I bound naked from the bed, brandishing the biography of Marcus Aurelius
You can’t just squash a creature that was once beloved of Apollo and which mankind has associated, since the beginning, with poetry and rhetoric and the gift of speech itself … you cannot kill a bee
The economic recovery is like the bee population
Long before the alarm clock goes, the buzzing begins, and I am afraid my irritation sometimes gets the better of me. As soon as the sunlight hits the window panes, the dunderheaded insects conceive their lust to be outdoors, sticking their noses into the sexual organs of the flowers, and bonk bonk bonk they start to bash their furry bonces against the glass and buzz buzz buzz they go in frustration until I can take it no more.
I bound naked from the bed, brandishing the 580-page biography (unread) of Marcus Aurelius; and just as I am about to give the brutes a drubbing they will not forget, I pause, and hold my hand, as an Inuit holds his club poised above the head of a baby seal when a Greenpeace activist shouts to him across the floes. I hear the voice of conscience, and Marcus Aurelius trembles in my grip.
Whoa there, says the voice of conscience. You cannot flatten the most popular insect in world history. You can’t just squash a creature that was once beloved of Apollo and which mankind has associated, since the beginning, with poetry and rhetoric and the gift of speech itself. You shouldn’t murder a poor defenceless critter to which we have traditionally ascribed every human virtue from patriotism to thriftiness; and above all, says the voice of conscience, you cannot slaughter a member of a species now thought to be as threatened as the panda. No, friend, says conscience, savouring a rare moment of victory as I lower Marcus Aurelius, you cannot kill a bee.
“Sorry, guv,” say the pest control people when I mention the underfloor infestation. “We don’t touch bees. They’re protected.” When I consult the Rentokil website, I find all sorts of advice about how to massacre wasps and ants, but not bees. If you are lucky enough to have bees in your house, says Rentokil, you must treat them as honoured guests. If you value the future of the planet, you will not touch a bristle of their buzzing little backs.
As all bee experts will testify, there are good grounds for such restraint. The global bee population has recently entered a catastrophic decline, in a syndrome despairingly but vaguely known as “Colony Collapse Disorder”. Thriving bee farms are being turned overnight into ghost towns as workers mysteriously desert their queens; beeswax candles are in short supply; the stocks of honey are running low; and with too few bees to pollinate the plants that make up the very basis of our agriculture, everyone is quoting Albert Einstein to the effect that if the bees go, the human race will perish four years later.
In the great bee crisis, it is impossible not to see the metaphor. Since Homer compared the Greek troops to columns of bees issuing from a hollow rock, bees have stood for mankind’s organisational ability. As Shakespeare puts it, they are creatures that by a rule in nature teach the act of order to a peopled kingdom. Hive of industry; busy as a bee – for centuries these have been the clichés of human economic success.
Well, look at the poor bees now, and look at the world economy. No one knows exactly what has gone wrong with the bees. Some blame the Varroa mite; some blame pesticides; some say they have been put off by all the genetically-modified crops; some say the bees are getting fed up of being carted around to fertilise the Californian fruit and nuts, and have gone on a kind of strike; and some say that their navigational technology is being jammed by humanity’s increasing use of mobile phones.
No one can say why they go off to die on their own, and no one knows exactly where they go – except me, that is. I can tell you that a small but noisy minority has junked the hive and come to live in our house, at least until first light, when they like to rise early and make love to the spring flowers. I have one on my desk in front of me. I am afraid that he has knocked his little bee brains out trying to fly through the window, but you can tell by the fat yellow pollen sacs on his legs that his last day was highly enjoyable. He has been out there pollinating and fertilising in a thoroughly promiscuous way, and later this year, I expect, there will be some apple or cherry that ripens entirely thanks to his efforts.
And that is the point, my friends. The economic recovery is like the bee population, in that you never know exactly where it will turn up. Samson saw the bees swarm in the belly of the lion. Virgil described how you could restore a bee colony by beating a bullock to death and sticking it in a brick kiln. Unlikely though these may sound as places for bee generation, they are nothing like as inhospitable to nature as our house. If I were trying to breed bees myself, they would certainly go the way of our belly-up goldfish, or our hamsters, who all had shamelessly incestuous relationships before expiring of hamster Aids. Here is the most polluted, bee-hostile urban environment you could imagine, the air thick with hairspray and nit cream and the microwaves of umpteen mobiles and other electronic devices – and yet I am proud to say that it is also a refuge for some of the most vulnerable and vital animals in the ecosystem.
I don’t want to make too much of this. I will not claim that I have seen a bee revival, any more than I will claim to have seen the bottom of the market. But when I read the wrist-slitters and the gloomadon-poppers in the Financial Times, and their snooty refusal to see any hope in the recent rallies in stocks or in house prices, then I cannot help thinking of the people who are buying houses, and opening shops, with a determination and confidence that will eventually lead us out of recession; and I think of the amazing animal optimism that urges the bees to try living in my bedroom, and I put Marcus Aurelius back on the shelf where he belongs.
[First published in the Daily Telegraph on 07 April 2009 under the heading:
“Encourage bees to make our economy buzz again.” Photo by Cassie Peters.]