To bee or not to bee?

Hamlet was right, that really is the question, and it is far more crucial than most average folks realize. Honeybees are on the wane in North America, and that’s extremely bad news for those of us who depend on food as a regular part of our diet.

Honeybees are crucial pollinators for a wide range of flowering plants and there aren’t any replacements waiting in the wings (or on the wing). None of the other pollinator species visit as wide a range of plants, and all of their populations have been crashing as well. From hummingbirds to bats to butterflies and moths, the news is the same: Habitat loss, pesticides, climate change and disease are sending our planetary pollination team on a bobsled run to oblivion.

A recent proclamation by Asheville Mayor Terry Bellamy clearly limned the bee problem: “The honeybee is in trouble — not just in our great state, but across the entire country. Recently imported pests and diseases have devastated a population that has evolved no defense. Wild bees have largely disappeared, and farmers are growing more dependent on the managed hives of beekeepers to successfully pollinate their crops.” Unfortunately, the pests and diseases have taken their toll on domestic bees as well, and the number of hives in North Carolina has dropped by about 50 percent since 1982.

The potential economic effect of the loss of honeybees is enormous. Agricultural experts estimate that economic importance of honeybees to the state’s farmers is over $100 million annually.

In an effort to recruit more beekeepers to add to the domestic “flock,” and to increase the expertise of those already engaged in apiary husbandry, the Western North Carolina Beekeepers offer free classes at Asheville High School to wannabe(e)s. Bellamy’s proclamation named February “Honeybee Awareness Month” in Asheville, to coincide with the group’s effort.

The series of classes started in January and will conclude on March 6, with presentations in both beginner and advanced tracks. Attendance at earlier classes is not a prerequisite. In fact, dropping in on just a class or two could help guide anyone tempted to take up beekeeping.

As a once and future beekeeper, I can attest to the magic and delight of such husbandry. I will have to do some catch-up learning myself when I re-enter the hive, because my experience dates back more than 30 years, to an era when today’s scourges of mites and disease hadn’t entered the picture. But I fully expect the actual practice to remain wonderful in a very childlike sense of that word.

The experience of working with an open hive, with thousands of bees all about, witnessing their work and understanding their function on a basic level is to partake of the essence of life in a very intimate way. Changes in bee behavior and the expansion and contraction of the worker force through the seasons and finding that bees fly their wings off at the peak of floral blooms — literally working themselves to death, put a beekeeper in close touch with animal rhythms. Any gardener or farmer has a necessary link to sunlight, day length, rainfall and the cycle of birth, growth and death that comprise the garden year. Beekeeping broadens that connection, and today, given bees dire straits, there is added urgency to the enterprise.

We all need more beekeepers keeping bees.

If you are drawn to learn more about the thrills and agonies of apiculture, visit the WNC Beekeepers on the Web at wncbees.org.

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About Cecil Bothwell
A writer for Mountain Xpress since three years before there WAS an MX--back in the days of GreenLine. Former managing editor of the paper, founding editor of the Warren Wilson College environmental journal, Heartstone, member of the national editorial board of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, publisher of Brave Ulysses Books, radio host of "Blows Against the Empire" on WPVM-LP 103.5 FM, co-author of the best selling guide Finding your way in Asheville. Lives with three cats, macs and cacti. His other car is a canoe. Paints, plays music and for the past five years has been researching and soon to publish a critical biography--Billy Graham: Prince of War:

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