What do 50,000 dying bees look like? A writhing scatter of black, swept by early morning brooms at a Target parking lot in Wilsonville, OR. It is old news now, all the way back in June, but it sticks with me: 50,000 bees, feeding on the linden trees. A neonicotinoid pesticide was applied to the trees to control aphids, which create a sticky secretion that was dripping on cars in the parking lot.
Neonicotinoids—“neonics”-- are neurotoxic. Even in small amounts they can impact bees’ immune systems and brain functioning. They are also ingredients in the most popular home, garden, agricultural and industrial pesticides.
50,000 bees is a droplet in the teeming sea of our ecosystem, but a score of these drops is a bucket, a bathtub, a river of dying insects essential to the plants, our food, our lives.
Four years ago this October, I began a garden. Settled in a house for the first time in a while, I planned to root in the only way I’ve ever known: dig deep. I was raised with subsistence gardens, learned small-scale organic farming from my parents, fruiting and flowering techniques from neighbors and permaculture from books and practice. In twenty years I’ve planted at least as many gardens, leaving behind a legacy of raised beds, berms and perennials at every house I’ve ever lived in. Almost.
The house I’d moved into was built in the 1940’s and had a long swath of south-facing neglected lawn. That autumn I sheet mulched and from the neighbor’s maple leaves made a bed for peas and lettuce in the early spring. Later, employing my partner and children in the endeavor, we mulched much of the upper yard and the parking strip. That next summer we brought in five yards of compost and topsoil, and planted natives, medicinal herbs, and a full vegetable plot.
The garden quickly became a community center. Our sunflowers were gossip magnets, our cherry tomatoes beloved snacks, our three sisters plot of corn, beans and squash a hiding place for wayward dogs and children. We left one section of grasses long, allowed the Queen Anne’s Lace to flourish and bloom, a favorite of the pollinators. Rare insects and birds were sighted; even an owl graced our little city lot.
In three years time, there was little lawn left. My gardens are never tidy. They are fecund and weedy and wild. Sometimes I would feel the pinch of shame that those of us whose clothes are never totally pressed, whose nails are not free of soil, experience in the presence of groomed-ness.
Not everyone likes wild things.
In Celtic myth, bees are the messengers between humans and the spirit world.
In the Norse tales, bees feed on the dew of Yggdrasil, the World Tree.
Mead is the most ancient fermented drink, said to give the sipper the gift of poetic inspiration.
This summer I sat at a wedding table with two Classics scholars from the University of Washington who told me that bees to the Greeks and Romans were symbols of divinity, the soul, love, mysteries, femininity, community, the military and life’s sweetness.
Through the world, bees have been sacred beings, gift givers, with guardians and priestesses to tend and communicate the will of the hive.
An apiary is a traditional home for bees, usually honeybees, also known as a bee yard. My garden was an apiary, housing thousands of bees in every variety.
When I was a child I learned a little poem:
It’s the start of spring
Ever since I look for bees as the harbingers of springtime. At the height of summer I love to sit in a flowering place and watch them…the colors are astounding, the hum tangible deep inside my chest. As autumn closes, the darkening days and rains bring an end to the bee visits. A first frost, and the bee yard is quiet for a while.
This past June I was trying to put in my vegetable garden, but something felt wrong. The beds created four years ago were all rich with humus, the established herbs, shrubs and flowers exuberant in their growth. But I felt a hesitation in my heart, and after returning from the farm store empty handed I received an email from our landlord stating that she was sorry but she needed to make a balloon payment on her mortgage. She was selling our home.
The listing agent didn’t like the garden. He thought it made the house look small. Two weeks after we moved out, they hired a landscaper to tear up the plants, level the soil and spread the bare yard with bark mulch.
Albert Einstein said that if bees disappeared, humankind would have four years of life before we too would become extinct. What would those four years look like?
A partial list of plants the bees loved in my garden:
Aster, mint, sunflower, monkey flower, twinberry, willow, California poppy, red currant, hazel, sage, angelica, fennel, buckwheat, goldenrod, rose, dandelion, phacelia, calendula, bleeding heart, chrysanthemum, forget me not, lavender, coneflower, rosemary (for remembrance).
Names of native bees endangered or believed extinct according to the Xerces Society:
Western bumble bee, rusty patched bumble bee, yellow banded bumble bee, American bumble bee, Franklin’s bumble bee.
Type of bees primarily killed by the poison in Wilsonville:
Albert Einstein also said there were two ways to live your life. One as if nothing is a miracle. The other as though everything is a miracle.
In our common human history, we all have ancestors who saw the world as miraculous, and themselves a part of the intricate cycles that govern life. Even in our earliest history, the hum of a bumblebee in the center of the flower was next month’s fruit. The sun ripened the fruit, the rain watered it, and if we sang the appropriate songs, offered our reverence, life continued on.
I don’t have a garden now. We are living in an apartment, saving money and biding time until we can buy a home of our own. The apartment is ringed by tended lawns, weed less borders. But at the edge of our complex is a field with wild asters, mugwort and blackberries. If I listen, I can hear them say that the sacred is sacred, whether we choose to see it or not. There is a call deep in our blood to revere, protect, understand and sweeten each day with love of the wild things. In our yards, in the byways, in the farmlands. In ourselves.