Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Backyard beekeeper © Paul A. Biedrzycki

Inspections are conducted monthly to make sure the hive is healthy and active.
© Paul A. Biedrzycki

June 2013

Creature Comforts

In defense of the helpful honeybee.

Paul A. Biedrzycki

As a recent and novice urban beekeeper, I have surprisingly discovered a certain level of tranquility amid the buzzing and humming of the Apis mellifera (European honeybee) that occupy a hive in a corner of my backyard.

Perhaps it is my fascination with their seemingly obsessive sense of purpose in serving the needs of the colony. Or maybe it is the fact the colony as a whole functions so uniformly as if it were a single organism in which the lines of individual and community are blurred in an inseparable symmetry.

Regardless, my current preoccupation has already paid dividends by providing me hours of personal enjoyment as well as feeding my curiosity.

My initial interest in cultivating an apiary revolved around fostering ecosystem sustainability (honeybees are critical to plant pollination and diversity) as well as growing the honeybee population (“colony collapse disorder” has decimated 50 to 70 percent of bee populations in many parts of the world).

However, I now have come to simply appreciate what I refer to as the honeybee "esthytique," or that which represents the natural rhythm and harmony of the bee colony. Observing and understanding the role of each bee in the colony only augments this perspective.

For example, a single queen provides thousands of eggs for countless generations that will supplement and supplant the colony. Male drones work to ensure egg fertilization and vital genetic input to perpetuate the species. Female worker bees (95 percent of the hive population) carry out the vast majority of tasks necessary for colony survival including foraging, nursing, cleaning, temperature control and guarding duties. It is exactly this type and level of social organization, cooperation and focuses that both intrigues and invigorates the senses.

Nevertheless, dark clouds loom for this industrious and beneficial insect. An article in the journal Science suggests that neonicotinoids — a common and widely used insecticide may be responsible for colony collapse disorder as witnessed around the globe.

Researchers postulate that these particular chemicals, which contaminate nectar and pollen in bee friendly plants, interfere with their ability to successfully navigate to and from the hive. Without the aid of this unique navigational capability honed over millions of years, bees can no longer bring food back to the hive much less return to sustain social cohesion and survival. It is believed that colonies eventually starve, disband and perish.

While the disappearance of the honeybee may seem trivial to some, it may indeed herald a more harsh reality for our own future. Without honeybee pollination, agricultural crop diversity and yields will eventually decline. This will further cripple food production in countries already stressed by famine or drought. Similarly, as non-agricultural native plants also dwindle, various insect and animal species dependent on this flora will subsequently falter, diminish and inevitably disappear.

Like the warnings surrounding the changing climate, unintended consequences of manmade ecosystem disruption ultimately threaten our own existence in ways difficult to predict with certainty or even imagine. With the current worldwide honeybee decline, we once again run the risk of becoming complacent while continuing to erroneously believe that nature is perpetually forgiving, planet resources unlimited and our human footprint relatively insignificant.

Paul A. Biedrzycki writes from Milwaukee where he and his wife Mindy tend to a honeybee hive in their backyard.