Part 1: Sex & Death
Bees are not tweeting amusing little double-entendre-loaded jokes about sex, or hiding in a boat after a massacre, capturing the whole world’s attention. Which is too bad, really, because if bees were tweeting, they’d have a whole lot to say about sex and death. They’d even have a lot to say about full-fledged orgies encompassing massacres and ending in enslavement.
For instance, your local honey bun kicks off with one seamy, steamy affair. It all starts when the virgin queen takes some practice flights, trying out her wings, never used before and soon enough never used again. Her pheromones bring all the drones to the yard—drones, of course, being the small number of male bees that any beehive produces, slackers who do no work, gather no pollen or nectar, and eat what their sisters procure while waiting for their one big shot at glory. That shot arises. The virgin queen takes flight, high and fast into the air, her pheromones signaling that now is when. Drones pursue, and the first fast and fleet enough to mate the flying queen deposits his sperm. With that act, he is disemboweled from jewel to juicy bit and plummets to the earth.
As many as 40-some more drones will follow in that first fellow’s lustful, successful, and gory steps. When the no-longer-virgin queen returns, she will have all the sperm she will ever need in her life, and she will spend the rest of her days laying as many as 2,000 eggs a day over her lifespan. The success of her colony is dictated by the number of partners she achieves on that memorable day. The more partners, the longer her life. Likely, she will not remember the sexy massacre that launched her million children on their path to serving as the vehicles for completing the sex lives of plants. She will remain in the dark, never again flying, enslaved till the end. Natural selection is a bitch.
But not as much a bitch as unnatural selection.
As you’ve no doubt heard by now, honeybees, those sexy beasts, are in severe, catastrophic decline. Pollinating bees contribute as much as $15 billion a year in value to the American agricultural system by pollinating the food that turns into one of every three mouthfuls we eat. However, in the early 2000s beekeepers started noticing their bees vanishing. In 2006 colony collapse disorder was named, and despite a name and a flurry of research and publicity, the American honeybee’s plight is worsening. This past winter a third of commercial bees died, 10 million hives died, and there were barely enough living bees to pollinate important crops such as California almonds, worth $4 billion a year. When Time magazine recently considered the dire state of the honeybee, the author concluded that unless robot bees emerge, we may be leaving the era of commonly available fruit. Are Minnesota apples soon to be as rare as Minnesota moose?
What’s killing all the bees?