Pardon the pun, but the English language makes it hard to talk about these apoidean insects without falling into word play (to bee or not…).
When it comes to bees, I have my own character arch. I grew up fearing them even though I didn’t see them often in my Chicago childhood. Some of this fear, like many fears, overlapped with hatred and ignorance. My mother was an insect hater, shooing away flies and ants, crushing the odd centipede and spider who dared to crawl around our apartment. My grandmother, who also raised me, was once stung by a bee in the supermarket, giving her a rounded bump on her otherwise flat bum. She was sure it was a bee. Reflecting back, I’m not so sure. Bee stings on humans are in fact rare. Sure, beekeepers wear jumpsuits and netted hats, but they are after all trespassing and disrupting the bees’ homes.
If a bee were responsible for the bump on Grandma’s bum, it was because the old woman was asking for it. During summer months, she would wear white trousers and tops that were either all white, or white with some yellow print. She certainly dressed the part to attract pollinators. I suspect too that the allegedly aggressive bee sensed that Grandma lived on a diet of chocolate bars, coffee cake and Danish pastry, washed down many evenings with a vodka martini. The sweetness must have oozed from her skin.
Believing much of what I was told as a child, bees were to be feared and not swatted at as you would invariably miss, and the bee would come back around and sting you. You could end up in hospital! While there are people who have allergies to bee stings, they can be treated at home – but this rational couldn’t be accepted when I was growing up or even into early adulthood, where I would step nervously away from any bee I encountered.
I overcame my fear of bees in a single afternoon some dozen years after my grandmother’s purported incident. I was back in Edinburgh and took a day trip to the west coast of Scotland with my former landlady Erica, one of my surrogate mothers. We were in the gardens of some stately home having a picnic when a small bee came drifting over our food. Just when I was about to give Erica a warning, she noticed it and smiled, while luring the creature closer to her with a strawberry and directing it to a patch of heather. She made some comment about how ‘marvellous’ the creatures were.
In the time between my picnic with Erica and the bee and the present day, like any self-respecting environmental activist, I have learned about the value of bees. I’m thinking of the quote attributed to Albert Einstein, even if not completely accurate, it makes the point: ‘If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe, then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.’ In the popular press, I have also encountered some myths about bees. Not to detract from the dangers of pesticides and pollution, but the leading destroyers of bees are not manmade chemicals, but other insects, such as hornets and mites.
This brings me to one of the best books I’ve read recently, The Ardent Swarm, a novel by Tunisian writer Yamen Manai. A beekeeper in a village in Iraq loses thousands of his bees to an invasion of hornets. This is against the backdrop of Isis-like ‘holy men’ descending upon the village bringing gifts to influence the villagers to vote for them and join their militant cause. The allegorical link between the destruction of the beehives and the lives of the villagers becomes apparent with the discovery that the hornets came over from East Asia in packages brought to the village by the ‘holy men.’
I’ve only just started to scratch the surface of books, fiction and non-fiction, about bees. This appears to be a topic full of aficionados and maybe even fetishists. While I do adore these creatures and worry about their survival, I don’t think I belong to either category. Having said that, I’ve recently purchased a Save the Bee packet from Friends of the Earth to do my bit. If Erica were around, I know she’d be proud of me.
(Whew, got through that without any more puns.)