ROBYN MAREE PICKENS
We ask so much of them
Apis mellifera mellifera
There is a line of poetry I find myself repeating in my mind yet when I return to the poem the line is not there. What I repeat is speckled spray. Indistinct. It defies surety of mind-memory. What I repeat is the crested synergy of the whole poem as I have remembered it with the whole of my body. Over the years, almost the decades, each cell has cupped warm hands around words that embody the sensation of night rain falling into sleep. For me, Hone Tuwhare’s poem Rain (1970) captures that moment of luxury when limbs fill with presence between mattress and blankets. When the mind is no longer a giant head on stalks hunting meaning and certitudes. When limpid rains fall and release my mind to the limbic warmth of honey.
Your honeyed words…
Then uprose smooth-tongued Nestor, the facile speaker of the Pylians, and the words fell from his lips sweeter than honey.
(Homer, Iliad, Book 1)
In recent years I have become suspicious of blossoms that appear to bloom early, and find myself questioning the number of bees I see, as if I have a personal inventory I can draw on for comparison. At the sight of each drowsy bumblebee, or each low-to-the-ground, low-ebb-force honeybee, I feel sorrow in a new register. It is the waning, the disappeared, the disappearing of honeybees that burrows into our consciousness now, into our hive-mind. It is the absence of honeybees that is bringing them into our presence.
I can hear you
making small holes
in the silence
I can hear you
making small holes
in the silence
Each disappeared bee is a tiny punctum punching small holes of silence.
With their small bodies, honeybees carry nectar, pollen and plant resin back to the hive where they construct their home of hexagonal comb, which will eventually be filled with honey for their own food source, and to grow and feed the queen and larvae.
Communal-living bees like Apis mellifera, the honeybee, constitute a super-organism that encompasses bee, colony and comb. The comb, or as Nick Holmes calls it, the heart of the organism (1), is what often gets overlooked when we talk about honeybees and beehives. Before beehives, communal bees lived in hollow tree trunks. A hollow tree trunk is bee paradise. The activity of the rotting trunk generates warmth for the bees when it is cool and prevents overheating in summer. Within this trunk belly the bees build the combs right to the edges to insulate their comb-home. In the artificial environment of modern hives, bees incorporate the resin from plants and trees to seal the draughty edges with wax, but it is not as cosy as a hollow tree trunk.
Dependably, the Germans have distilled the essence of the ideal honeybee environment into one delicious compound word: Nestduftwarmebindung. This generous word is comprised of four separate words, some of which may be guessable. Nest = nest, duft = scent, warme = warmth, and bindung, which sounds the least appealing, actually means ‘bond’ or ‘connection’. In clumsy English this German feat of construction translates as: ‘the bond in the nest of scent and warmth.’
This is where the mind hums low and bows to the limbic in full fragrant mellow. There are no hard edges, cross words (or crosswords), corrugated brows or taut bows. Nestduftwarmebindung is pooling amber before it sets, gooey centres of chocolates and bodies loving other bodies. It is warm bodies circled around a fire sparking the scent of gum into the air against the edge of night, with protective animals nearby. There is a lustrous firmament, ample sustenance and a sense of the group as individual and tribe.
Communal bees living in hollow tree trunks abide in the Nestduftwarmebindung. Communal bees living in modern hives do not abide in the Nestduftwarmebindung. The hive that most closely approximates the hollow tree trunk is the Warré hive, which is based on the Nestduftwarmebindung principle. Regrettably it is rarely heard of, let alone installed in modern apiaries.
It is the warmth that generates and retains the scent that creates the bond. Taking a parallel slant view, it is the scent that enlivens the bees to create warmth that nurtures the bond. And so on. Scent when incubated in warmth becomes a kind of substance: scent substance. Apart from contributing to the creation of nest bond, the scent carries the messages of the colony. It interacts with the nervous system of the hive, assists with the store of memory, and builds and maintains the immune system of the colony. The scent-substance of the optimally constructed Nestduftwarmebindung acts like the good bacteria in the human gut: it is impregnated with scent that inhibits (bad) bacteria and disease. ‘Nothing is able to replace the retention of germ-free nest scent and heat.’(2)
Bees depend on an equation of four complementary components to thrive: well- sited nest, heat, scent and bond. So the thought of Sylvia Plath’s bees wintering in the dank of her hive-mind set my teeth to clattering. Wintering is the title of the last poem in Plath’s well-known sequence of five poems on her relationship with bees, written shortly before her suicide in 1963.
Plath’s father was a beekeeper so it was a family occupation of sorts, one that Plath would have been familiar with. This is borne out over the sequence of five poems as Plath moves from being an observer of village hives in the first poem, The Bee Meeting, to the owner of a box of bees, The Arrival of the Bee Box, subsequent honey extraction in Stings, the swarming of the bees, The Swarm, to the introspective hibernation of Wintering.
From the bees, Plath has collected ‘six cat’s’ eye jars of honey that she stores in the dark cellar of her house, next to rancid jam and empty gin bottles. They gleam in the yellow torchlight she shines into the blackness ‘bunched in there like a bat’. (‘Wintering’ Ariel, 75). Outside meanwhile, the bees have also formed a comparable black ball of mind, as they huddle together against the cold. Plath feeds them a sugary supplement ‘Tate and Lyle’ which they slowly file over to sup, while the bees’ own nutrient-rich honey makes cat’s eyes in the cellar. On warm days the bees have enough energy to bring out their dead: ‘Into which, on warm days,/They can only carry their dead.’ (76).
Despite the bees’ privations, Plath invests them with a, perhaps her own, will to survive. It is an investment that requires a leap of faith. In the penultimate line, Plath asks ‘What will they taste of, the Christmas roses?’ to the fast-forward projection of renewal in the last line, ‘The bees are flying. They taste the spring.’ (76). It is not without poignancy that one recalls Plath did not share in the tasting of that spring.
Each spring, in the southern Sichuan province of China, the mountains softly explode with apple and pear blossoms. The orchard you and all capable members of your extended family will be visiting today has two hundred pear trees and some ladders. Each of you is carrying a pared-back toilet brush, no; an artefact of ritual, no; something else that resembles a stick of bamboo with some chicken feathers attached? No. Each of you is carrying a stick of bamboo with some chicken feathers attached.
Today you will be applying the pollen scrubbed off the anthers (the male part of the flower) that has been dried for two days and pounded fine. You and your extended family will now, ever so delicately, dust this dried, pounded pollen onto each single stigma (the female part of the flower) of each flower on each of the two hundred trees. You pollinate each flower so that it will bud into pear-fruit. Some of your extended family have been pollinating by hand for the past two decades, maybe longer. Excessive pesticide application killed the bees. So you get the beauty of the blossom, but you don’t get the buzz, hovering and lovemaking.
Carol Ann Duffy’s imperative comes too late for you and your extended family.
each bee’s body
at its brilliant flower, lover-stunned,
strumming on fragrance smitten.
where bees pray on their knees, sing, praise
in pear trees, plum trees; bees
are the batteries of orchards, gardens, guard them.
(‘Virgil’s Bees’ The Bees, London: Picador, 2011: 23)
Those two words ‘guard them’ at the end of the poem snuck up on this reader, who was drowsy, bumble-sodden in the eulogy of bee-love. Duffy tacks them onto the rapture rather than trailing them lonesome on their own adjunct line.
But we have not guarded them.
You are no longer daubing the stigmas of pear trees with pollen in southern Sichuan. You are on the moon looking down. Or Carol Ann Duffy is, and she says what so many of us say, but maybe she says it better:
‘Darlings, I write to you from the moon
I see you gaping back as though you hear my Darlings,
what have you done, what have you done to the world?’
(‘The Woman in the Moon’ 49)
I keep gaping.
From Plath to Sichuan I keep gaping. A year before Plath’s suicide in 1963, Rachel Carson published Silent Spring (1962). Within a couple of decades of the book’s publication, you and your extended family in southern Sichuan heard the silent spring.
You pollinated flowers by hand. Each spring continues in silence. In the short decades between Plath and Sichuan, pesticide application intensified further, as did the planting of vast monoculture crops. The bedding down of these interlinked practices has resulted in the industrialisation of pollination.
Beehives are overstocked; queen bees are artificially inseminated; bees and their hives are routinely doused with pesticides and antibiotics to offset the illnesses caused by artificial life; the preferred climatic habitat, pollen variability, and dormancy period of the bees are disregarded; they are fed sugar and chemical substitutes instead of their nutritious honey, as they are trucked ceaselessly from one monoculture to another. So many bees must be bought to replace those that die from foulbrood, varroa, diseases that attack the gut, and sheer exhaustion. Where there are no bees, or where pesticide residue on crops would kill bees outright, pollination occurs by hand, as is the case in southern Sichuan.
Several modern beekeeping practices are evident in Plath’s bee poem sequence. The hives manifestly do not provide the bees with what they need to live and thrive. They are dying. There is scant bond in the nest of scent and warmth. Furthermore, the six cat’s eye jars Plath has harvested from the bees deprive them of the nutrition they require to survive the winter. In place of their own honey she feeds them ‘Tate and Lyle’. Only one line in Wintering, shows awareness of her actions: ‘To make up for the honey I’ve taken’ (76).
In addition to Plath’s treatment of the bees (consistent with the era and regretfully the present day), she uses them, instrumentalises them, to articulate her own turmoil and wish fulfilment. The bees do not have a ‘life of their own,’ they exist as food machine and palimpsest. Writing at the same time, it could be said that it was Carson’s Silent Spring that provided the bedrock for (the West’s) nascent biospheric consciousness, one that can now appraise Plath’s anthropocentrism.
I keep gaping.
Each February the largest annual pollination event takes place in the almond orchards of California. You’ve probably heard of it. It is monoculture agriculture on an unbelievable scale. To make it more tangible, I worked out that the continuous length of the orchards would take one from the Octagon in central Dunedin, to the saltpans of Blenheim at the top of the South Island. And that is just one measurement. At an area of 240,000 hectares (as of 2008)(3), the breadth would extend far greater than a whisker each side of the road. Each February 1.7 million hives are trucked from all over the States to supply 80 billion bees to pollinate California’s vast almond orchards (4).
As the beekeeping character, Pilar, in Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood (2009) correctly states, ‘the bees have been in trouble for decades’ (100). Decades of decades. The first record of bee disappearance was in 1869, and colony disappearances spiked periodically over the ensuing decades (5). In 2006 the disappearance of a third, a half, the whole colony from the hive became an ‘unexplained syndrome’ with a name: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).
Apiarists and melittologists (bee scientists) cannot reach agreement on the cause or causes of CCD. Many apiarists and scientists cite a bundle of triggers that include: reduction of bee-foraging habitat; monocultural agriculture; old pesticides; new pesticides, particularly the neonicotinoid family which interferes with the bees’ nervous and navigation systems; the bee-hugging, blood-sucking varroa mite; the artificial insemination of queen bees; hives with plastic frames and foundations; feeding bees on sugar and pollen substitutes – updates on Plath’s ‘Tate and Lyle’. In layperson’s terms all of this amounts to ‘bee stress’.
How are the bees of Aotearoa/New Zealand faring? Not well is the short answer. With an intensive, industrial agricultural system of predominantly monoculture crops and chemical pesticide application, New Zealand’s bees are subjected to many of the diseases afflicting other countries pursuing industrial agricultural practices. But Aotearoa/New Zealand is home to the Leptospermum scopariumplant (manuka), which is causing something of a honey-rush in the same moment that we are experiencing bee disappearances ‘similar’ to CCD (6).
Embarking on a manuka honey-rush in the midst of CCD-like conditions could appear illogical, if not impossible. But schizophrenic late capitalism abounds with comparable scenarios. One need only think of the mining of tar sands for oil as the atmosphere heats up, or closer to home, to the spectacular expansion of dairying in the face of polluted waterways. In such a light, apiarists selling beehives that have been decimated by varroa to other apiarists desperate to cash in on the manuka honey-rush makes perfect sense.
When honeybees are threatened by disease, many apiarists overstock hives to compensate for potential or likely bee deaths. If the bees were humans living in a house we would call it ‘overcrowding’.
You’ve seen the television exposé. The camera goes into the house showing rooms overflowing with beds, mattresses and bed-substitute paraphernalia. Over such scenes the interviewer segues into a narration on the health risks associated with cramped living. Many of these homes are damp, cold and mouldy. Despite the overcrowding, the tenants still pay too much of their meagre income on renting the house, that they can only afford to buy white bread and fizzy drinks. Which in turn leads them to develop new illnesses.
In a similar vein, overstocking beehives reduces the amount of nutrition available for each bee, which in turn compromises their immunity, making them more susceptible to disease, including CCD. In addition to the bee-sucking varroa mite, present in Aotearoa/New Zealand from 2000, our honeybees can expect to come in contact with, or be subjected to pesticides that are meant to fight American foulbrood, Nosema Cerane and Lotmaria Passim. Such sonorous words belay through the hand like a rotten rosary.
New Zealand has experienced bee disappearances, although in what may be an adroit denial of direct admission, these disappearances have been described as only ‘similar’ to CCD. Increasing hive numbers to cash in on the manuka honey-rush seems ill timed and ill advised. Heeding the manuka honey-rush, however lucrative the short-term profits may be, runs the long-term risk of crashing the hive, or even the species. The last thing stressed honeybees need is the strain of responding to a rush. If in any doubt, we have the examples of California and Sichuan to guide us.
As with North America, the honeybee functioned as a biological apparatus of colonisation with the arrival of Pākehā to Aotearoa. It was part of the biological baggage that the colonisers brought with them to reassemble fauna and floral markers of home.
Aotearoa/New Zealand is home to twenty-eight species of native honeybees, none of which produce honey or live communally in a colony. Like many of the native populations of honeybees in areas as diverse as South America and China, these bees are solitary. The closest the native bees of Aotearoa come to producing honey is a resin-like substance found on young branches in warmer weather. Tangata whenua called this sticky substance pia or tohika. In the absence of honeybee-honey, the young resin of kauri gum was used by tangata whenua variously as a kind of chewing gum, as a form of medicine, an ingredient for moko, and to combat kumara-loving insects.
What if we had to return to a time where there were no honeybees? Firstly there would be no honey. Could the native bees pollinate crops in the absence of honeybees? Unfortunately native or wild bees (although not necessarily colony-forming) are as threatened by CCD as honeybees are. In many instances wild bees cannot be moved out of intense pesticide spraying in the same way hived bees could be. What this means is that there is no ‘fall-back’ option if hived honeybees fizzle.
Talking to oneself is the first sign of madness. (Everyone talks to themselves.)
Honeybees not only produce honey that is culinary and nutraceutical (health-giving), and pollinate 90% of all fruit, seed and nut crops, they (along with wild bees) also pollinate other flowering plants that feed the being that feeds the being that feeds us. One ready example is clover. Clover fixes nitrogen and boosts the dairy cows that provide us with dairy products and steak.
‘What do we lose in losing her [honeybee]?’(7)
The environmental philosopher Freya Mathews dedicates a lengthy academic article trying to answer this question, and to understand the quite specific grief attached to the disappearance of bees. They are so small…she observes, even when constituted as a ‘super-organism’(8) …somehow their potential disappearance is not whale-like, not lion-like. It is both size and not size. In grappling with size Mathews upgrades an individual bee to a super-organism, then to a species, then to a member of the biosphere, and finally to a microcosm of the biosphere itself. Yet without the pollen of flowers, without the resin of trees, without the invisible insects that make the soil that grow the flowers that offer pollen to the bees…bees cannot survive. Even bees are not entirely isolated islands of self-containment.
So rather than a matter of relative size, it is perhaps the particular function of honeybees, (as we have come to depend on them) as intensive pollinators of industrial agriculture, that sounds our particular strain of grief. But it is more than almonds and pears that we crave.
Bees are synonymous with spring, and spring, in temperate cultures, is the renewal of life. Spring is the hinge between death and life. Life arising from death; that is, the ability of life to grow out of decay, albeit in a different form, is, as Mathews calls it, the proto-story of every story, narrative and poetic expression. Without the proto-story of the earth, of birth, death and renewal, there is no us.
The disappearance of bees functions as a potent symbol and reality of the disappearance of the proto-story of rebirth; and the disappearance of the proto-story is not just the disappearance of story and meaning, but the literal grounds on which story and meaning can exist.
In bald terms, the disappearance of bees, in their capacity as pollinators, would trigger a cascade of extinctions up and down the great chain of being. No species has the right to trigger such a cascade. Aside from our desire for honey, almonds, pears, Christmas roses, steak and varied plant life, the bee (honey and wild) has an innate right to life-for-itself and, in-of-itself.
Do bees have an equivalent of our locus ceruleus? The cells of this part of our brain are cerulean or deep blue. It is the part of our brain responsible for igniting our early warning systems. If bees have a locus ceruleus, I imagine it would be incubated and held in the bond in the nest of scent and warmth. Perhaps we (particularly a ‘Western we’) have lost our own nest? Perhaps our cerulean cells are only a dim, pale blue? Perhaps we cannot hear ourselves? Perhaps we have lost our scent? How can we house each other differently?
May we be most cerulean, most attentive to the nested lives of others.
(1) Nick Holmes, ‘Natural beekeeping with the Warré hive.’ Organic NZ, January/February, 2016, 20.
(2) Johann Thür. Beekeeping: natural, simple and successful (trans David Heaf). Chapter 1 & 2. http://www.seanet.com/~alexs/bien/bienenzucht_full.pdf Accessed 5 July 2016, unpaginated.
(3) Alison Benjamin and Brian McCallum. A World Without Bees (London: Guardian Books, 2008): 4.
(4) Tom Philpott. ‘Holy Shit! Almonds Require a Ton of Bees’ http://www.motherjones.com/tom-philpott/2015/05/almonds-now-require-85- percent-us-beehives Accessed 6 July 2016.
(5) Benjamin and McCallum, A World Without Bees, 81.
(6) Rob Tipa, ‘Bee deaths raise fears of colony collapse’ http://www.stuff.co.nz/business/farming/agribusiness/70690694/Bee-deaths-raise- fears-of-colony-collapse Accessed 23 July 2016.
(7) Freya Mathews, ‘Planetary Collapse Disorder: The Honeybee as Portent of the Limits of the Ethical,’ Environmental Ethics 32: 358.
(8) Freya Mathews, ‘Planetary Collapse Disorder: The Honeybee as Portent of the Limits of the Ethical,’ Ibid, 361.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Robyn Maree Pickens has a MA in Art History, and has worked in galleries and project spaces including Artspace, Auckland. Her writing has appeared in Art New Zealand, Art News, The Physics Room Annual, Enjoy Gallery’s Occasional Journal, North Projects’, The Press and in exhibition catalogues. Currently she is an art reviewer for the Otago Daily Times, and The Pantograph Punch, and is Blue Oyster’s summer writer-in-residence on Quarantine Island Kamau Taurua. Robyn will commence a practice-based PhD in the field of eco-poetics in the English Department at the University of Otago in 2017.