I write this column on May 20, which, among other things, is World Bee Day.
Bees, as you probably know, are in trouble. U.S. National Agricultural Statistics show a honey-bee decline from about 6 million hives in 1947 to 2.68 million hives in 2017. In the U.S., the number of bee colonies per hectare has declined by 90 percent since 1962. A 2019 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that “Bees and other pollinators are declining in abundance in many parts of the world largely due to intensive farming practices, mono-cropping, excessive use of agricultural chemicals and higher temperatures associated with climate change, affecting not only crop yields but also nutrition. If this trend continues, nutritious crops such as fruits, nuts, and many vegetables will be substituted increasingly by staple crops like rice, corn, and potatoes, eventually resulting in an imbalanced diet.” And bees are essential to life: a paper published in 2014 by the Yale School for the Environment estimates that, “One of every three bites of food eaten worldwide depends on pollinators, especially bees, for a successful harvest.” None of this is encouraging.
But this morning I came across a wonderful article from the National Geographic with the intriguing title, “Flowers can hear buzzing bees – it makes their nectar sweeter.” “Hear”, of course, may not literally be what happens, as the article later explains, but there is some response mechanism. It may be some form of chemical reaction, or some sensitivity to the vibrations of the pollinator’s wings. But when the bee is around, the nectar the plant produces very quickly gets much sweeter to attract the bee, which helps both the bee and the flower. There is ample evidence of communication between plants, and of a response to external stimuli by plants, both to attract favorable things (like pollinators) and to repel unfavorable things (like harmful insect pests). But here’s a direct response between the bee and the flower, completely different species! Somehow, it’s heartening to me to know that even as the bee population declines due to human actions, the plants themselves have ways of making themselves more attractive to bees and other pollinators, ways of helping them to find food even as the pollinators help the plants to propagate.
That impulse to assist one another, whether it’s an instinctive chemical reaction or a willingness to go out of one’s way to help a neighbor, is everywhere. Yes, there are insects that eat plants (and plants that eat insects). And there are people who prey on their neighbors, or even try to exterminate them. But those are not the only forces or impulses in the world. There are those which bend toward cooperation and compassion too. And today, on World Bee Day, I want to focus on them, be part of those forces which help make this one very tiny corner of the world healthier. I think I’ll help the bees. Our bee balm (one of my daughter’s favorite flowers) isn’t anywhere near blooming yet, but I’ll bet I can find some sweet alyssum at the local nursery.
While you won’t be reading this until several days after World Bee Day, I don’t think the bees have any interest in our human calendar anyway. So Happy World Bee Day – and what will you do today to make some part of the world a bit more healthy, or a bit more whole?
Shalom and Salaam,