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Sting of the bee

I used to hate bees. I killed them at every opportunity. I didn’t know the difference between a bee and a yellow jacket, so I killed them all indiscriminately … until yellow jackets nearly killed me.I was 10. A buddy and I were intent on chopping down a tree in my backyard. I won the argument (“It’s my house!”) and that decided who would strike the first blow. Little did I know, there was a nest of yellow jackets in the roots of the tree.I swing the hatchet and loosed a few wood chips. Suddenly, my buddy shouted something and ran as fast as he could out of the yard. I watched him go thinking “poor sport!” Then I looked down for the next swing.I was wearing jeans, but they had suddenly turned yellow. Then I noticed a din of buzzing and a dull pain coming from my legs. There were yellow jackets everywhere, swarming out of the ground in a yellow cloud.I dropped the hatchet and ran toward the house, screaming for my parents, who were contentedly finishing their lunch on the screened-in porch. My dad quickly surmised the problem and barred me – the human swarm – from entering. “Stay there!” he shouted, then dashed into the basement.I dutifully waited as dozens of stingers hit their marks. Finally, my dad emerged from the basement bearing an insecticide sprayer from the previous century – a pump canister that emitted a cloud of DDT, which he applied copiously to my pants.Not only was I getting stung, I was soon enveloped in a cloud of poison. The yellow jackets were unfazed. They kept stinging. “Take off your pants!” my dad shouted. Obediently, I dropped my pants and ran into the house. I lay in bed, shaking for an hour from the poison of the stings.I have not appreciated stinging insects ever since … until now. My sympathy for honeybees has suddenly grown now that they are experiencing a massive die-off. My sympathy is mostly self-serving because I have learned how important honeybees are to the human food supply.The bee die-off signals both an environmental calamity and a serious reduction in the pollination of food-producing plants. Crop yields are expected to plummet. Without honeybees, the agricultural system on which we depend may be seriously imperiled.The prime suspects include a parasite, a virus, a bacteria and insecticides. Another suspect is cell phones. Some scientists think cell phone signals interfere with the navigation system of bees, hindering them from returning to their hives.This spring, the American Beekeeping Federation reported: “During the last three months of 2006, we began to receive reports from commercial beekeepers of an alarming number of honeybee colonies dying in the eastern United States. Since the beginning of the year, beekeepers from all over the country have been reporting unprecedented losses.”According to an article in the Independent, “The implications are alarming. Most of the world’s crops depend on pollination by bees. Albert Einstein once said that if the bees disappeared, ‘man would have only four years of life left.'”Pollination by hand, using tiny brushes to spread pollen, may be one solution, but no one understands the broader implications. Nature is speaking loud and clear that something is desperately wrong, that the delicate balance of a vital natural system is skewed.Can we rally an effective campaign to save these industrious creatures? Can we reverse the impacts of pesticides, restore the balance of nature, perhaps give up our cell phones?! Bees represent a life link that we may appreciate only when it’s gone, and that’s the worst sting of all.Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays.


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