For want of a bee: a lament for their demise

Lynda MacGibbon, 12 June 2009,

The bee was the size of an adult's thumb and strong enough to nudge the screen door open an inch or two. It was big enough to scare a scream from my housemate, Ashley, whose unhappy childhood encounter with a bee perhaps explains her anxious behaviour.

Eventually, between the two of them -- one screaming and opening the door, the other buzzing distractedly, the bee was freed. Ashley lived to tell the tale.

I should have more sympathy for Ashley. As a child she suffered her share of stings. But, truthfully, when it comes to bees, I'm in their corner. Humans can fend for themselves.

To her credit, Ashley doesn't despise bees -- she's just afraid of them, which must make life at my house a bit of a nightmare for her. My back doorstep is bordered by two flower beds packed with purple coneflowers, roses and black-eyed Susans. A massive honeysuckle bush hangs over one corner of the deck. This is bee heaven. And Ashley hell.

But I would never pull up the flowers or cut down the honeysuckle because every day I spy bees big and small buzzing in the foliage. Right now the bush is in full bloom and a day doesn't go without dozens of bees happily nuzzling the nectar. Once the flowers at the backdoor start to pop, there will always be a big fat honey bee, or its smaller wild cousin, perched prettily centre stage.

I delight in finding bees in my garden because it gives me hope for these winged creatures who serve such an important role in our ecosystem.

But I worry about them too, for increasingly in North America, there are reports of their demise.

Just this week, in an article in this newspaper, bee specialist Michel Melanson reported that more than 40 per cent of New Brunswick's bee colonies didn't make it through the winter. The culprit appears to be the Varroa mite, a small blood-sucking parasite that feeds on bee larvae and maturing bees, weakening, deforming and ultimately killing them.

There are other theories about why bees are in decline across North America. Researchers are looking at how pesticide use affects bees; conspiracy theorists suggest cell phone signals confuse bees, causing them to lose their sense of direction and thus lose track of their hive; and economists suggest the lack of bees is more perception than reality. Crops that need bees for pollination are being planted at a faster rate than bees can colonize. The little critters just can't keep up and when a parasite invades their colony, disaster looms.

Whatever the reason, we ought to be concerned. Our world needs bees and not just for the golden honey they produce.

Bees pollinate all sorts of crops but in New Brunswick it's the blueberry producers who are especially worried about the declining numbers of these small, but mighty, agricultural partners. In our province, blueberry production has increased to 28,000 fields from 20,000 in the last nine years. Producers are now cultivating 15 million kilograms a year in an industry worth $21 million.

This increased blueberry production, and the resulting increased consumption by humans is a good thing. Blueberries are considered the number one antioxidant fruit, or, to put it another way, the fruit that contains the best combination of vitamins, minerals and enzymes for fighting cancer. Antioxidants neutralize free radicals, the neutrons that damage human cells and lead to cancer.

So you can see why we need bees. They pollinate blueberry plants, which we eat, which helps us stay healthy.

As I think about the demise of bees, an old children's rhyme buzzes through my head:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost, for want of a horse the rider was lost, for want of a rider the battle was lost, for want of a battle the kingdom was lost, and all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

I find myself rewriting the poem as a lament:

For want of a bee, the blueberries were lost, for want of the blueberries, a life was lost and all for the want of a bee.

I'm not in complete despair about the future life of bees. These hefty, rotund insects have puzzled scientist for decades -- how do they fly when that seems aerodynamically impossible? Apparently we humans have finally figured out that mystery (it has to do with the way their wings beat).

Now let's figure out why bees are in decline and reverse the damage this problem causing in our world.

Bees might frighten us every now and then, but we need them. Even Ashley would agree with me there.

Lynda MacGibbon is a writer living in Riverview. She can be reached at

Reprinted with permission from the author. First appeared at