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Spadina Literary Review  —  edition 14 page 20



Bee Time
Lessons from the Hive

by Mark L. Winston
Harvard University Press;
ISBN 978-0-674-36839-2

reviewed by
Clement Peddington

Bee Time is an interesting book if you’re interested in bees or in the natural world in general or in mankind’s ascent/fall from nature or maybe in the question of free or unfree will. Biologist Mark Winston doesn’t discuss all of these matters directly, but they will likely arise in your own mind while reading his book.

Bees evolved from wasps about 125 million years ago. They had the trait that when they landed on flowers their hairs picked up pollen grains which subsequently got shed onto other flowers the bees visited. Thus did bees become go-betweens in the sexual life of flowers, while flowers slyly evolved features that attracted bees. This bee/plant symbiosis has contributed to our human bounty: according to Winston, bees pollinate one-third of our crops, including many fruits, nuts, berries, and vegetables.

Winston’s main concern in this book is the honeybee, which had the decisive ability not just to manufacture honey out of floral nectar but also to store that honey — an undertaking that in turn required a complex society with division of labor, actually a caste society.

Humans have been involved with the honeybee since pre-historic times. There are cave paintings that show our ancient sweet-toothed ancestors raiding bee hives, and getting stung. From tomb and temple murals we know there were beekeepers tending domesticated hives in ancient Egypt.

So right about now you’re probably thinking: Just as flowers induced bees to serve their interests, did bees use honey to make humans serve bee interests, for example by setting bees up in industrial rows of prefab hives?

If so, they may regret their choice.

Yes, any book about nature nowadays, you know there’s bad news coming. In this case it’s Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a malady, first proclaimed in 2006, in which seemingly thriving honeybee hives suddenly turn up empty. CCD is a “global catastrophe” that afflicts a third of honeybee colonies each year, says Winston, and without bees as pollinators, humanity's food supply is in peril.

Now, some writers totally reject and/or deride this idea of a “Beepocalypse.” In truth, the last stats I checked — on Agriculture Canada’s website — indicate that the number of honeybee colonies in this country is rising, not falling. But Winston takes CCD as a fact and points to a number of factors, all ultimately man-made, which at least we can readily believe aren’t doing the bees much good.

For one thing, there’s stress. You might not realize how much honeybees have been industrialized in modern times. Some U.S. operations manage up to 70,000 colonies, hosing them with artificial feed and antibiotics (to ward off bee diseases), and trucking them around the continent to pollinate various crops at different times of year.