The suit is your safety. So, even though I looked ridiculous in it, I didn’t mind putting on the bulky white jumpsuit, a wide-brimmed, veiled hat and elbow-length gloves. The box was heavier than I expected. And something else: It was buzzing. As I gingerly carried it to the backyard, my husband and teenage sons took up position to spectate from a safe distance.
I think they assumed that I knew what I was doing because I had been trained. I had been trained, but two months of an “Intro to Beekeeping” course does not an expert make. And, really, what can prepare a neophyte for her first encounter with 10,000 stinging insects?
I thought it was a good idea, months ago, to take the class offered by the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance. I’d been on a waiting list for more than a year. Then one day in December, I got an email telling me that there were 20 open slots for the course in January. The waiting list was 500 people strong. I knew little about bees, but I had long been curious. And I wondered if having a hive would make any difference in the world.
By the time the email arrived, I had been reading about insects and the threats to them that sound so dire - habitat loss; climate change; air, water, and light pollution; disease; and others.
The effects are real and all around us, with the Eastern monarch butterfly a good example. “The 2016 monarch count showed that over the past 22 years, these butterflies declined by 68 percent, with the population at 150 million butterflies,” according to the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group.
In January, the center reported that, although the monarch remained in need of protection, the numbers had increased somewhat, crediting “all the people who planted native milkweeds and switched to organic corn and soy products.”
In June, the University of Maryland reported that U.S. beekeepers lost nearly 40 percent of their honey bee colonies last winter. This was the worst decline recorded over 13 years in a nationwide survey.
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Scientists who reviewed 73 historical reports on insects concluded in an analysis published in the journal Biological Conservation that 40 percent of the world’s insects are in such serious decline that they could become extinct.
Worldwide, insects are going extinct eight times faster than mammals, birds and reptiles. Is that cause for alarm? Stuff is going extinct all the time. In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History,” Elizabeth Kolbert explains that this is the sixth time in world history that a large number of species have disappeared in rapid succession.
Entomologists will tell you that what we’ve been experiencing with insects up to now has been extinction with a lowercase “e.” You’ll hear them talk about “functional” extinction. That’s when a species is no longer prevalent enough to support an ecosystem. Its absence causes hiccups. Animals that eat the missing insects, for example, have to eat something else. Or, leave the ecosystem. The more these connections are lost, the more unstable an ecosystem becomes.
A 2013 paper in Nature found that if even 30 percent of a species is lost, the effects can be so devastating other species in that system can go extinct.
“If insects were to vanish,” Harvard entomologist E.O. Wilson said, “the environment would collapse into chaos.”
Insects make life possible for the rest of us. We can’t live without them. Many amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals chow down on insects as their sole food source. Even we eat them.
Insects play a vital role in food webs. Some insects feed on other insects, keeping pest populations in check. Some feed on decaying plant and animal matter, breaking down dead things into the building blocks of new life.
About 75 percent of our key crops rely on animals - primarily insects - for pollination. Insects even provide valuable products, such as honey, beeswax, silk and medicines.
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Maybe I can’t change the whole world, but I can take charge of my own backyard. So, when that email arrived, I said yes to beekeeping class.
I soon found myself jammed into a stifling auditorium at the University of the District of Columbia in the dead of winter with 80 aspiring beekeepers. We were encouraged, even on that first night, to ask questions.
I had a few: Like, how reasonably sure could a person be that she wouldn’t be stung by all these bees? How reasonably sure could she be that she wouldn’t go into anaphylactic shock and die an agonizing death in her own backyard within full view of her children?
I think they were expecting different questions, such as “What’s the recommended treatment for varroa mites?”
The truth is, it’s hard to care about something we fear, and insects have that going against them.
Many of us are afraid they’ll bite us. We’re afraid they’ll contaminate things. So, it was with some relief that I learned that my odds of survival were actually pretty good - maybe 1 in 10,000 bees might be inclined to sting. And I shouldn’t even have that one disgruntled bee if I was doing things properly. So, I paid attention in class, asked a lot more questions and did all my homework.
The more I learned about bees, the more I understood their importance.
Each bee makes a tiny contribution that collectively helps pollinate our planet and keeps not only our backyard flowers flourishing but our food supply growing. That something so small could have such an impact is astonishing.
I decided to get a hive. Which brings me to the box of 10,000 bees.
I set it down in the yard next to my empty hive. I reviewed, for the millionth time in my head, the procedure. I knew what to do but had not realized until this moment the emotional component. By now, I wasn’t afraid of getting stung, I feared they might all fly away.
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The box had been secured with copious amounts of tape. When I cut the tape, I felt a surge under the lid. That faint buzzing was now more like an agitated hum. Taking a deep breath, I lifted the lid. Bees - Italian honeybees - began spilling out. There were five frames inside the box. Each frame had hundreds of cells. Each cell was filled with an egg, larva or pupa, or some amount of pollen, nectar or capped honey. The frames were teeming with bees - workers, drones and one majestic queen.
I reached my gloved hands into the box to lift out the first frame and transfer it to my hive. What followed was 15 minutes of awe and wonder. And maybe a little panic.
Transferring the bees to their new home was only the beginning.
A beekeeper’s spring and summer are filled with weekly tasks to monitor the health of the hive. You have to be vigilant. You can’t believe how much fresh water they need. A healthy hive can go through more than a gallon of water a day. You feed them sugar water when pollen sources run low. You make sure they have enough space in the hive, adding more space when they don’t. You battle small hive beetles, varroa mites and other pests that weaken the colony.
At the same time, I’m hoping to learn more about grubs and maggots and butterflies and cockroaches. Not to mention skeeters, pill bugs, beetles, stink bugs, mantids and all manner of other creepy-crawlies. Why stop with bees? If we don’t know and understand our world, how can we preserve it?
Insects are resilient. They reproduce quickly. We aren’t too late. We can turn things around.
Becoming a beekeeper may not be for you. But no amount of change is too small. Simple things can make a huge difference: Put away the pesticides. Plant some flowers. Watch your carbon footprint. Volunteer to count fireflies or butterflies or ladybugs in your community. Support organizations that work specifically on conservation for insects.
Maybe in some ways, I’m like the bee now. I’m not going to save the planet single-handedly with my hive. But if I’m lucky, my 10,000 bees will become a colony of 60,000 by summer’s end.
That’s how we change the world - one tiny bee at a time.