Silence of the Hive Is the Empty Echo of Progress

With the wild honeybee nearly extinct, and mites threatening the domestic bee, a vital link in the food chain is stressed to the limit.

Nothing beats the time I used to spend sitting in front of the beehive, watching the working girls come in resolutely, their back legs loaded with bright jodhpurs, dots of orange, yellow, or gold pollen. After awhile I could pick out the doddering, big-eyed drones, the males, who wouldn't last through the winter - the workers kick them out to die, because they are too lazy to groom or feed themselves.

I loved harvesting a gallon of honey in a centrifuge that sent up a cool wind smelling sweet, like fallen leaves or chamomile.

But last spring, when I opened my quiet hive, I saw my recurring nightmare come true. It was blackened. The bodies of bees tumbled down to the grass, bouncing lightly. Others remained, head first in the tomb of honeycomb, where they had tried to find food. There was gray mold on frames of comb that are usually translucent, golden, and smelling of cottonwood.

It was safe for anyone nearby afraid of stings, but I found the silence frightening.

I'm not the only one feeling remorse over dead hives. This one and a huge percentage of those around the country lately fell victim to a scourge of mites that has decimated the population of wild bees, and in some states killed three quarters of the hives used to pollinate the country's crops.

Maine last year lost 80 percent of its hives. Michigan lost 60 percent. Ohio is down about 50 percent.

Hobbyist beekeepers have taken the biggest hit, but farmers have been able to get their crops pollinated by renting bees at increasingly high cost.

In the past decade, beekeepers have seen the spread of mites accidentally imported from abroad: One type of mite suffocates the bee; another invades the bee's blood and brood, so the young bees emerge wingless, legless, or not at all.

James Tew, state beekeeping specialist at Ohio State University, says no insects that pollinate, such as bumble bees and some flies, are in great shape. That's because over the past century we've clear-cut our woodlands, cleaned out our fencerows with pesticides, and cleared the brush from our backyards where bees used to nest.

And, he says, the human tendency to travel has spread mites where they didn't exist before. Even though people caused the problems, thier efforts are the only thing likely to save the honeybee, he says.

The wild honeybee is already nearly extinct. But scientists are searching for mite-resistant bees, and beekeepers are putting chemical strips and grease patties in their hives to combat the mights and avoid the loss of domestic honeybees.

All this diddling with nature is deeply troubling. I worry about the economic ramifications of the mites, and how they might harm the food supply.

And on a more personal level, I'm also concerned about the looming loss of a delightful hobby.

I'd hate to see the demise of amateur beekeepers. They wear Lucite tie-tacks with bees embedded in them and refuse to give fancy names to their instruments: the hive tool, the veil, the bee brush. They tend toward the elementary schoolteacher's sense of humor and the farmer's take-a-pint-home generosity.

Peter Fonda in "Ulee's Gold," that most recent of the great bee movies, is not your prototypical apiculturist. He's way too glum. Most men of the veil are more chatty.

The books beekeepers write have illustrations circa 1940 and subtitles like "Don't Antagonize Your Grocer," "Anger of Bees," and "Why Liturgical Candles Are Made of Beeswax" (because church leaders were "convinced of the virginity of bees" and liked the parallels to the Virgin Mary).

Bob Berthold taught me all I know about bees. At his weekend short course at Delaware Valley College outside of Philadelphia, he used to pop a drone in his mouth and eat it to prove it couldn't sting. He told us that the hobby can hook you if you're not careful. It happened to him: The man puts honey in his coffee.

But now the mites are thinning the ranks of the hobbyists he taught - people like me, who could be called "bee-havers" instead of beekeepers, because we aren't good at treating our hives and keeping the mites at bay.

Of course something larger than hobbies, larger even than pollination, is at stake here. I went hiking in the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle last September in search of wild huckleberries, and I found a quarter cup. I was used to plentiful berries, bits of blue in the foliage, unexpected like sky low to the ground, but these weren't enough even to make a slice of pie.

I wondered if the loss of the wild bees decimated the harvest. I worried about the bears, whose blue droppings on the trail are a sure sign of fall's arrival around here.

So our small-world culture made it easier for these mites to spread from Africa and Asia to the backcountry of Washington. Are our footprints that pervasive? I hate to think so. But the silence from my hive, and that handful of huckleberries, are damning.

* Tina Kelley is a Seattle-based poet and freelance writer for Outside and George magazines.

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