a beekeeper in the film lamented, how many people read and follow directions that carefully?
One of the beekeepers featured in the film said that when she sees a bee in her home and it’s past dark, she knows it will not make it through the night. Bees navigate by the sun, so after dark, they’re lost; they are communal creatures and cannot survive away from the hive for long.
This reminded me of a lecture I heard a few years ago from an enthusiastic member of the Portland, Oregon-based Xerces Society, a group committed to the conservation of invertebrates and their habitats. He said bees sometimes get caught in flowers that close up at night. He described walking by a blossom and hearing it buzz. We all laughed at the magical and silly nature of a blossom buzzing and a bee trapped in a tent of nectar for the night. It sounded charming. But now I know this night of nectar would be the bee’s last.
I found proof of this fatal habit of bees ignoring their curfew when I bought squash blossoms at the farmers’ market last year. I found small black bees at the base of many of the blossoms when I chopped the flowers up to sauté them. I laid the bees in my compost bucket and hoped that the one solitary night of their lives had at least been sweet.
One beekeeper featured in “Queen of the Sun” spoke reverentially about her bees, saying that she likes to keep her work “in the realm of the spiritual.” In fact, most of the beekeepers interviewed felt close to their bees. One man let them settle all over his shirtless chest, another gathered them tenderly on his fingertips, and a third brushed the screen of bees with his mustache.
“In the realm of the spiritual” reminded me of my afternoon with the squash blossoms. It was more than a pretty scene. It felt important to be there with the bees and the flowers, like I was witness to something sacred, something vital to well-being and goodness in the world, but also something ritualistic and ancient, like the honey found in a pharaoh’s tomb that was still edible, or like the bee preserved in amber estimated to be 30 to 40 million years old and looking almost exactly like our bees today.
When bees are left alone to live naturally and not colonized and shipped around the country (which requires the queen bee to be artificially inseminated), the queen bee engages in a marriage flight. She soars 200 to 300 feet straight up toward the sun, and male drones try to catch up with her. The drones strong enough, with enough stamina and conviction, are rewarded with the chance to mate with the queen — in mid-air — before falling to their deaths.
When the queen returns to the hive to continue her lineage, she lays more eggs each day than her own body weight. This ritual ensures the genetic future of the strongest, most skilled bees, and therefore the most robust pollinators, which means more food for humans to consume. And not just humans; 25 percent of all birds and mammals eat fruits and seeds produced from pollinators. Even hamburgers could not exist in such abundance without bees to pollinate the free-range cow’s clover or the feedlot cow’s soybeans.
When people like me get introduced to the harmonious collective workings of bees, then learn about the severe decline of honey bees worldwide, many take the next step of setting up a back-yard hive. Although I love the idea of 60,000 pets, most of them industrious ladies, I know beekeeping is not for me. Just a brief glance at a beekeeping manual made me fear the many problems my bees would have to confront: mites, mice, ants, raccoons, even moths.
I will, however, intersperse my vegetable garden with bee-friendly plants, making my small back yard a reliable happy-hour destination for our honey-making invertebrate friends. I’ll find a way to provide them with water, which the bees use to thin their honey and cool their probosces (their long, hollow tongues).
And I’ll look forward to an annual late-summer rendezvous with the squash blossoms, when I can watch the bees execute their 40-million-year-old craft, a skill that provides savory sustenance for our everyday lives.
Trista Cornelius teaches writing and literature at Clackamas Community College in Oregon. When she’s not reading and writing about food, she’s busy eating it, growing it, and cooking it.
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