A dying beehive is a sorry sight. Like a small town after a neutron bomb — houses still standing and pantries filled, but with survivors who are too sick to eat, or care.
In late spring, I had filled each of my two new beehives with about 10,000 bees and their queens. Inside, now, a couple dozen workers meandered, lost in their own home. Some of the cells in the comb were filled with honey, still capped and uneaten. Others held bee larvae, the hive's next generation, shriveled and dead.
With insects still in evidence, this wasn't the dreaded colony collapse disorder (CCD). Another holocaust had hit these hives. Under the beating sun, the sight made me sick.
Granted, one doesn't feel for bees as you might for a dog or cat. Still, there's something sublime about a beehive — the living heart of an elegant microcosm.
At some point, bees made a sweet deal with flowers, increasing the plant's fertility in exchange for nectar. Bees have an equitable, sustainable arrangement with nature.
With a mystery to solve and a killer to catch, I reached into the hive and pulled out a comb of survivors.
If a healthy hive were treated like this, even the gentlest bees would deliver as many stings (and sacrifice as many bees) necessary to stop the attack.
But with no smoke to hide me and no veil for protection, I held the frame aloft. Bees that should have jumped onto my face fell listlessly back into the hive.
I had ruled out CCD, which leaves hives completely and suddenly empty. But neither could I find signs of the other ills that often befall bees: foul brood, mites, worms.
After conferring with other beekeepers, only one explanation remained. My new colonies of bees had been poisoned. Not intentionally, but poisoned all the same.
Now, pesticide is a killer you'd expect to hit bees living in the city. Ironically, though, all the city bees I know are thriving. My bees were country bees, whose hives resided at a friend's house in Little Creek, Del. — a tiny town along the Delaware. The fastest-growing industry in Little Creek is housing, though some here still farm.
For more help, I turned to a friend, an expert in the Delaware Department of Agriculture — to whom I promised anonymity in exchange for candor. "You are surrounded by poison," my friend declared. "On both sides of you are potato fields. And all around you, they spray for mosquitoes.
"Potatoes can't be produced economically here without 'ethyl methyl death.'" Ethyl methyl death isn't an actual insecticide. It's my friend's name for a cocktail of pesticides, whose recipe keeps changing to keep up with the Colorado potato beetle's growing resistance.
If that didn't get them, it seems likely the mosquito insecticide did. "The state keeps spraying," said my friend, "until people stop complaining. Because that's what politicians demand."
So, who's to blame for my hives' demise? That depends on how you look at it. If we need cheap potatoes, blame those who can't pay for something less toxic. Or blame those who want affordable housing, without being tormented by mosquitoes.
Blame an economy that's inherently toxic.
Whatever. My beehives are goners, and with them, a sustainable life that we humans have yet to find for ourselves.