...And I'll tell it and speak it and think it and breathe it... -- Bob Dylan

Friday, June 18, 2010

Seventeen Million Honeybees

The ecologist and the philosopher meet at the question: What is 'natural'?  And upon considering this question, also come to the question: Is 'natural' always good, everything else bad?  After all, human beings are a part and product of nature, so doesn't it follow that everything human beings create is inherently natural?  And if the ecologist and philosopher agree that 'natural' is good, then doesn't that mean that Ayn Rand was right after all, that all human activity, including those that don't seem to be virtuous on the surface, are, in fact, good?  Maybe we should all quit complaining and simply celebrate all we have achieved and renew our efforts to do more.

I read in Acres USA of an "accident" on Interstate 35 in Minnesota in May which involved a semitrailer.  This particular accident might not have made any news nor ever come into my consciousness had it not been for the rather unique cargo of this truck.  It contained about seven thousand honeybee hives and an estimated seventeen million honeybees.  That's right -- seventeen million bees on one truck.  Apparently, the bees were rather pissed at the whole situation, and began swarming around the scene of the accident, which I imagine made for less than optimal working conditions for the responders who's job it was to clean up.  So the bees were doused with fire hoses in an effort to scatter them away from what was left of their homes.

Seventeen million bees on one truck.  Yes, that is a rather unique cargo and challenge for an accident, but neither the cargo itself nor the accident are unique.  Truth is, there are literally thousands of "accidents" on our highways every year, many involving trucks carrying various loads of "natural" (i.e. man-made and glorious) cargo.  And the presence of some seventeen million honeybees on one truck is, unfortunately, not an unheard-of load for one of the thousands of fifty-three foot long boxes that careen across this country at sixty-some miles an hour every day.  And while it is not unheard-of, and while I am not in this precise moment going to attempt to define what is natural and what is not, I am going to go out on a limb and say that containing seventeen million honeybees in one box and sending that box hundreds or thousands of miles across the country on highways crowded with lots of other metal boxes of various sizes all going this way and that at sixty-plus miles per hour is definitely not natural.  At least not to the bees.

Bees are, naturally, territorial creatures -- they establish themselves in a hive and workers go out and about to what is probably to them distant lands, searching for nectar to bring back home.  And in the process of doing this, these "distant lands" become part of the their territory.  In this sense, they are not too different from us humans, in an evolutionary sense.  That can pretty much describe how humanity has lived for most of our several million years of existence, until perhaps the last two or three hundred.   Somewhere along the line, we abandoned our "natural" way of being for something different.  One consequence of our adapting this new, non-natural way of living was that on one day last month seventeen million honeybees were suddenly and "accidentally" shaken from their homes in a completely foreign place and then sprayed with water until they "dispersed."  Another consequence is that every year millions upon millions of bees are transported thousands of miles away from their own territories to perform a service for us humans, each time having to reacquaint themselves with their new environments.  Scientists aren't sure, but many suspect that this is a rather stressful experience for bees, and living with this kind of stress may be one reason that so many bee colonies are disappearing.

I write this reflection so that we may consider one important indicator in attempting to answer those questions about what is natural and what is good.  That indicator is scale.  Humans have invented a world in which everything, they believe, must grow, must become big; and have at the same time lost some of our capacity to appreciate how nature's scales are often different than our own.  Yes, we know there are insect colonies in nature that number into the millions of creatures, and we know that there are animals that routinely migrate thousands of miles.  But the scale of our honeybee commerce is anything but natural, and may ultimately cause the collapse of a part of nature on which we depend.  When we ask what is natural, and by implication at least a hint of what is good, we should consider scale.  We should seek to live and tinker within the bounds of what is natural, that is, what was common before and outside the onslaught of human industrialization.

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