The Dying of the Bees

This week I started to teach the last novel of the semester, Sue Monk Kidd’s THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES.¬† This is the story of a young motherless girl who lives on a South Carolina peach farm and throughout the story, bees are a significant symbol, first of the young hero’s fears and fantasies, and then later for the health of her community and the hope for her own future.

I’ve used other novels through the course of the semester to explore issues that are important to our region-the vanishing of wild land in James Dickey’s DELIVERANCE and Ron Rash’s SAINTS AT THE RIVER; and class, family, and gender struggles in Josephine Humphries’ RICH IN LOVE and Dorothy Allison’s BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA.

South Carolina has a rich and diverse tradition of contemporary fiction, and it’s easy to find great plots, characters, and settings in novels either written by South Carolinians or about the Palmetto State. It’s possible to find a South Carolina story to illuminate almost anything on the minds of modern Americans. We have developed a native grown fiction that fits our culture.

So I felt both lucky and sad that at the moment we started THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES the news was full of stories about billions of bees dying across North America. “Colony Collapse Disorder,” the scientists are calling it. In some areas up to 90 percent of bee colonies have died.

There have been many theories so far as to what is causing the massive die-off of the bees: climate change, genetically modified crops, and the most disturbing of all, the proliferation of cell phone signals disorienting the navigation systems of worker bees as they return to the hives.

My students were concerned, but only a few of them had heard the news. Jon Stewart, it seems, had not decided to riff on the dying of the bees. So what would happen, I asked, if all the bees died?

Well, someone said, we’d need a footnote to understand Sue Monk Kidd’s title since no one would have personal experience with bees as reality, much less symbol.

Another student who was in a botany class assured us the news would not be good. Bees are important pollinators for many of the crops we love-peaches, blueberries, apples.

What then would happen if they all died? This question was beyond the scope of an English class, so in fine academic fashion my student promised to ask her professor the next day what would happen if we did not have the bees to help us out with agriculture.

Someone else said he wasn’t really worried because if the bees died off we would figure out another way to pollinate our plants. That’s what technology is for, to get us out of these sorts of jams. He seemed particularly worried though about the idea that cell phone signals were causing the bee crisis, not because of concern for avian health, but because it might interfere with his service somehow. I had a feeling that he would have the same attitude about symbols if they suddenly vanished from literature.

I thought of my own experience with bees. Like the character in Kidd’s novel I remember as a child punching holes in the lids of jelly jars, catching¬† honey bees, and watching closely as they buzzed at the glass barrier. These insects captured in the clover fields of my front yard were maybe one of my first close encounters with natural history.

Of course, I remember songs with references to honey. I remember sweetening iced tea with it. I remember driving on a back road over a hill on the Minnesota prairie one morning in early June decades ago and descending into a swarm of millions of honey bees. They were so thick I had to pull over and let them pass by before traveling on.

Lately I’ve taken to reading on our screened porch with the door open, and every bee that slips in to be stymied by the screens I’ve rescued with a cup and a piece of paper to be released back into the garden. It’s my little effort to save the honey bees.

There are scientists meeting to explore the causes of Colony Collapse Disorder, but one thing is certain, this spring will be one of the most silent since honey bees spread with the colonists after they were brought to North America by the Dutch in the 18th century.

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