The Hive

Bees underline the reality that we are more, not less, dependent on nature, in a world of close to seven billion people.

Achim Steiner,  U.N. Under Secretary General


What’s killing all the honey bees?

That is the question posed by Swiss filmmaker Markus Imhoof, in his documentary More Than Honey. With breathtaking cinematography, Imhoof documents his travels around the world in search of answers. At the same time, he focuses his microscopic lens on the complex, sophisticated world of the bee.

And what an intriguing world it is. I’ll admit, a lot of the information was extremely detailed and tricky to follow. But I did grasp how vitally crucial these honeybees are to our planet.

And the upshot: each drone plays a unique role in the life of the hive, building it, feeding and nurturing the queen, and doing the work to sustain and propagate the life within. And, as a result of these efforts, the bees pollinate the trees and flowers in our world.

Oh, and the honey production – even though I realize that it’s sustenance for the hive, I’m still not sure why it is honey – you know, why it tastes like heaven and we want it on everything. I mean, it’s insect waste, you know?

Anyway, the film profiles two distinctly different bee colonists – one from California, the other from Switzerland. Both have ancestors that made a business of bee-keeping.  But what a difference in their methods.

The American oversees a multi-million dollar almond growing agribusiness. He is portrayed as a corporate opportunist, literally squeezing the life out of the business of propagating and shipping his “products” all over the world. But his heavy-handed approach threatens production. Many of his bees die from being transported long distances.And his use of fungacides kills even more.

At one point, the film shows tons of wooden frames being unpacked from a huge semi-truck, and the crates are opened to reveal millions of dead, mutilated bee carcasses. The bee man talk about the hundreds of thousands of dollars of profit loss, while scraping the smashed bee bodies off of the crates and onto the ground.  Such a waste, he says.

Yes, indeed, a waste – for all of us.

The Swiss couple, on the other hand, still do bee-keeping the old-timey way. With cigars in mouths (to sedate the bees), and no protective garments, they handle them carefully, one at a time, lovingly, with no fear of attack. When they, too, suffer an outbreak of disease, they bury the contaminated bees within their wooden frames, in graves, by their homestead in the Alps.

They are visibly moved by their loss. Because they know it is their own failure that causes the destruction. They understand their role as humble caretakers of the fragile hives. And while their annual yield is less ambitious, theirs is a proud family business, a way of life, a cherished tradition.

It’s no surprise to reveal that humans have caused the decline of the honeybee. With our pesticides and lack of respect for the environment, we have allowed our greed to threaten the fragile ecosystem that is their home.

And do we even appreciate the impact the bees have on our own environment? It can’t be emphasized enough. All of our flowers and trees rely on them. To lose the bees would be suicide for our planet.

As most people are aware, the agricultural industry in the United States is in crisis with the bee decline. Heavily reliant on them for pollination in fruit and nut production, our farmers are taking desperate measures to transport the miracle workers across the globe.

But it’s a process that has not necessarily been a success. Bees often die in transit, disease runs rampant, and their natural habitats don’t easily transfer to other locales. So, they are now precious economic commodities, and we are coming to realize just how deeply our lives depend on them.

So, when we eat a piece of fruit, or pop an almond into our mouths, we should be thanking the bees.

In the summertime here in Switzerland, I have spent many moments looking at the Alps and watching the bees swarm across the meadows.Never for a moment did I recognize the intensity of their purpose. While I’ve been daydreaming, they have industriously gone about the business of keeping this landscape around me green and fruitful.

Such tiny entities, yet such a profound impact. But isn’t that often the way of it?

Like the bees in the hive, we all play a part in our global world. Within each of our small chambers we do our work alongside our neighbors, not always aware of the larger significance. But we are intrinsically connected. What happens to one in our community affects us all.

I think we’re afraid to look at this vital truth, for risk of exposing our vulnerability. For fear of revealing the ugly fact that our disrespect and neglect for the environment has caused such destruction and death. And we are ashamed to admit that we are a violent species.

In the film, the American bee-keeper naturally talks about capitalism and the motivation to always want more, to produce more. And I think, therein lies the problem.Somewhere along the line we’ve become too greedy. We have glutted ourselves on the sweet riches at the expense of the bees.

And today, when I see the bees swarm across the grasses, I think of how often it is the small thing that predicts a larger problem. It seems that whenever there is a defect in nature’s smallest organisms, our whole food chain is affected. We know this, but yet we don’t heed the warning.

There is an incredible selflessness among the drone bees, if you could call it that, where each individual knows it’s part and gives itself over to the task, even up to death. Its role is to submit to the hive. Even its job of sexual procreation is its final sacrificial act. What an amazing synergy, unlike anything in our human society.

I think of the gifts of the bee, the gorgeous flowers, the trees, the golden honey, and I recognize the privilege of our violence. Ripping the comb from the tree, scooping out the amber liquid that took months, even years, to produce.

At the top of the ecosystem, we are so powerful and we somehow feel a right to claim what we believe is automatically ours.This is our hubris, our greed, and our ultimate downfall.

Because what we have failed to see is that we, you and me, are like the bees in the colony – interdependent and unable to survive outside of the hive. We are dependent on our neighbors, our communities, our larger natural world, to a degree we can’t even imagine.

In Imhoof’s film, one of the researchers lapses into metaphor to describe his subjects. He hypothesizes that the hive is actually one entity, one organism, in and of itself. In other words, that the millions of bees could be classified as one species. And so to damage even one, tiny part of the hive, would injure the entire body.

What a beautiful way of seeing all of nature, and even ourselves, as stuck together in one huge honeycomb.But to do that would force us to take responsibility for the environmental destruction.

So, the lazy days of summer have gone by, and I haven’t really paid attention to the dying sounds in the meadows. Where the business of life is so tiny, but so miraculous – how have I overlooked its gift? In my own frenetic  busyness, I’ve thoughtlessly forgotten it, even as I spread that golden honey on my bread.

And, this afternoon, looking out my window, I think:  it’s the tiniest of things – a funny little insect – that reveals itself as an example of this tenuous bond we share with one another.

And so, I know it is our obligation to care for these, the smallest of earth’s creatures.And in the same way, we must take care of one another. We must take care of the hive.

Because, when the bees are gone, and there is no hum rising from the green fields in the summertime here, what will become of everything else?

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