On Bees and the Fragility of our Food System

An essay on the eye-witness account of a honeybee massacre.

I recently returned from a mini road trip to Seattle where I doused myself in culture, the arts and some amazing Puerto Rican cuisine. It was a long time in coming and I really relish the chance to don my city shoes, tapered jeans, chic skirt or something other than a pair of grubby work clothes and strictly utilitarian footwear. Visiting the Westside (wet-side) of the Cascades reminds me how very close we are to the Pacific Ocean. It is easy to forget the smell of damp, salty air on our Ponderosa Pine and sun-drenched Eastern Slopes. I love to wake up on a sunny Ballard morning, walk out the door and greet the neighborhood. There is truly a part of me that loves city life….

But after 24 hours of indulging in the privileges that only sidewalks offer, I begin to feel out of sorts and mildly uncomfortable; like wearing a coat that is one size too small. There is a very real and Vulcan-like instinct to assess my surroundings for what they really are…namely an ecologically unsustainable bubble of hipster culture. Sure, there are curbside gardens, but realistically these little 4 ft-by-4ft plots are not capable of feeding a household. At most, you may get a good salad or two once a month and maybe some garnish for your afternoon mojito. At this point, Urban Claustrophobia begins to settle in and I am thankful that I get to jump back into my Subaru and high tail it out of town and back over the mountains to my country roads……almost….

Usually there is some anthropogenically generated roadblock that keeps me from escaping the urban interface unscathed. This trip was no different.

Except, that it was.

This time, the roadblock was a 3 mile back-up at the intersection of I-5 and I-405 just North of town. That morning while eating breakfast, my friend told me he had heard there was some type of accident involving a truckload of bees. As I drove North out of Seattle and gradually lumbered to a rolling stop with all of the other late morning commuters, it occurred to me that I may have found myself taking part as an eye-witness to this bee massacre. Slowly, each lane crept forward in the timeless ‘stop-and-go’ dance that is now an unavoidable part of suburban life. I kept to the outside lane hoping to catch a glimpse of the over-turned truck.

The first signal of the approaching accident site was the honeybee that careened into my windshield about 300 yards South of the crash site. As we crept closer, small clouds of disoriented bees zigged and zagged between the traffic until the over-turned truck was in sight. It was a beautiful, warm day and the windows of my car were wide open. Approximately 200 feet from the crash I was hit with the overwhelming smell of honeycomb and wax; the scent any bee-keeper knows only too well.

The sight that lay before me was devastating. My heart ached in a way that I have never before experienced as I lay eyes on the mountain of broken bee boxes,supers, frames and comb; all having been pushed into a massive pile on the side of the road by WashDOT in an attempt to re-open one of the 3 lanes of Northbound Interstate. The carnage stood over 15 feet high. A fire truck stood nearby supplying a high powered stream of water to the first responders who were vigorously soaping and scrubbing the freeway free of honey. Alongside the guardrail, in full bee suits were the 3 Latino farm workers who were invariably in charge of the large load. Meanwhile, lost bees continued to fly in search of their missing queen, their brood, their homes.

It was seeing the farm workers with their grim expressions, that really brought home the devastation of this event. The likelihood of them being gainfully employed was quickly slipping away with each broom-stroke. The farmer who had been expecting this shipment of bees to pollinate their crop would be getting the call that, indeed, no bees would be coming, as the window for pollination steadily drew to a close. The owner of the hives would also be receiving a call informing them that they were no longer the owner of some 100 or more bee colonies; a season of contracts negated prematurely with countless other farms left short on pollinators for the upcoming season. And most tragically, the hundreds of thousands (if not millions)of bees whose houses had been lost that day were nearly and almost undoubtedly destined to die as well. With no queen, no brood and nowhere to go, they continued to fly aimlessly, encountering one windshield after the next.

Who writes the insurance policy for a flatbed of bees?

And this is the system we have built for ourselves. In our ever increasing enthusiasm for playing God to the Natural World, we have placed ourselves precariously in exactly this position. We are continuously increasing the level of responsibility that We Humans have over the well-being of the World’s many Creatures. Our folly is the undoing of the lives of our subjugates. In mythology, the persecuted cursed the gods for their callous disregard. Have we not become our own protagonists?

I will remain obstinate to a paradigm that carelessly tampers with the natural order of our intricate living systems until we have proved ourselves worthy of such a position. From my perspective, we have a long way to go.

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