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Of Mites and Men

That buzzing sound may be a metaphor looking for a place to land

by Bill McKibben

Published in the July/August 2006 issue of Orion magazine



A FEW NOTES ABOUT HONEYBEES, for a lazy summer day with a low, humming buzz coming from the direction of the squash patch: Under ideal conditions, a single colony can produce two hundred pounds of surplus honey a year, the product of visits to as many as 500 million flowers.

Honey is their fuel—a bee gets about 7 million flight miles to the gallon.

Bees pollinate more than ninety fruit, vegetable, nut, and seed crops—a third of the human diet in many countries.

And this, for budding writers: along with providing propolis (once employed in the varnishes that gave the great violins of antiquity their tone), beeswax (useful for candles), and honey (which tastes good), bees are a valuable source of metaphors. I mean, they are busy, they form hierarchies, they have division of labor, and despite their association with sweetness they sting. (See also: thorn on rosebush.) Bees also give each other directions by dancing, which is of less use for metaphor, in that you’d be hard-pressed to do it yourself.

But honeybees live their lives next to ours, and have ever since they were first domesticated about seven thousand years ago. And so when things go askew with our society, those problems can cross, quite literally, into the hive. Consider, for instance, the varroa mite, a microscopic parasite that can devastate a bee colony. It was, for many years, confined to regions of the world where it had long coevolved with bees, allowing them to develop a certain resistance. In the twentieth century it began to spread around the globe, however, and in the 1980s it got to Florida —no one knows quite how, but when every commodity on Earth is traded far and wide every day, such things happen. From there it infested hives the length and the breadth of the country, including those that were also being taken over by nasty hybridized African bees released by accident by Brazilian researchers. But that’s another story. Anyway, the varroa mites, following on the heels (perhaps not a very apt mite metaphor) of the less devastating but equally exotic tracheal mites, decimated all kinds of beehives, and threatened all kinds of crops. This spring almond growers in California were flying in beehives from Australia to service their $5 billion harvest. The National Academy of Sciences is apparently considering adding honeybees to the endangered species list. It is, more or less, a disaster of the kind that we’re becoming all too used to.

And we respond in the usual ways. Apiary researchers have come up with a series of branded chemicals. There was a pesticide strip called Apistan for a while (“not to be used during honey flow, or when there is surplus honey present in the colony that may be removed for human consumption at a later date”), but then the mites worked up resistance to that. Next came coumaphos, described originally by extension agents as a “highly effective, but more dangerous organophosphate,” and sold under the cheerful trade name CheckMite.

But what do you know. “At first the stuff works like a charm,” reports a beekeeper named Kirk Webster. “Usually we can’t even locate the few survivors. But when those survivors locate each other, they create a new generation already partly resistant to the chemical. In at least one study it was even shown that resistant mites treated with coumaphos did better than those not treated. In other words, it only took a few years for the mites to evolve in such a way that a previously deadly poison was now being used by them as a resource.” Who’d have ever imagined such a thing?

Kirk Webster is an interesting fellow, one of the more admirable people I know. He lives in a little rented house far at the end of a country road in a New England agricultural valley where he works his hives, producing honey for toast aficionados and for “nucs”—the nuclei of new colonies—to sell to other beekeepers. It’s been his life’s work. He left high school to apprentice himself to beekeepers and lived in various shades of poverty for many years, working out the various beekeeping systems that allowed him, by his middle forties, to be netting $30,000 a year. “After living and enjoying life for so long with so little, this frankly seems like an enormous fortune to me,” he wrote in a lovely series of essays published some years ago by the Small Farmer’s Journal.

Now, in a new series of articles for the American Bee Journal, he describes his efforts to dispense with the CheckMites and Apistans and keep his hives, and his business, going in the face of these quite terrifying mites. To return to a world where “bees could thrive on their own without being propped up by contraptions, medications, or the pronouncements of overeducated people.”

Part of the pleasure of reading his accounts is the simple fun of listening to someone describe technical points you’ll never really understand. It’s like listening to a NASCAR driver describe the way his machine slides on entering a turn, or a hedge-fund adviser wax chipper about some particularly brutal reverse arbitrage he has concocted; there’s always a kind of beauty in expertise. Even if, on occasion, a note of apiary exasperation creeps in as Webster addresses less nimble colleagues. Sometimes he feels the need to both underline and italicize: Forget about queen cells and new queens available in March, April, and May; and learn what you can do with cells and queens produced in June, July, and August. Got it. June, July, and August.

But for most of us, the charm of these writings will have nothing much to do with the ins and outs of keeping bees. (I, for one, am allergic to them, and only visit Kirk in winter, when they’re dormant). Instead, it’s about their value as metaphor. For Kirk Webster’s secret—the way that he’s managed to produce hives that can now withstand the varroa mite—is to do pretty much what the mites did when faced with Apistan. He helps the few survivors meet each other, and through their interbreeding and the careful introduction of bees with natural resistance from other countries, he manages to produce hives with winter survival rates of 70 percent or greater. Even if some good organic controls emerge, he says, he probably wouldn’t use them. He claims his “varroa mites are much more valuable to me alive than dead,” helping cull the weakest bees.

Big beekeepers might have trouble emulating his approach because it’s labor-intensive. The whole point of American agriculture for the last century, after all, has been to produce more with fewer people, a process that has progressed about as far as it’s possible to imagine. And the rest of us will have trouble emulating his approach in our own lives, and in our civic life together—we’re as addicted to the quick fix, the stopgap, the shortcut as it’s possible to get. Fossil fuel, for instance, is the ultimate cure-all for us, solving every problem cheaply and easily. Our own CheckMite. Except that we’re going to raise the planet’s temperature five degrees this century unless we figure out how to do without it.

What Webster makes clear is that we’ve taken the wrong lesson entirely from the hive, picked the wrong metaphor. It’s industrious, like we are. But, with a little gentle help from beekeepers who understand how to undo some of our earlier mistakes, it’s also beautifully in balance. And that’s its real secret.

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BILL McKIBBEN is a regular columnist for Orion magazine. His book, Deep Economy: A Slightly Hopeful Version of What Might Come Next, was published in 2007 by Times Books.

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