The Plight of the Honeybee 

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A queen just died. Her name was Abeegail, and we'd been worried about her and her dynasty's health for weeks, once our freakishly warm December gave way to a more normal season in January.

Although this particular monarch was no more than a honeybee, her loss saddened us, as the death of bees should sadden, and frighten, us all. As goes the health of our bees, so could go a large part of our food supply.

Abeegail, the queen of one of our two hives, had started the year so well, but suddenly the number of workers around her began to dwindle. There were simply not enough bees left to keep the hive warm on nights when the temperature dropped into the teens, even though the cluster of bees had plenty of honey and pollen close at hand. Then, when a warm day came, we saw no bees making cleansing flights and no longer heard their pleasant buzz through the side of the hive-box, as we could for our other hive, where Beeatrice and her workers were riding out the cold months.

Abeegail and her colony were frozen in place when we opened the hive box. Those bees are now buried in the soil of our garden, and come April we'll have three new queens and a cadre of workers to expand our beekeeping. When the apple blossoms bloom in Goochland County, the bees will pollinate, and then, when the garden begins to come in, we'll see workers in the squash blossoms and on the lavender.

And those who do not keep bees will ask the usual uninformed but well-intentioned questions: Are we afraid of stings? (Not really.) Aren't there wild bees in the woods? (Not anymore.) Isn't it a lot of work? (Sometimes.). People rarely ask why so many dedicated people — but never enough — in the city, suburbs and countryside keep bees at all, figuring it just a hobby or a quaintly old-fashioned business.

In fact, wild honeybees have been almost completely wiped out by disease, tiny mites and other parasites. Chemicals used so wantonly for something that does not feed us — household lawns — further decimate bee populations. Many bees are poisoned outright by our pesticides, and herbicides often deprive bees of white clover, exterminated in our ludicrous quest for grass that looks like a golf-course fairway.

Without these bees, the yield of our harvests, the bounty of our flower gardens and the health of the ecosystem take a major blow. Honey made from local flowers, not the pasteurized, mass-market variety, helps those with pollen allergies, yet its supply is imperiled unless more keepers, hobbyists and professionals continue taking the time to set up and maintain hives.

It's a relief to see young keepers coming to our association, and it's gratifying that the state has an expert apiarist to advise us. Keepers learn about organic treatments to manage mites, new suppliers for queens that are bred to keep their hives clean, the status of the Africanized bees and how to avoid their arrival for as long as possible.

The stakes of losing a largely overlooked rural profession are high: Were we to lose our beekeepers, our food supply would be imperiled. A third of our food depends upon pollinating insects, particularly honeybees. When — not if — the era of readily available oil and gasoline ends, we will need locally grown food in ways we cannot imagine today, as we stroll past overloaded shelves in the produce department. Right now they brim with fruit and vegetables, most of them grown thousands of miles from here and transported to our tables. We will never move that volume of produce globally on alternative fuels at so low a cost.

Now is not the time to surrender to such long-term worries, especially when spring is near and work must be done in the bee yard. Abeegail's successor will start laying eggs in a couple of months. Even if you do not have the urge to join me in keeping bees, there is still much to do. If you have a friend who has bees, purchase the honey and wax. If you don't know a beekeeper, buy locally produced honey and let the Sue Bee stay on the store's shelves. If you know a farmer, see if you can convince him or her to rent hives to pollinate the crops. Bring clover back into your yard and stop spraying poisons; the lawn will go back to its natural state one day, eventually. Why make a toxic and temporary monument to an impossible ideal? If you have the hand for it, write to members of the General Assembly to urge them to support beekeepers; legislation just passed this session only begins the long-overdue work of helping beekeepers.

And when you eat, give thanks. Our food, and with it our future, may depend upon something as small as a honeybee. S

Joe Essid teaches English at the University of Richmond. His wife, a hobbyist beekeeper, keeps hives in Goochland County.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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