From the Urban Wilderness


For several days now, I’ve been observing the bees hard at work among the dozens of rhododendron blossoms that ornament the small lawn in front of this building. It occurred to me the other day that, without their industrious intervention, such dazzling blossoms would not be possible. For it is through the transporting of pollen from flower to flower that their existence is assured, a process that goes on relatively unnoticed by most and is generally taken for granted.

As children, we called them bumble bees, and we screamed and ran whenever one came near us. In later years, I realized that the familiar, large, black and yellow members of the Bombus insect family are a less interested in annoying me than they are searching for nectar with which to feed their young.

A bumble bee can travel as much as two miles from its hive in search of food for its developing young. And like other bee species, bumble bee populations are declining due to various factors that scientists have not yet been able to determine. A close relative of the honey bee and the wasp, the bumble bee’s flight is more erratic. But it will spend hours inserting its long fuzzy tongue into the throats of whatever flower it happens to come upon, and I’ve watched several of them take turns going into the same blossoms over and over again.

A rhododendron flower is actually composed of from 12 to 20 flowerets, and the bees explore each and every one of them, taking turns and returning several times in the course of several minutes to re-inspect each blossom. In the process of drinking the precious nectar, pollen from the flowers’ anthers attaches itself to the bees’ legs and is deposited onto the pistil, thus beginning the process of fertilization. Bees aren’t the only creatures that carry out this important work. Birds, butterflies, moths and other insects that normally move around inside a flower accomplish the same thing, albeit in different ways. And with some plant species, the wind also plays a role in distributing the pollen to where it has to go to begin the process of creating new plants. It’s easy to see the cycle at work here ”“ the bee searches for nectar, and in the process fertilizes the flowers to create more plants from which it will, in the future, feed. It’s a perfect system that has gone on unhampered for thousands of years until recently, for it appears that scientists are seeing that something is terribly wrong within the world’s bee populations.

Affecting primarily honey bees, the bumble bee’s smaller gold-colored cousins, the phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder affects millions of bees that simply never return to the hive and disappear. No one knows what happens to them, nor does anyone know why it’s happening, and it’s suspected that bumble bee colonies may also be affected. While the jury’s still out as to a cause, another allegedly unrelated incident occurred awhile back in Florida, where the bees from thousands of hives dropped dead suddenly, an incident that was later attributed to the widespread spraying of pesticides to control an unusually high population of mosquitoes. It stands to reason that anything that affects large numbers of bees will also impact the production of honey, a staple in many people’s diets, which points to the seriousness of affairs if bees cannot, for whatever reason, do their jobs. Entire food-production crops would be threatened, thereby affecting global food supplies not only for humans but for livestock as well. Situations such as these illustrate perfectly how connected all of life’s processes are and how crucial is their dependence upon each other for the whole system to work.

Watching the plump black-and-yellow bumble bees hard at work here on the rhododendron flowers serves as a daily reminder to me of this fact, of how closely all of life’s forces are bound, and not just in a lyrical way but in a practical and sometimes even life-threatening way. Our own existence is made possible and depends upon so many other life forms, even a bee’s, as it forages among spring flowers for nectar. Who am I to perceive myself as superior when, without them, I might, in fact, actually cease to be?

— Rachel Lovejoy, a freelance writer living in Springvale, who enjoys exploring the woods of southern Maine, can be reached via email at [email protected].

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