Right now there are millions of bees pollinating blueberries in Maine. About 60,000 honeybee colonies, each with a population in the tens of thousands, have been transported to the state; for about three weeks, they’ll buzz from blueberry bush to blueberry bush, transporting pollen and thereby perpetuating the blueberry life cycle. When these bees are spent, they’ll be shipped elsewhere — likely to Massachusetts, where they’ll do their dance of love among the cranberry bogs.
It’s easy to forget, when our fingers are stained with blueberry juice and our plates are filled with cranberry sauce, that these four-winged, five-eyed insects help feed us (it’s also pretty difficult to remember when you’ve got a stinger planted in your arm). Bees are a crucial part of our agricultural infrastructure — to the tune of $14.6 billion annually, according to a 2000 Cornell University research paper. From almonds to apples, alfalfa to avocados, about one-third of our diet is dependent on honeybee pollination. That’s why, when entire colonies of bees started dropping dead in the middle of the last decade, farmers and beekeepers started paying close attention.
They call the plague Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), and its mysterious causes (and human ramifications) are the subject of a lovely 2009 Fastnet Films documentary, Colony. The film will screen next Saturday as part of SPACE Gallery’s “Food + Farm” series, and while there have been no documented cases of CCD in Maine (where there are about 10 commercial beekeeping operations), Maine State Beekeepers Association president Erin MacGregor-Forbes still thinks we should pay attention.
“Honeybees are a kind of harbinger,” she says, blaming CCD on a triad of causes: 1) large-scale exposure to new parasites and viruses among colonies that are transported around the country according to agricultural calendars; 2) lethal combinations of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides whose effects aren’t fully known; 3) monoculture — the bees subsist purely on blueberry pollen for three weeks, then cranberry pollen, then who-knows-what pollen, amounting to poor, unbalanced nutrition and weaker immune systems. What all these causes have in common is that they are aspects of so-called Big-Ag — are bees showing us just how dangerous that monolith can be?
Other documentaries, books, and organizations have shown us how smaller-scale, diversified operations are better for the Earth, or for our personal health. But now, bees might be buzzing with the same message.
“Beekeeping used to be a very agriculture-centered thing . . . [beekeepers] had a livestock-y attitude” toward their bee colonies, MacGregor-Forbes says. But today, at the Bee Schools and educational programs she runs around Maine, “the majority of the people who I see now are much smaller scale, they’re gardeners . . . they keep their bees as pets, which is about as awesome for bees as you can get.”
If you have the proper education, of course. While beekeeping may be the next frontier in urban agriculture — there are close to 500 registered beekeepers in Maine, some of whom keep backyard hives right here in Portland — doing it properly still requires the right tools and knowledge. To that end, there are a number of Bee Schools around Maine each spring (this year’s “packages,” like a starter set with a queen and a nuclear hive, were delivered at the end of the spring session of Bee School in mid-April). Good places to start learning more are: the Maine State Beekeepers Association (mainebeekeepers.org), Rick Cooper’s beekeeping operation (bees-n-me.com), or Erin MacGregor-Forbes’s Web site (overlandhoney.com).