Yellow, Black, and Blues

What We Know / by Joe Kloc /

A look at our agricultural past may explain why honey bees around the world began disappearing three years ago.

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Illustration: Joe Kloc

Consider the story of the 1951 Muddy Waters song “Honey Bee”: When Waters arrived in Chicago in 1943 he found no audience for what he called the “sad old-time blues” that he’d learned growing up in Mississippi, listening to delta greats like Son House and Robert Johnson. So he spent the next couple years working full-time factory jobs as he tried to find a place for his woeful southern songs in the hot Chicago music scene alive with dancing pianos and swing jazz.

Then in 1945 Waters’ uncle gave him an electric guitar. It was this event that music historian Ted Gioia later called “a major step forward in the history of Chicago Blues, a harbinger of the electrified sound of that music.” Waters crafted his songs to fit the new instrument’s piercing volume and confidence. At the age of 33 he had his first hit, and soon after found himself in a recording studio for Chess records, solidifying his increasingly singular sound as he laid down three soon-to-be top-10 hits on the Billboard R&B Chart.

“Sail on, sail on my little honey bee, sail on…” he cried, with all the joy of a man who had struggled for more than a decade, unappreciated, before finally succeeding in creating something truly original. “Honey Bee” was an electrified version of a song he had written years back on a cotton plantation in Mississippi. In some ways, it was just another blues song: the bee, with its long stinger and its sweet honey, had long been a staple of sexual imagery in the blues (“I got a bumble bee… he got all the stinger I need,” sang Memphis Minnie in 1929). But Waters had recast the honey bee from a sexual symbol to an ideal of dependable love, made bitter by worry: In lyrics strung out by the blue notes of the guitar, he wonders if despite his lover’s constancy, she may never return. “…I don’t mind you sailing,” he howled, “but please don’t sail so long.”

Muddy Waters had made the honey bee “synonymous with the pains and frustrations associated with love and intimacy,” writes Tammy Horn in Bees in America: How the Honey Bee Shaped a Nation. And the entertainment industry was only the most visible force in shaping the honey bee as the societal metaphor of the day. By the 1950s, Apis mellifera was also being used to describe, “difficult power struggles between races, between spouses, between political parties, between generations, between legal rulings.” A decade ago, it might have seemed unlikely that there would be any real connection between the story of Waters’ “Honey Bee” and that of the European honey bee in North America. But since 2006, when bees began disappearing in record numbers as the result of a mysterious ailment known as Colony Collapse Disorder, scientific investigations into the honey bee’s history have revealed that, just as the honey bee was coming to symbolize Chicago’s struggling labor class, it was itself weakening under the modern industrial agriculture system it was tasked with maintaining. The story of the honey bee—like that of “Honey Bee”—is, at bottom, the story of modernization. And stopping the bees’ disappearance is ultimately a question of understanding this story. What’s left to ask, after three years of research, is why has that been so hard to do.

Only a superficial account of the honey bee disappearance, the events that began to unfold in the fall of 2006, can be told with certainty: On November 12 a beekeeper named Dave Hackenberg went to check on his honey bees feasting on a Floridian field of Brazilian peppers. Hackenberg lived in Pennsylvania, but as a migratory beekeeper he had spent the past 40 years trucking his hives around the country to pollinate crops in places as far away as California. Alarm set in that day in Florida when he noticed that very few bees from his 400 colonies were buzzing around. He approached one of the hive boxes and lifted off the top. As is the case with almost all commercial beehives, each box contained a series of removable wooden frames inside which the bees had built their honeycomb. One-by-one Hackenberg pulled the frames from the box and examined the comb, only to discover that most of the bees were gone. He ran from hive to hive and almost every time found the same thing. All but 32 of his colonies had been lost.

Shortly after, other East Coast-based migratory operations waiting out the winter on farms in California, Oklahoma, and Texas began reporting similar colony losses, sometimes as high as 90 to 100 percent. By late February 2007, non-migratory commercial operations were reporting losses in the Mid-Atlantic and Pacific Northwest. The honey bees, responsible for pollinating about 23 percent of US crops, were disappearing. All told, estimates indicate that between 615,000 and 875,000 of the nation’s 2.4 million honey bee colonies were lost that winter. Some losses are expected each year, understood to be the result of mites and other factors. But in 2006, these losses had increased dramatically, and the cause of 25 percent of them could not be identified.

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