Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"Because life brings our misfortunes to the bees."

     When the various forms of human communications are discussed—Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, Facebook and the like—you must go well down the list, past human speech, past newspapers, lower than billboards, to just above semaphore flags, in order to find, "the sides of buses."
     I can't remember ever learning anything from the side of a bus. But there was the 125 Water Tower Express --I think the "express" part of the name is a bit of wry CTA humor, because it was lumbering slowly along Wacker Drive, at about the same speed pedestrians were walking; truly, I noticed the bus well north of Lake, and it tagged alongside me, panting at my elbow like a faithful pup, all the way until Randolph. 
     "SAVE the BEES" a sign bannered on its side said, in bold blue letters against a honeycomb yellow background. "Say NO to NEONICS." 
    I like bees. Not so much as individuals, thanks to a few nasty encounters over the years (they sting). But as a class. I like bees generally. Part of this has to do with a favorite author of mine, Virgil, who elaborately praises bees in his small book on farming, Georgics, describing them as stout-hearted warriors busily making honey "in their waxen kingdoms" until it comes time to take to the air and defend the hive.
      The author of The Aeneid observes bees fighting like ancient heroes, "their large souls pulsing in very small breasts:"
     If they have flown forth to battle... from a distance, you may discern the mob's temper and the feelings stirred by war, for that martial call, from hoarse-resonating brass blares to those that dally, and a tone like the broken blurting of trumpets is heard; then, restless, they come together, their wings vibrate and flash, they sharpen their stings with their mouthparts and ready their strength; around the king and to his royal tent itself, they swarm densely, summoning the enemy with a great clamor; therefore, when they've gained a bright spring day and an open field, they burst from the gates to join battle, high in the air the sound buzzes...
     You have to love that.
     And "neonics"—that was new to me. One doesn't typically learn words off the sides of buses. But I did, and later discovered that neonics is short for "neonicotinoids," a class of pesticides currently being blamed, on the sides of buses and elsewhere, for the collapse of Americ's bee population (in case you're not paying attention to the world around you, almost a third of America's bees have disappeared over the past five years. This is bad not only for people who like honey, but for people who like to eat, as bees are responsible for pollinating many of our fruit, vegetable and nut crops. Other animals pollinate too--non-bee insects, birds, even bats—but bees do the heavy lifting).
      Neonics were introduced in the early 1990s to replace phosphate pesticides in the production of corn, cotton, soybeans and other major crops. They were considered less hard on nature than the phosphates. The bee population began to dwindle in 2004, though at first it was blamed on a certain kind of mite, and then, on genetically altered plants.  Where science is vague at explaining bad new developments, people tend to blame what they don't like already. 
     I can't tell if that is the case with neonics. The science is still controversial. On one hand, bees are doing fine in Australia and Canada and other countries that use neonics. On the other, bees in labs tend to react poorly to being doused with neonic pesticide. Then again, bee colonies collapsed periodically in the century before neonics were introduced, for reasons that are, as yet, mysterious.
     Looking over the evidence, it does seem that neonics are the bogeyman du jour, and just as hysteria against, oh, vaccines caused harm needlessly, so banning neonics would disrupt agriculture, hurting people—the one species environmentalists don't seem to care much about—while perhaps not helping our friend, the honeybee. It seems premature.
     Though to be honest, I'm less concerned with the politics of the situation than the fact that I first heard of it on the side of a bus, despite the fact that the New York Times has run a front page story on the issue. Easy to overlook a story on the crowded front page of the Times. Harder to miss a big honking yellow billboard lumbering alongside you at a walking pace, shadowing you down Wacker Drive, practically begging to be read. "I learned about the problem on the side of a bus." I don't why, but that has a nice ring to it.
    Virgil, by the way, noted 2,000 years ago that bees sometimes mysteriously die off. "Because life brings our misfortunes to the bees," he wrote, which sounds about right. "If their bodies languish from severe sickness, this you can know from the first by undoubted symptoms: their color changes at once with disease."
     He suggests that the bees' woes be addressed by burning aromatic gum and bringing the bees honey in hollow reeds, thus "cheering them." If that doesn't work, try raisin wine, or scattering starwort and lavender petals. If all else fails, slaughter an ox in the Egyptian fashion, and in time its  carcass will miraculously issue bees. 
     If banning neonics doesn't work, we can consider those measures next. 



  1. Virgil was a wise man.

  2. Dude: Virgil?! I'm snapping my fingers in the BEST WAY! Nicely turned.

  3. Thanks. "I yam what I yam." -- Popeye.

  4. I wrote my US Representative, Judy Biggert about Colony Collapse Disorder in the summer of 2007. In November of 2010, I received a form letter response from one of her staffers. "Thank you for your letter..."

    Of course, she was probably busy selling trading stocks and there must not have been trades in bees.

  5. "Dude: Virgil?! ... Nicely turned." Sure, but a tad irreverent, I have to say. If I recall correctly, "They call me MISTER Tibbs!"


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