As the HD article by Danielle King reported, there has been a precipitous decline in the population of honey bees in recent years due to a phenomenon called colony collapse disease (CCD). In fact CCD has devastated the bee population to a point where there is concern about the survival of the species. It is imperative to get more people interested in and trained to become beekeepers.
Upon researching the writings of my ancestor Dr. Gideon Lincecum, I learned that he was a beekeeper who recognized the importance of bees not only as producers of honey but also to pollinate flowering crops. Experimenting with bees to see how they could work for him in different ways, Gid kept as many hives as he could manage. He trained his bees to become friendly with him and some even chose to cling to his beard. One scientific article he published gave instructions for preventing a predator, the bee moth, from raiding hives. He was ahead of his time in warning others about threats to the bee population.
The main reason for alarm over the current decline in bee populations is the estimate that one third of the human food supply depends on pollination, most of which is accomplished by bees. Since wild honey bees are now almost nonexistent in this country, the pollination of crops has to be accomplished by contractors who keep bees for that purpose and move them to farmers’ fields as needed.
The causes of colony collapse are varied, and they include global warming and the heavy use of pesticides, as well as a deadly fungus and a certain type of mite that kill bees. Warnings about the lack of safe habitat for bees have led to some positive steps, such as the establishment of bee colonies on the rooftops of tall buildings in some cities and the planting of flowering plants in urban parks and other protected areas. Training more amateur beekeepers will also help.
A recent “Science Friday” broadcast on National Public Radio discussed experiments with bees that were easily trained to push a soccer ball toward a chosen goal in order to receive a “sweet” reward. These experiments were anticipated by my ancestor Gideon, when he wrote “Our bees are susceptible of training and can be taught extensively. I consider them very intellectual and capable of receiving training from the human genus [mankind].”
In speaking of the “splendidly organized brain” of his bees, Gideon supported the judgment of contemporary scientists that bees are highly intelligent and capable of performing complex tasks that require cognitive thinking. For example, in the experiment with pushing a soccer ball, the bees were smart enough to figure out which ball was closer to the goal that earned them a reward.
As for the current problem that makes bees a threatened species, the best solution is to encourage more beekeepers and conserve the habitat these hardworking insects need to survive. Not only does our society depend on bees to pollinate flowers and food crops, I don’t want to give up my snack of honey mixed with peanut butter.
Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches older adults to write their autobiographies and family histories. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.