Bees and the winter of their discontent
Text by Agustín B. Ávila-Casanueva
Honey is quite similar to the color of the precious gold metal, a coincidence that reminds us that it is a treasure not only for bees, for which countless tales tell us how hard they work, but for us as well. In the first tribute the Spaniards demanded from the Mayans in 1549, they included more than three thousand kilos of honey and almost thirty thousand of wax. At that time, the Mayans, who had been practicing apiculture prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, were the major producers of honey in America and bees were part of their culture. They believed that there were special bees called mulzencabob that told the God of the hives, Nahyumcab, and the God of bees, Ah Muzencab, everything that happened in their hives and their daily lives.
If there is one, the great God of the bees must be very worried, during the 2006-2007 winter, the population of bees used in apiculture in the United States (Apis mellifera) began to suffer great losses. Entire colonies were dying in the winter all around the country, and this phenomenon –called colony collapse disorder – has repeated itself every year since then and has expanded across the American continent and in Europe.
This disorder is not new in the relationship we have with these hymenopteran insects, since 1869 there have been at least 18 instances in which great quantities of hives have been lost without being able to pinpoint the cause of this phenomenon. There are various suspects, the use of pesticides with nicotine – or derived substances – seems to confuse the bees, making them forget where their food or hive were located; colonies that have suffered from colony collapse disorder are also usually infected by one or more parasites, and the loss or fragmentation of their habitat is part of the wounds that silence the buzz of A. Mellifera’s hives. What’s most likely is that we won’t find one single reason or one single fatal wound, the combination of these and other factors seems to be too much for our hardworking bees.
If all that glitters is not gold, not all bees are mellifera. The bees that the Mayans used to look after since before the Spanish conquest and up to the present are from the species Melipona beecheii, they are smaller than the mellifera, more docile and lack a stinger, but also produce less honey, which is why the Spaniards ended up bringing over the European mellifera to increase production of the golden treasure. Despite belonging to a different genus than the mellifera, the beecheii bees are also showing signs of colony collapse disorder.
Fortunately, types of bees won’t stop us; we find a great diversity in sizes, colors and habits amongst wild bees. In the United Kingdom we find helicophiles, or snail-loving bees, the females of this species only lay between five and six eggs a year, place them at the bottom of empty snail shells that these gastropods leave behind, from which they get their name. The largest bees of the world live in Indonesia, reaching almost four centimeters in length, and build their hives in the nests of termites. Cuckoo bees are parasites of other bees, these females manage to sneak into the hive and leave their eggs in order for them to feed on the pollen gathered by the hive and, in some occasions, one of the offspring kills the hive’s queen and takes her place. There are bees that are completely yellow, some bees are green and blue, and some are lime-colored.
But the ones we’ve decided to involve ourselves with, in different cultures and places, are those that produce the golden honey. Honey is not only a sweet, eternal treasure, since it never goes bad, it is also a symbol, behind each drop of honey is the contact of bees with the plants, the buzz that carries the pollen to the ovaries so the seeds may grow. Bees are in charge of pollinating a great quantity of plants; in the Yucatan rainforest, we estimate that 40% of the plants are pollinated by bees, and there can be up to a hundred hives in a square kilometer. Besides rainforests, they also pollinate our crops: papayas, various types of chili, the carambola, watermelon, coconut, cucumber, lemon, strawberries, apples, mangos, amongst many others are pollinated by bees, and several crop fields have their own hives to ensure the work is done.
The probability that mellifera bees will disappear completely is very low, there are colonies almost everywhere in the world and enough attention is being given to their care. But we are losing the diversity of other bees, bees that are specific companions to a few or a single plant, and the pollination they carry out may not be replaced by the work of the mellifera. What will be left are signs of the plants, an odor similar to that of the female bee, or its shape drawn on a flower to attract the male, but there won’t be a reply.
So plant flowers, avoid pesticides and let’s hope that the mulzencabob may bear good news to the gods of the bees.