The bee is an extraordinary animal.
Leaning out to admire the evolutionary path that led to the affirmation of such a complex and in a certain sense “perfect” social insect leads us in a wonderful journey through the plant and animal kingdom and to very profound questions about the balance of ecosystems.
In fact, before the bee was a bee, the world was essentially one-colored (it was obviously green, but to the bee’s eye it must have appeared as a kind of colorless gray). Plants needed only the precious chlorophyll to live, that is, the pigment that allows them to transform sunlight into nourishment. As far as their diffusion is concerned, plants essentially relied on asexual reproduction techniques, or on some more complex cross-reproduction strategy, therefore capable of guaranteeing substantial genetic enrichment from generation to generation. However, the gametes were entrusted to quite unreliable natural forces like the wind. Obviously these reproductive techniques are still abundantly observed in nature today, but there is a substantial part of the plant kingdom (the angiosperms) which, about 130 million years ago, made a fundamental evolutionary leap, together with pollinating insects, and which thus gave life to the world of colors and perfumes, flowers and fruits that we love so much.
In the meantime, plants “understood” that a flying insect greedy for sugars and proteins could carry the precious pollen, or genetic heritage, from the stamens of a flower of an individual to the ovary hidden in a flower of another individual …. well, in the meantime a bee that wasn’t quite a bee yet, traded strong predatory jaws for a long straw made like a proboscis to better suck the hidden nectar, and filled its body with soft hairs that would involuntarily fill with pollen in the act. Meanwhile the plants invented the most stunning, colorful and fragrant flowers to win the competition with their angiosperm plant companions, bees equipped themselves with a bag capable of holding the nectar collected to then stow it in a nest, and with incredibly efficient brushes, they would pack the pollen (protein source) into comfortable balls that can be easily transported on the bags placed in the hind legs.
However, what is even more surprising, these “almost bees” organized themselves into increasingly close-knit families, so close that they became a complex society of super-specialized individuals. Now, at this point, it is almost inevitable to run into the analogy with us human beings and our society. Doing so, however, is certainly a mistake, perhaps also given by the irresistible anthropocentrism that pushes us to measure any natural phenomenon with our species as a parameter (and ultimately affirms the superiority of human kind). In fact, a family of bees is so much to be biologically classifiable as one “superorganism“: it is more accurate to consider a single bee as a “cell” of the real animal, the hive, which consists of about 50 thousand bees). Within a hive, only the queen possesses the active and fertile reproductive organ, and the drones (male bees) have the male genital organs. The organs that allow the supply of food and water, or the construction of the nest, are exclusive assets of the worker bee population.
This extraordinary evolutionary path makes the honey bee one of the most efficient and successful species in the history of competition (and cooperation, of course) among all genomes since the time of the primordial era. There are even those who consider the bee a pet, but this is really far from reality. As the entomologist Giorgio Celli pointed out, if man disappeared from the face of the earth, the bees would not care at all. Or rather, they probably wouldn’t even notice. (And Celli always provokes us by imagining a Chihuahua wandering desperately through deserted cities, or corn plants which are so often selected for commercial purposes that he fantasizes they would no longer be able to survive and re-seed without the help of farmers).
No, the bee is not a pet. Thank god, homo sapiens has never managed to manipulate its genetic makeup with selection strokes, because in fact the way in which the sexual act takes place between bees makes it particularly difficult for the human breeder to intrude. (Obviously there are those nowadays who are finally succeeding, but let’s say that at least so far the bees have managed to escape). Already Pliny, in his Historia Naturalis, had written “neque mansueti neque feri” to describe the bee as not domestic but still docile in a certain sense. This is because humans have built with bees a relationship of symbiosis, rather than domination and mutual dependence. That is, humans are undoubtedly dependent on bees, but they are for ecological reasons, as they are from earthworms that make the soil fertile and from phytoplankton that brings oxygen into the atmosphere.
And here we come to the topic that you surely expected to find when reading this article… the “bees die-off”. To understand the extent of the problem, it is necessary to grasp the fact that the angiosperms, which have evolved as such, require pollinating insects for cross fertilization (of which the honey bee contributes for 85%). They cannot produce fruits and seeds without the help from these little animals. Homo sapiens, which feeds on (and ultimately depends on) many fruits of the plants in question, should he kill the bees, he would find himself without food when considering that two thirds of the cultivated plants are angiosperms whose pollination is carried out by insects. But why do bees die?
The countryside, a place that in our imagination represents the archetype of ‘nature’ and healthiness, has, in many ways, become the most polluted and man-made environment of all. Agriculture practices seem no longer able to do without spreading tanks of insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and fertilisers, raking the fields with heavy all-purpose tractors and covering them with plastic tarpaulins and greenhouses. In the apple orchards in Valtellina, for example, 30-35 treatments are carried out each year. Not to mention vineyards and, let alone wheat and maize, among other fields. Yet apple trees are precisely among the angiosperms that do not produce fruit if they are not pollinated by pollinating insects.
Moreover, from a bird’s-eye view, much of the countryside takes on the sad appearance of squares of a single carpet, bare and all the same for much of the year, where wild environments and trees are increasingly scarce. Bees, which need many different blooms to survive and which, for much of the year, provide them with food, find themselves in an environment deprived of their usual biodiversity, with much less wild vegetation to feed on and their surroundings being poisoned (bare fields). Climate change is putting what is left at risk: the precious blooms are increasingly damaged by spring frosts and abnormal weather patterns.
Beekeepers, who establish a symbiotic relationship with bees in order to obtain honey, propolis and other products, are the first to realise that bees in the countryside are under severe stress. Many of them are killed by poison that farmers use in their fields (poison that in any case gets into the air, accumulates in the soil and runs off into watercourses), and all of them suffer from the impoverishment and alteration of their habitat. Agriculture has become an ecological disaster, and the way homo sapiens produce their food today is appalling. The death of pollinating insects, with their essential and wonderful role in the ecosystem, is a very worrying matter. If they were to disappear, adding to the long list of species going extinct due to human activities, it would probably be the most striking and remarkable event of homo sapiens’ short existence on Earth, triggering a chain of cascading consequences that would change the face of the planet forever.
There is a real need for alternative forms of agriculture to large-scale production, which do not use poison and do not destroy the soil or the biodiversity of the land. This certainly means preserving areas where bees and other pollinating insects (how beautiful are bumblebees?) can still find their habitat. But it also means ensuring that intensive agriculture stops causing incalculable damage, the effects of which affect all of us and a myriad of other living creatures.
Those of us who do not farm, but care about the fate of bees, can still try to support non-industrial agriculture through our consumption choices. And we can also try our hand at growing melliferous plants such as lavender and thyme in our gardens, on our balconies and window sills. Even in the city, where, paradoxically, bees often find a home.
by Matilde Brunetti
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