The Disappearing Bees: Facts, Research and Myths

Reader Contribution by Lauren Holt
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Well, I didn’t get to see as much of the bee-a-thon as I wanted to last Saturday, but there are a few things I learned. Fun facts, mythology, iconic symbolism and conservation of disappearing bees were just a few of the topics the bee-a-thon covered.

First, a bit about the scientific classification of bees. The family name is Apidae, which includes honey bees, stingless bees, bumblebees, carpenter bees, orchid bees and cuckoo bees. The first three species in that list form colonies, and the others are solitary. Some species carry flower nectar to fee larvae rather than pollen. The most common bee species in the Northern Hemisphere is sweat bees, but the most well known are honey bees–most of the honey bees that are raised by beekeepers in the U.S. come from Italy and Germany.  Interestingly, I learned that honey bees can’t see red, but they can see all other colors human can, plus ultraviolet blue, and they navigate with a combination of cues form gravity, vision and the location of the sun.

One of my favorite aspects of the bee-a-thon was its recognition of the global importance of bees and their interaction with the world community and environment. I got to see part of an interview with Dr. Peter Kwapong, director of the International Stingless Bee Centre For Research in Ghana. The Centre is an environmental and educational resource investigating the activities and biodiversity conservation of stingless bees. The Centre is also intended to encourage food and medicinal production and be a source of eco-tourism and job-creation for the country. I felt that the point of a need for interaction between scientific researchers and the general community was especially relevant, and it links in perfectly with the Great Bee Count and the Great Sunflower Project.   

Gretchen LeBuhn an Associate Professor at the University of California Santa Barbara is the person who began the Great Bee Count. The intent of the project is to engage communities in caring for and aiding the conservation of bees. Each 15-minute session of watching your garden and counting bees helps to create a map of bee population density and migration habits. The technology available to us now will help to spread this information so that we can determine the true health of bee populations as well as examine the breadth of bee species in the world.  

Join the Great Bee Count to help save these helpful pollinators.
Photo by Paul Stein/Courtesy

One thing that I wanted to see but ended up missing was information about the cultural mythology surrounding bees. I thought that sounded fascinating, so I when I realized I’d missed the segment I did some extra research.

According to the information I was able to find, bees appear in the iconology of ancient culture of the near east and the Aegeans, often representing a bridge between the physical world of the living and the spiritual world of the dead. Other cultures have viewed the bee as the human soul that flees the body at death. The bee was also venerated in some Mayan cities, as well as in ancient Greek religion and mythology. Priestesses of Artemis and Demeter were called bees, and priestesses of Potnia, a Minoan-Mycenean goddess, were called “Melissa” (bee–also the root of the scientific name for lemon balm, Melissa officinalis). Egyptian myth tells that the first bees were formed from the tears of Ra (the sun god). Heraldry uses the bee as a symbol of diligence and constant effort, and this beneficial insect has served as a symbol of royalty in several cultures. Bees were–due to their association with immortality and resurrection.  

Bees are also held to be symbols of eloquence and speech, an association linked to both Hebrew etymology and the ancient Greek philosophers. In culinary tradition the bee (or, more specifically, honey) is associated with rich food and sweet things, and is often held sacred as a food of the gods or a source of knowledge and divinity. Folklore indicates that beekeepers should keep strong, healthy relationships with their bees, treating them as members of the household and informing them of any significant events so that they feel they are part of the community and will not fly away.  

Lastly, I did get to see the interview with Aaron Levenntman a film curator Bioneer (social and scientific innovators focused on living with Earth’s natural systems of life) who talked about the Queen of the Sun documentary. It looks rather inspiring, if perhaps a bit silly and strange at times (some beekeepers can seem a bit odd to the rest of society). You can read more about the film and its exploration of the crisis our world faces as bee populations dwindle here, on Mother Earth News.   

And if you have a few minutes, go sign up for the Great Bee Count! It’s a Citizen Science project in conjunction with The Great Sunflower Project that’s intended to help track bee populations around the country. All it takes is 15 minutes of watching your garden!

More about bees in the garden:
Attract Pollinators with HerbsThe Herb Companion
Body & Soul: Bee-Friendly Gardening TipsThe Herb Companion 
Please Bees with GermanderThe Herb Companion

About beekeeping:
Put a Buzz in Your garden with BeesThe Herb Companion 
GRIT’s Guide to Backyard Bees and HoneyGRIT magazine 
Abuzz Over Top-bar BeekeepingMother Earth News

About disappearing bees:
In the News: Are Cell Phones Killing Honeybees? – Herbal Living 
Fresh Clips: Colony Collapse Disorder UpdateThe Herb Companion 
Colony Collapse: Are Pesticides Killing Honeybees?Mother Earth News 

More about bee mythology:
Mythology of bees, honey
The Bee Goddess

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