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A letter to sticky-fingered beekeepers

Last week I was notified by a friend that a post of mine was sent to the membership of his local beekeeping club after the title, source, and author name were stripped. Legally, there is a name for this behavior: it’s called “theft.” Taking something that belongs to another without permission is stealing.

This bee club is not unique. Anyone who publishes on the internet is well aware of the scoundrels and lowlifes who take whatever they want. Usually the material pops up someplace where you least expect it. Sometimes it is stripped of ownership information, and sometimes the works are actually attributed to others. I’ve had my entire feed redirected to another bee blog. My photos appear everywhere. Right now, pictures of my homemade top-bar hive are being used to advertise someone else’s business. There is little we bloggers can do about it.

What is hurtful about this particular instance is the post they chose. In a way, posts about how to build a frame or how to mix sugar syrup are kind of standard and hardly worth defending as original. But this post, “The iterative method of swarm capture” was personal. It relays antics my husband and I performed while trying to hive a stubborn swarm. Because it is a unique story, only I could have written it. It is my story.

For some reason, people believe that because the internet is huge and impersonal, no one will ever notice. Maybe in some disciplines that is true. But the beekeeping world is amazingly small: someone always knows someone who knows someone.

Last fall I was enrolled in one of the online beekeeping courses offered by the University of Montana. Part of the course involved answering questions and posting them so the other students could see and discuss the answers. About half way through the course, I was shocked to see a student use as his answer a block of text taken straight from my blog. I recognized my writing instantly.

Now this person owns more hives than I own worker bees—no exaggeration. And yet he felt compelled to copy an answer from the internet rather than write it out himself. Instead of reporting him, I wrote and told him to knock it off. His answer amazed me. He said, “I thought that paragraph was worded better than what I had written . . . .”

Worded better? Seriously? I spent my life learning to write, but not so some lazy-brained beekeeper could save himself the trouble. I agonize over every word and where to place it. To me, writing is a labor of love. Writing for beekeepers is one way I have of giving back—a way of paying forward what others have given me.

Each year I get dozens of requests to reprint my stories and photos, or to use them in books, magazines, slide shows, and posters. I am honored by these requests. I have never said no to a single one. I would be equally happy to provide my work to this beekeeping group—even now—and I certainly would allow the dude with a gazillion hives to use a direct quote. You don’t have to steal what I produce; I will give it to you.

The internet has changed our lives because it makes information easy to share and simple to find. The material on the net—at least the stuff worth reading—is written by people who care and who put their hearts into their work. But I can tell you from experience that the thieves make it harder for the producers to find the motivation.


The fear of bees

Yes, this is a rant. I’ve been putting if off because it made me so angry I had to distance myself in order to write coherently.

My daughter’s two-year-old recently came home from daycare and announced, “Bees will hurt you.” Not only that, she began stomping on any insect she saw, particularly ants. My daughter was appalled by this behavior. So on a recent visit, I took the little girl out to the garden, found a couple of bees on flowers, and nudged them with my finger. They promptly flew away.

Apparently, this little exercise had amazing results and the fear of bees seemed to vanish. I’m told she now tries to pursue them on her own, but bees being bees, they simply fly away.

So my daughter and her husband switched from using a daycare to a “science-based” preschool. Ostensibly this preschool puts an emphasis on the natural sciences in their day-to-day teaching. The school claims their curriculum fosters curiosity, independence, self-reliance, and emotional maturity.

One day while picking up the child, my daughter exclaimed, “Look, a bee!”

Her daughter answered, “It’s a fly.”

My daughter looked to the teacher for an explanation and was told, “There are a few kids who are extremely afraid of bees so it’s better for everyone if we just call them flies.”

You’ve got to be kidding! A science-based learning center where they lie to the children about what is and what isn’t? Absolutely unconscionable.

What are the possible consequences of such nonsense? The child afraid of bees remains afraid. Perhaps a child not afraid of flies gets stung by this “fly” and now fears both bees and flies. Or later, the child is ridiculed by friends for thinking a fly is a bee. Or perhaps the child believes (rightfully so in this case) that teachers are liars. It goes on and on. No good can come of it.

Apart from the honesty piece, I think that parents who perpetuate the fear of stinging insects increase the probability of their children getting stung. Children who are fearful flail, scream, and run. All this commotion makes it easier for the insects to spot them. Bees detect moving objects more readily than stationary ones, so once you start flailing, you’re toast. But I think it’s more than that.

Most animals sense fear. Many mammals are able to detect fear and take advantage of it. Now, I honestly don’t know if bees can detect fear in mammals, but it certainly wouldn’t surprise me. Beekeepers who have mastered the art of moving slowly and deliberately, who don’t break a sweat or flail about, are perfectly capable of tending enormous hives without protective gear. I believe these people become part of the non-threatening environment of the bee, not an intruder into it.

More importantly, I don’t know why a parent would deliberately instill fear of the natural world into a child. Fear is not a good feeling. It presses on your chest, stifles your freedom, breeds distrust, and destroys self-confidence. In our modern world there are many things for a child to fear, including predators, drunk drivers, and perverts with box cutters—all viable reasons to be wary.

But why give a bee or wasp—an animal going about business as usual—equal weight with an kidnapper, a criminal, or a molester? It doesn’t make sense. One should be avoided, the other embraced.

I get many letters from people complaining about their neighbor’s bees, and every one of them—every last one—begins by explaining how their children are fearful and must be protected. Bull. It is not the children; it is the parents projecting their own fears onto their children. It is cruel, I think, to place such a burden on a child—a burden that could last a lifetime and, in most cases, a burden that is completely unnecessary.


Kill it! Kill it!

The “How do I kill them?” e-mail is pouring in faster than ever, depressing me no end. Most of the writers want to know how to kill the sweet little ground bees that are drilling holes in their pristine suburban lawns. Or sometimes they focus in on harmless carpenter bees, assuming their lives would be better without them pollinating our food, our gardens, our communities. I’m not picking on anyone in particular here—I don’t have to because all the messages sound the same:

  • They are mostly from women (or perhaps men posing as women).
  • They all cite the necessity of protecting their children from stings (I would bet that some don’t even have children).
  • They all say they don’t want to kill the bees, but they have to do something (of course they want to kill the bees; that’s why they’re asking).

When I read these missives, I imagine an hysterical woman scared to death of anything with more than four legs. Her children are not the problem, she is. In any case, children take cues from their parents and reflect their parents’ fears. If the mother is mortified, it won’t take long before the child is too.

These people are educated or not, but in any case they are oblivious to the world around them. They believe they have a right to a germ-free, dirt-free, bug-free, snake-free, spider-free world, and they will go to any extreme to make it happen. They are the parents of children who believe carrots arise from plastic bags, that meat has no relationship to animals, that anything from a store is safe, and who—nevertheless—are afraid of their own shadows.

But maybe I’m being too hard on these folks. Certainly, I’ve been wrong before, so let me re-think:

  • Maybe we would all be happier if we could annihilate just one more creature.
  • Maybe we would be better off without fruits and vegetables to feed our kids; they don’t like them anyway.
  • Maybe it’s better for children to inhale cancer-causing insecticides—and absorb them through their skin—than chance a bee sting.
  • Maybe we should spend our money on something deadly (pesticides) instead of something fun (a butterfly net, a hand lens, or a popsicle).
  • Maybe we should spend our time obsessing over a patch of lawn instead of using that time to read, write, laugh, or learn.
  • Maybe, if we stick our heads in a hole, someone else will conserve whatever needs it (as long as it doesn’t live in our own backyard).
  • Maybe we should all jump in the car (33,500 traffic fatalities a year in the US) and drive to the store to buy pesticide (67,000 poisoning cases a year in the US along with 12,000 new cases of pesticide-caused cancer) so we can avoid the possibility of an insect sting (50 fatalities per year in the US).*

I have trouble believing that so many Americans live in fear. They won’t bother to learn that most native bees don’t even sting. They won’t bother to learn the importance of pollinators to our food supply, our environment, our daily lives. They won’t bother to consider that after enough things go extinct, the human race must follow. These people would be absolutely miserable if we forced them to live in a world without insects, but that’s what they think they want.

A parent who teaches her child to kill—rather than respect—an insect is no parent at all. Sure, there are times when we must act, but let’s strive for an educated decision, not a knee-jerk reaction.

How can we be so short-sighted? How can we think that are own personal comfort should come before the good of the next generation? Why do we want to raise children who are fearful and ignorant?

Honestly, folks, I don’t get it.


Roadside flowers. © Pollinator Partnership.

* These statistics vary depending on the source, but basically the message is the same: you are 670 times more likely to die in a car crash than from an insect sting, yet no one hesitates to put their kid in a car. You are 1340 times more likely to be poisoned by pesticides than killed by a insect. But does that stop us from sprinkling, spraying, powdering, and injecting? Hell, no.

Take the pollinator challenge

We beekeepers are often blind-sided by our love of honey bees. We, and especially the press, tend to equate the word “bee” with “honey bee.”

Last evening, as I watched the much-touted film, More than Honey, I was dismayed to hear that, “Unlike bumble bees and butterflies, bees remain true to one type of flower.” While it is true that honey bees practice floral fidelity, and bumble bees not so much, the statement makes no sense. Are they saying a bumble bee isn’t a bee? Or are they saying, “Unlike bees, bees remain true . . .”

The same movie explained that honey bees were brought to the New World by the settlers because they needed a way to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. What? Indeed, the settlers brought honey bees across the Atlantic on ships and introduced them to the Virginia plantations in 1622. But it was definitely not because they wanted to pollinate their fruits and vegetables. In fact, the discovery that flowers are pollinated by insects was made by a fellow named Arthur Dobbs, who presented his revolutionary discovery to the Royal Society of London in 1750.

Do the math: the settlers brought their honey bees to North America 128 years before anyone had a clue that insects played a part in pollination. And it was many, many years later before the discovery became common knowledge. So why did the settlers bring honey bees to America? For the honey, of course.

Furthermore, the narrative implies that there were no bees in North America. “The colonists wanted to cultivate the prairie and grow fruits and vegetables. To pollinate them, they needed bees.” In reality, there were at least 4000 species of bees in North America and an untold number in South America. The plants on both continents were readily pollinated. Given that the colonists didn’t raise vast monocultures, there were more than enough pollinators to go around.

Yes, honey bees have amazing attributes and there is no substitute for them on Earth. But they are not the only game in town. In fact, there are many plants that are not pollinated by honey bees and must be pollinated by other bees or non-bee pollinators. Why is this so hard to understand?

Last week I read an article that explained how we wouldn’t have chocolate if it weren’t for honey bees. The next day, another publication ran the same article. Now, you don’t have to be a genius to google “chocolate pollination” and discover that chocolate is pollinated by a small fly called a midge. The unusual flower of the plant requires this tiny, tiny insect to get the job done. What kind of journalist can’t spend 30 seconds to look this up?

Then I received an upsetting e-mail. A beekeeper wrote that he refused to speak to a gathering of master gardeners who wanted to learn how to attract wild pollinators. Instead he will speak about how we need a million more beekeepers in this country. Okay, maybe he doesn’t know how to attract pollinators and would rather speak about honey bees—I get that. But the idea that a million more beekeepers will solve our problem is naïve.

Flooding the landscape with honey bees will not negate our pollination problem. In fact, it will only make it worse. A monoculture of anything—a feedlot of pigs, a farm of fish, an Iowa of corn—spreads disease, reduces genetic variability, and requires chemical input. A monoculture of honey bees is the antithesis of sustainable.

The best thing we can do for honey bees, or any other pollinator, is to care for the environment and enhance the living condition of all species. Terminology for the sustainable soup of living things changes over time; it was once called “the balance of nature” then “the web of life” then “the natural community.” But whatever you call it, it goes off-kilter when you selectively cut the species you don’t like and paste the ones you do.

We humans are so smart we designed poisons to kill the species we don’t like. Trouble is, the good bugs went with the bad. So instead of relying on natural pollinators, we inundate the poisoned monoculture crops with inbred, poorly fed, and stressed out honey bees. Then we scratch our heads and wonder why they get sick. Our answer? Raise more and more inbred, poorly fed, and stressed out honey bees and prop them up with a few chemicals. That should work, right?

In addition to honey bees, my mission statement for Honey Bee Suite includes a commitment to “wild bees, other pollinators, and pollination ecology.” It’s all part of the “suite” idea—a closely aligned and interconnected whole. To raise healthy honey bees, we need a healthy environment, one that includes all the pollinators, each of which has an important role in the web of life.

If I could get my readers to do one thing of my choosing, I would ask each one to select a new pollinator every year and study it. Pick one you know nothing about and make it your project. Find out where it lives, what it pollinates, when it’s active. Put a portrait on your desktop. Send me a photo and tell me why you picked it. A new pollinator in your life will make you a better beekeeper, a more astute gardener, a better steward of the land, a more informed citizen. Think of it as a challenge . . . you may even find the little twerp makes you happy.

A small native sweat bee posing as a rabbit. © Rusty Burlew.