Whose Job Is It to Save the Planet, Anyway?

By John Kelly
Wednesday, July 11, 2007

There was an electric thrum in our back yard the other day. It wasn't coming from a downed power line but from a swarm of bees that had encased a neighbor's tree trunk like a huge, furry carbuncle.

WHOOoom-WHOOoom-WHOOoom, it went, thousands of honeybees in a pulsating mass.

It's a natural phenomenon, my neighbor Rene Barnes said, having looked it up on the Web. When it's time for a hive to move, the bees gather somewhere to magically create a new queen while scouts look for a new location. Rene said they could be in his tree for a few hours or for a few days.

I went inside and got my notebook and pen. I had a few questions.

Four or five bees flew past me without a second look from their compound eyes before I finally convinced one to stop. It was a female, a worker bee, and she landed atop the coiled metal binder of my reporter's notebook.

"Where are you going?" I asked.

"Past five dandelions, left at the butterfly bush, over the creek, right at the second stump and then to the big tree with a hole in the trunk where the sun slants at a 78-degree angle," she said in her tiny voice.

"No," I said. "Where are you going? Your kind is disappearing. Honeybee colonies all over the United States and Europe are vanishing. That's driving up the price of honey. Some experts predict things could get even worse. Your kind pollinates fruit trees and nut trees and vegetable crops. You are what's called a keystone species. The disappearance of honeybees could mean ecological collapse, famine and the end of life on this planet as we know it."

"Oh, that," she said, picking at some pollen stuck to one of her legs. "Well, I'm not really sure that's my problem."

"Not your problem?" I gasped. "The end of life, and it's not your problem?"

"The end of human life," she corrected. "Do you know this song by the pop-rock band Steely Dan? I sometimes hear it at picnics, when I've stopped to suck some nectar from the rim of a soda can and a boombox is playing. The song goes, 'I'm a fool to do your dirty work, oh yeah. I don't want to do your dirty work no more.' Frankly, we've gotten tired of all this pollinating, especially given the way you treat us."

"But we love you," I said. "We hold bees up as an emblem of industry and organization. In decorative arts, you are a motif that means plenty. We absolutely adore your honey. We put it in everything from breakfast cereal to cough syrup to shampoo."

The bee responded: "First of all, do you even know what honey is? It's bee vomit. Second, did it ever occur to you that we might like some of that sweet, sweet bee vomit? But no. We spend hours collecting pollen, sucking nectar and making honey, and then humans in big white hats come and take it. You swat us when we stray too close to you. You talk about a 'hive mentality' as if that was a bad thing. Why should we stick around? We're leaving."

A few other worker bees had gathered by this point, and there were tiny chirps of "Tell him, sister!" and "You go, nonreproductive female!"

And with that, the swarm flew off the tree, formed a gigantic question mark in the air and then buzzed off for parts unknown.

Bee Season

Okay, so I didn't have a conversation with a honeybee, but there was a swarming hive in my neighbor's tree the other day. Montgomery County beekeeper Marc Hoffman came and removed it.

He calmed the thousands of bees with smoke and then used his bare hands to scoop them into a plastic box. He was excited to be able to adopt the colony, given the problems beekeepers in our area -- and across the country -- have been having.

This hive, he said, was going to an orchard in Cloverly. As for what is causing the bees' disappearance, Marc said, "The real answer is, we don't know."

Send a Kid to Camp

For most of this year's Send a Kid to Camp campaign, we've been running ahead of last year's pace. The midweek Fourth of July holiday slowed things down last week, so we need to kick it up a notch. Our goal by July 26: $475,000. Our total so far: $222,497.63.

To make your tax-deductible donation to our summer camp for at-risk kids:

Make a check or money order payable to "Send a Kid to Camp" and mail it to P.O. Box 96237, Washington, D.C. 20090-6237.

To contribute online, go to http://www.washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

To donate by MasterCard or Visa by phone, call 202-334-5100.

Or cool off on a hot day by going to any area McCormick & Schmick's or M&S Grill and ordering the upside-down apple pie topped with Great Falls vanilla ice cream. Proceeds benefit Send a Kid to Camp.

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