A Million Bodies Drowning in the Flood Myth of Apis Mellifera
In November of last year, a truck crashed, spilling its load of several million bees along a Washington highway. Hundreds of hives were sloshed along the pavement. Firefighters on the scene hosed down the hives, drowning most of the bees. In the characteristic surrealism of desensitized humanity, a police sergeant was quoted as saying:
“The biggest issue we have on those scenes … is people taking video or cellphone pictures.”
Accidents like this happen throughout the year.
When we talk about beekeeping, the scale always seems so small. Every beekeeping class I have attended has been oriented towards backyard beekeepers with at most around a dozen hives that never leave their property. The article uncovered the reality of industrial-scale pollination. Like every slaughterhouse, like every factory farm–no windows, out of sight, beyond our awareness–this is really happening. This is the flood myth of the honeybees, and we are the undeserving gods of questionable morality.
When we say ‘save the bees,’ or ‘support the bees,’ how often do we imagine these horrors? Colony collapse disorder gets a lot of airtime in terms of the issues facing bees, but the changes needed to our lifestyles go beyond cute hashtags and slogans, or even the wild bee hotels beekeepers and advocates like myself are fond of making.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, colony collapse disorder (CCD) is thought to be caused by environmental and labor stresses put on the bees. A clearer translation of this is that our employment of honeybees as pollinators for the modern agricultural industry is causing them to become so stressed that they either die off or abandon the hive and leave it to die.
Veganism, as in every situation involving human relationships to animals, is an excellent place to start. But it is not enough to simply refrain from purchasing honey or other bee-products collected from industrial-scale hives. The bees involved in the accident were after all likely being rented out to pollinate almonds, a non-animal source of protein and alternative to milk for many vegans. What we are dealing with–and what the bees are dealing with–is a destructive agricultural system built around dependence on honeybee labor.
Honeybees are not native to the United States. Apis mellifera originated in Asia, but was spread throughout the world by humans as the first known domesticated insect. Despite their popular association with being the ‘ultimate collectivist,’ they are rather the ultimate capitalist-friendly bee. Unlike the wild bees of the Americas, honeybees are social bees, meaning they live in hives, and humans have developed a multi-generational relationship with honeybees by building hives for them to exploit this need.
Commercial manufacturing of hives allows for micro-management of honeybee life and profit points at every step of the way from the hives themselves to queens, to honey and other bee by-products before we even get to pollination. In an agricultural system that is increasingly dependent on engineered crops and fertilizers, honeybees also out-compete wild bees as preferred pollinators because these environmental changes are less shocking to their reproductive and life cycles.
Groomed as they are for the agriculture industry, honeybee health still suffers. Unlike wild bees, they are not as resilient against mites and diseases, and the demand for pollination in new environments around new bees is constantly exposing them to these dangers.
Often unheard in this system, wild bees are disappearing all over the globe. They are being driven to extinction by habitat destruction, loss of territory to commercial honeybee ventures, and environmental pollution associated with modern agriculture. Fertilizers commonly used in modern agriculture, such as the neonicotinoids applied to seeds, are devastating to wild bees. In some regions, 50% of wild bees have disappeared, and in the case of certain bumblebee species, they may have already gone extinct. In the spectacle of colony collapse disorder, no one knows for sure.
While honeybees are often uniquely associated with pollination, and do in fact aid the world in this regard, wild bees along with other wild pollinators account for a significantly larger amount of global pollination. Wild bees in particular are needed for fruits and vegetables of very large or very small size, specifically including watermelons and tomatoes. In some farms, they account for more than 90% of the pollination happening on site.
We can build and place all the wild bee hotels we can make (and we should). We can refuse to buy honey on industrial or local scales, whatever preference we have (and we should). But until we change the underlying system of food production, we are not addressing the root causes of colony collapse or loss of pollinator diversity. Industrial pollination–that is, the waiting game for when colony collapse or some other horror will strike a hive, and the destruction of wild bees with it–is demanded for every fruit and vegetable we buy from this scale.
The solution to these ills seems daunting because it is. But, for me at least on my better days, that doesn’t mean we should give in to the inevitability of global food and ecological collapse heralded by the disappearing bees.
There is so much to gain if we strive to face these challenges head-on. Our modern food system is a wasteland of environmental destruction, social engineering, exploitation, and illness. From my perspective, it is insufficient to simply replace the management of our modern food system with new, more liberal or ‘sustainable’ people who have perhaps convinced us they will reform it. The entire thing must be quite literally overgrown.
If we are to survive on any scale and in any numbers, our food systems must take new root in our backyards, in our community spaces, and in whatever commons can be reclaimed by whatever combination of animals, humans, and nature are present. We must design with waterways, wild bees, long-term soil health, and realistic, healthy demands for production as our waypoints. The capitalist hierarchies of yesteryear and the bourgeois construct of private land ownership must be discarded to the compost pile where something more cooperative and publicly managed by all stakeholders–human, animal, and botanical alike–are given consideration equitable to the risks they will face.
A million bees drowning on the Washington highway is a symptom. A million dead hives, a clear-cut Amazon, a suicidal slaughterhouse employee, a working class woman who becomes diabetic, an immigrant farmer who develops cancer, a wailing cow mother, a suffocated baby chicken–there is a common root these symptoms share. And there is a mighty Earth beneath our toes ready to grow something different.
Put up your rainbow, humanity. Stop the destruction.
Pat Mosley (LMBT #16882) is facing down the existential void with his animal friends. He works as a massage therapist and farmer, and is almost just finished earning an economics degree from a well-known business school too. He sees all these interests as deeply connected in the art of human ecology and the need for interdisciplinary action in response to climate change.