A woman in a desolate corner of North Macedonia claimed to be the last wild beekeeper in Europe made a splash at the Oscars. Her story told in Honeyland took three years to produce on a slim budget and was never expected to win acclaim. I rate movies by how long they stay in my head. Five minutes? Five hours? This time it was still ringing the next day. I recommend watching it.
In the first scene we watch Hatidze Muratova, a vigorous woman of about 50 years old and ethnically Turkic, climbing a rocky precipice to check a bee colony. She removes a covering stone with bare hands to reveal a yellow honeycomb covered with bees. The insects would normally attack an intruder, but not her.
Her life in a deserted village was a spartan existence in a stone shack. It might have been otherwise for the able and intelligent woman, but her father forbade marriage because the youngest daughter was expected to stay with aged parents at home. He had passed away and now she cared for a bedridden mother (who dies). A hard tradition, but Hatidze was happy and obviously sociable at the Skopje market where she bartered jars of honey.
When a family of nomads turned up with a herd of cattle to settle among the ruins of the village, the story moves from the tenderness of home to a tense relationship with new neighbors. They are poor but their lives are more turbulent from poor decisions. Since Hatidze made her living from beekeeping, they hoped to make more income by building an apiary. Later in the season when honeycomb should be saved for the bees in winter they harvested all the honey, forcing their starving bees raid Hatidze’s hives.
She was friendly with one of the sons, teaching him the art of beekeeping. Her philosophy was to take half the honey for herself and leave the rest for them. The boy took the message home, but his father didn’t listen.
This is not just the story of a fascinating character struggling to manage relationships. It was her elementary philosophy that stayed in my head—take half and leave half. It’s a fine mantra for earth care.
For countless thousands of years humans had a negligible impact on earth. Our numbers were low and technology was primitive. The lives of hunter gatherers were probably short, but they lived sustainably. Neolithic people gave up nomadism for settlements where they grew crops and grazed animals. These were more prosperous times but living closer to each other and to their animals promoted disease, theft and a social hierarchy. Choices require trade-offs.
Settlement meant the ability to store harvests and accumulate wealth, so greed and excess are corollaries. Not satisfied with sufficiency, forests are chopped down, sea-beds scraped by trawlers and valuable ore mined to exhaustion for maximum profit regardless of the interests of future generations. The beekeeper of Bekirlija leads a wiser life that seems no less happy for not being conventionally rich.
It was one of those throw-away remarks that stick in the mind. I was at Middlebury College in June when somebody at dinner said, “Funny, I saw more deer on the journey here than insects splattered on my windshield.” He had driven 200 miles through farmlands to Vermont.
It reminded me of a 75% decline of insect populations over the past thirty years in German nature reserves. The news might be welcome if they were only the biting and stinging kinds, but the list included butterflies, wild bees, and dragonflies. The survey was more striking for being in nature reserves! Unfortunately, they are not strictly reserved for nature because pesticides drift from nearby fields, and climate is shifting everywhere. There are also reports that insects are less common in Spain and Britain, and that reminds me of struggles to keep honey bees here in Virginia.
Discouraged by the loss of two colonies last year, I put my labor into growing more pollinator-friendly plants instead. Mountain mint is currently my favorite. I am happy to see this native plant gradually invade fallow areas of garden because it competes against Japanese stiltgrass that smothers the ground and is inedible to browsing rabbits and deer. The mint has a pleasing odor to attract hundreds of pollinators of many kinds, including bee visitors from an unknown apiary.
I doubt there are many homeowners in the district who are trying to attract bugs. If neighbors knew they might restock their sprays and give their chemical lawns and flower borders an extra coating of toxins to ensure they are sterile. Bugs have few friends, although we make exceptions of butterflies, bees and a few others.
On May 28 the city of Williamsburg recommended a service to residents for fogging their yards, and encouraged the battle by playing up the risk of Zika, malaria, West Nile virus, and Yellow Fever. You might imagine from the announcement we live in a tropical swamp! Meanwhile the US military conducts aerial spraying of its land, sending local beekeepers scurrying to cover their hives. Sprays are no respecters of species; they kill beneficial insects along with mosquitoes.
And yet I hear people ask why friendly insects are less common than in the past. And they wonder about fewer garden birds, bats, and frogs too. Perhaps we can’t have the good without the bad. I will tolerate some bites and stings for the sake of biodiversity, but then what are they to a beekeeper?
It matters if we are facing ‘Insectageddon’ because, at halfway down the food pyramid, many insects provide pollination services. Others eat invertebrates below and/ or provide food for animals and birds above. The environmental writer-activist at the Guardian George Monbiot believes the disappearance of insects caused by modern farming practices and the industrial vacuuming of marine life pose the two greatest existential threats to life on the planet, greater even than climate warming. An alarming warning by Harvard ecologist E.O. Wilson has gone viral: “If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed ten thousand years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.”
Getting public attention on bugs is an uphill struggle, except to eliminate them. Since people left farming in droves in the last century for sterile condominiums in cities there are fewer people who notice a difference in the air. And even professional ecologists are more detached from nature if they spend time nerdishly in front of screens. That’s why we need more citizen scientists in the community, those amateurs whose passion takes them outdoors to record observations like naturalists of yore.
For my part, I only have anecdotal stories as a gardener-naturalist, not the quantitative data needed to monitor historical changes in insect populations. I notice fewer fireflies and butterflies in my backyard than 17 years ago. What was then semi-rural is now semi-urban, with all that implies.
But when I took an evening drive last month along country roads in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia I had an experience I used to take for granted, and the memory came back as a jolt. It was like driving through lightly falling snow. The landscape was filled with moths. Is it a coincidence that the area is thinly populated and old farms that fell on hard times have become fallow meadows? By the time I reached home my car was splattered, and I realized it was something to celebrate instead of grumble. It suggested a new project for amateur naturalists to monitor insects from the comfort of their driving seat. The only effort required will be to wipe license plates clean of corpses after recording data in mph (moths per hour).
Bee stings … an occupational hazard for beekeepers. The price paid for hosting hives and stealing their honey. I score about three hits per season, and they are generally deserved from carelessly zipping my beesuit. But honey bee stings don’t give the biggest punch: that dubious honor is held by the tarantula hawk and the bullet ant, each scoring 4 out of 4 on the Schmidt Sting Pain Index.
Dr. Justin Schmidt is a doughty entomologist at the University of Arizona (The Sting of the Wild). Over a career he has invited stings from every hymenopteran species he encountered. He gave a score of only 1 to some ants and small bees whose stings didn’t hurt much or for long. Most honeybee varieties scored 2, which I can report gets my attention. Red paper wasps and velvet ants were at 3. Few species reached the top of the range – a blinding pain that feels extreme/ excruciating/ electric – and yet the pain from a ¼” tarantula hawk sting is long over (if not forgotten) before a honeybee’s sting has started to fade. Why the difference? Why do some insect stings give crippling pain while others are as mild as pressing a pencil tip on the skin, and many fierce-looking bugs don’t or can’t sting? Nature presents many conundrums, but this isn’t one of them because stinging makes sense in biology.
The hawks lay their eggs inside tarantulas which are eaten alive after their larvae hatch. They rarely sting us unless we try really hard to annoy them, as Dr. Schmidt must have done to obtain “data”. Why should they shoot their big gun when we don’t normally threaten them? As solitary wasps they have no “home” to protect. The mud-dauber wasps are also solitary, often making a tubular nest of dried mud on the sidings of our home. Schmidt tried very hard to get them to sting him, and when one was sufficiently enraged it hardly hurt.
Honey bees and yellow jackets, on the other hand, are colony dwellers that store food during warm seasons to support them with their queen through the winter in readiness for a burst of foraging and reproduction in early spring. Their honeycomb must be defended at all costs, which they do aggressively whenever a beekeeper inspects his/ her hives. But honey bees rarely sting while they are feeding in a garden or meadow unless you trap them between your toes, etc.
During the hot Virginia summer large numbers of bees gather at the side of our pool to take water back to their hive for air-conditioning. I can impress visitors by nonchalantly wading through a buzzing cloud, trusting they won’t sting me clad only in swimming trunks. For the same reason that they are relatively docile away from their food store, a swarm of bees that is emigrating to create a new colony is quite passive, even though it may look terrifying. But there is a different explanation for the old trick of circus performers who dared to pour bees into their mouths – by carefully selecting drones they can’t be stung.
Queen bees possess a sting, but they leave hive defense to workers and reserve their swords for dispatching rival queens. There is another difference between them. Queens can sting repeatedly, whereas it is a death sentence for workers because their anatomy requires stings to be ejected with some of the viscera.
Human sensibilities might deem their sacrifice altruistic for defending the hive’s socialist society, but surely natural selection could have evolved a superior warrior bee that can sting and survive, just as many other species can and do? Perhaps the explanation is that death is required for the release of a special pheromone for attracting other bees to escalate attacking a threat. This pheromone is a mixture of volatile fatty acids said to smell like bananas, and beekeepers lightly smoke their hives to pacify bees by masking the scent. I can hardly blame them for being angry, and in a feminist poem Sylvia Plath sympathized with female workers whose bounty is stolen by (male) beekeepers:
One of the scariest encounters you might have on a hiking trail in the South-West is with a mountain lion, but I would rather take my chances with the big cat than with a swarm of Africanized bees (aka killer bees). They are spreading north in states from Texas to California. A young man died this summer after a bee attack, as have several dogs and even horses. Africanized bees can’t be outrun, wait for you to come up for air if you jump in a pool, and can’t be fought off except with fire. They don’t have a more painful sting but are more aggressive – much, much more aggressive.
The victim wasn’t reported to be allergic, but the thousand stings on his body exceeded the lethal dose for bee venom. The major active agent in venom is an acidic peptide, melittin, which has anti-inflammatory properties and is probably responsible for its long-supposed medicinal value in the Orient. So there may be virtue in it, even while we try to avoid stings or carry an EpiPen as a precaution.
There is an outsized fear of being stung that beekeepers have to shrug off. But, apart from the 30 minutes of pain, let’s put a perspective on the big risk – of dying from bee stings.
According to CDC statistics for human mortality from wild and domesticated animals for the fifteen years to 2014, 486 people died from dog attacks, 1,163 from other mammals (mostly cattle and horses), 9 from crocodilians, about 15 from black bears and only one from a mountain lion. But 921 people died after being stung by bees, wasps or hornets, although most of them are thought to have been allergic to the venom. This is not a huge risk compared to others we face, and it is one that I dare say beekeepers hardly think about, but if we could compare the total number of attacks from all these species, combining non-fatal and fatal ones, I am sure bee stings would soar above all. And what do all these figures reveal – that we put ourselves most at risk not from ferocious wild carnivores but from the creatures we choose to live with or steal from.
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