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Essay: Why Do Honeybees Get All the Attention?


Published June 23, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Luke Eastman

Here at Seven Days, we pride ourselves on going straight to the source, whether it's a musician, a poet or the governor. Back in the '90s, when an invasion of zebra mussels was threatening to choke Lake Champlain, we were the only publication to interview one of the arrogant little mollusks.

Recently, we tried something a little different. Rather than interview the ever-popular honeybee, we assembled a group of other pollinators in a blooming meadow to ask them about nature's candy makers. The group was buzzing before we turned on the tape recorder, and we detected a note of resentment, verging on saltiness.

"Honeybees! Honeybees! Honeybees! I'm so fucking sick of hearing about Western honeybees," ranted one bald-faced hornet. "They're not even a wild species anymore, basically just cows with wings. A bunch of stupid domesticated bovine drones."

Wow. And this was not a minority opinion. A black and yellow mud dauber chimed in. "Can we stop talking about honeybees for one brief shining moment maybe? There are more than 300 other bee species in this state, 71 pollinating flies, and 429 moths and butterflies. That's not even counting pollinators like bats, beetles, hummingbirds and—"

"Hummingbirds are creepy!" the hornet retorted. "They're just big feathery meat wasps."

A quarter of the crowd was actual wasps, so this dig set off quite a ruckus. When everybody had calmed down, a cuckoo bee turned on me. "Humans are so easily bribed with a little sugar. For a bunch of vertebrates, you don't have much backbone."

It was starting to get personal. A splendid dagger moth mimicked a lovesick human — not a great bit of acting, but the point came through.

"'Oh, honey, I love you so much. Kiss me, honey! Smooch, smooch, smooch.' BARF."

"You know that honey is bee barf, right?" alleged a white M hairstreak butterfly.

Well, not exactly but—

A soybean looper spoke up. "I'll tell you something you don't know. Bees hate humans for stealing their honey. You're just lucky that they're too stupid to figure out the pattern that's only been going on for eight thousand years. Yeesh, what idiots."

I couldn't tell which idiots she was referring to: honeybees or humans. She went on.

"You think they don't notice because you spray smoke in their face. Let me ask you something. How many humans are killed by bees each year?"

I googled quickly. "Looks like the average is 62 deaths per year."

"Precisely. That's more than sharks, wolves and lions combined. Still think you're outsmarting them? But noooo, you all love your honeybees. Just don't be fooled into thinking they love you."

A rustic Quaker moth nodded. "All we're saying is, nobody dies from moth bites."

"Sweaters do!"

"Sweaters don't have bodies."

Frankly, I stopped listening for a while because the squabbling was so pointless. Better to let them blow off steam for a bit.

Eventually I asked whether anyone had a different angle on the discussion.

A large abbreviated button slug moth spoke up. "Honeybees are nothing special, it's just their name. Big Honey must have hired a fancy publicist and given them a sweet moniker that everybody loves. Nobody ever thinks about us — or sweat bees. They pollinate a lot more flowers than—"

"Please. The name is Halictidae. We don't like to be called 'sweat bees.' It's not our fault you guys don't understand how delicious human perspiration is. But your broader point is certainly true."

"That's right!' added a Formica ant. "What about my name? I don't eat Formica. Do they even make Formica anymore?"

A delicate brown moth couldn't have agreed more strongly. "Humans call me a 'Zabulon skipper.' What does that even mean? It sounds like a starship captain on a third-rate Star Trek knockoff."

"Your name could be a lot worse," grumbled a morose spiny oak slug moth. The small bird-dropping moth nodded vigorously.

All of this talk was starting to make me sweat a little. It was about time to wrap up this focus group. Two tough-looking beewolf wasps laughed menacingly. "I love bees!" said the larger one. His friend added, "Yeah, they're delicious. Har, har, har." An even tougher-looking cow killer wasp growled at them: "Shut up." They did. She scowled, all red and black, as everyone avoided her stare.

After an awkward silence, I asked if anyone was concerned about colony collapse disorder, neonicotinoids and other threats to the honeybee population.

A bumblebee spoke up. "Fine with me if their colonies collapse. Good riddance. Anybody with a nanogram of brains knows it's smarter to build a ground burrow than to hang your house up in the air." The sweat bees agreed, but a huge argument broke out when various hornets and wasps began yelling about flooding, lawn mowers and human feet.

The meeting was soon completely out of control, so we quietly packed up our tape recorders and began to back away. The swarm noticed and started to advance on us, but we created a giant cloud of Natrapel, raced to our car and peeled out.

The moral of the story? Never talk about death, taxes or honey in a gathering of pollinators.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Saltier Than Honey | A focus group of pollinators is miffed that honeybees get all the attention"

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