The Vanishing of the Honeybees

The ominous news that honeybee populations are collapsing precipitously around the country ought to alarm more of us than almond and apple growers. Scientists in search of the culpable parties have blamed, at various times, pesticides, herbicides, virulent viruses, loss of habitat, and cell-phone radiation. There is one group, however, which brings a special insight to the disappearance of the European honeybee. From the time the first European settlers arrived on this continent, Native Americans marked the westward advance of Euro-American civilization by the arrival of the first honeybees. Today they, like us, might assign more than an incidental meaning to their vanishing.

The European honeybee -- Apis mellifera -- is not a native of North America. The first bees came with the first Europeans. Since there were always more hollow trees in the old-growth forests to the west than in the cleared fields to the east, the bees naturally went west to find locations for their colonies. The honeybees were thought to keep about a hundred miles in advance of the wave of white migration all the way across North America. When the "white man's fly" appeared, Native Americans knew that changes were coming to their world.

After Lewis and Clark left St. Louis in 1804 and proceeded up the Missouri, they observed honeybees at the mouth of the Osage River, fifty miles beyond the last white settlement at La Charette. But when they returned down the river two years later, they noticed that the bees had moved farther west, to the mouth of the Kansas. "They are advancing up the Missouri," Clark would report later. "We saw them in large numbers."

When Washington Irving visited the West twenty-five later, he noted, "It is surprising in what countless swarms the bees have overspread the Far West, within but a moderate number of years. The Indians consider them harbingers of the white man, as the buffalo is of the red man; and say that, in proportion as the bee advances, the Indian and the buffalo retire."

Now that the honeybees are going the way of the buffalo, two questions remain. The first is, what lessons can Americans draw from the disappearance of the creatures that signified westward expansion? And the second is, what rough beasts are now slouching towards us to be born?