Why the Bees Are Dying: An Ancient Solution to a Modern Problem

I'm seeing news of bees' demise everywhere -- most recently in Whole Foods' visionary photo of its half-empty produce section in a world without bees. It brought to mind the frightening prophecy (though falsely attributed to Einstein and perhaps questionable) that mankind would have only four years to live if bees disappeared from the face of the earth.

It also brought to mind a question I grappled with during my days as a grad student in the Classics at Columbia. It concerns a scene in Virgil's Georgics (4. 281 - 558), where the beekeeper, Aristaeus, suddenly loses all of his bees through sickness and hunger.

The poet begins his story of Aristaeus by addressing "anyone [whose] whole stock [of bees] has failed him...[anyone who] knows not how to restore the race in a new line." Then he reveals the solution: the bugonia, a method "whereby often, in the past, the putrid blood of slain bullocks has engendered bees."

The ensuing description of the bugonia, a rather gory sacrificial ritual, is practically rendered as a step-by-step how-to guide. But the results are miraculous and surreal. From the emulsified, rotting flesh of a sacrificed bull carcass, a new swarm of bees springs spontaneously.

There exist varying versions of the ritual. Whether it was actually practiced or not, my intention is to explore the bugonia as a timeless mythic trope instructive to us now in the midst of our own bee crisis.

When his bees die, Aristaeus is devastated and perplexed. In seeking the cause of their death, he appeals to the sea-god Proteus, who eventually yields the answer. The bees' death is punishment for a grave crime, which is revealed as Aristaeus' role in Eurydice's death. (Eurydice was the beloved wife of the legendary musician, Orpheus.) Aristaeus had chased the nymph, who fleeing from him, ran along a river, where a snake, hidden by the bank, fatally bit her.

The narrative then segues into perhaps the most famous part of the story -- Orpheus' journey to the Underworld to retrieve the dead Eurydice, albeit unsuccessfully. Though Virgil describes the bereaved Orpheus as inciting the punishment against Aristaeus, the actual penalty, the death of the bees, is exacted by the Nymphae, the fellow sisters of Eurydice, who herself was an oak nymph.

Nymphs were minor female nature deities, typically associated with particular locations or landforms. They inhabited mountains and groves, rivers, dells and cool grottoes; they were free and loved to dance and sing. We may regard them as personifications of the creative activities of nature itself, most aptly described by the life-giving outflow of springs.

Aristaeus was a culture hero, honored for introducing such civilizing skills not only of beekeeping, but also of curdling milk to make cheese and taming wild oleaster to bear olives. In other words, he worked with the raw resources of nature, coaxing and plumbing them to bear their fruits for the good of mankind.

If nature, or the nymphs, is the domain of Aristaeus' expertise, then perhaps it is not specifically sexual lust that drives him to chase Eurydice, but more generally, the human instinct for exploiting nature for profit.

To atone for this crime, Aristaeus is instructed to perform the bugonia, which as mentioned above involves the sacrifice of bulls. The bull is a particularly symbolic animal, in that it is exemplary of the instinctual, semi-domesticated passions of man.

We can see this very symbolism in the Spanish bullfight, where the matador plays the hero, superior than the average man, pitted against a seemingly impossible, life-threatening task. In confronting the enraged bull, he is face-to-face with the instinctual passions of his own animal nature. But the eventual killing is not a haphazard, brutal slaughter; it is a disciplined, ritual act, entailing steps as detailed as those which Aristaeus follows for the bugonia.

In the introduction to A World Without Bees, authors Benjamin and McCallum reiterate the sentiment that bees are the canary in the coalmine of the Earth. Their health is a clear harbinger of the future welfare of our planet.

Though the demise of Aristaeus' bees is described as punishment and a penalty for his crime, it is neither inexplicable nor unwarranted. In fact, it is a consequence of his transgressive abuse of the natural world that provides such constant bounty for our sustenance. His excesses have upset the balance of nature, a precursor to illness and disease. From this perspective, the death of the bees seems to be merely a response, a reaction as starkly logical as the most basic law of physics.

Since the introduction of the term CCD, colony collapse disorder, coined in 2007, scientists, entomologists and beekeepers have speculated on the precise cause of the precipitous and continuous decline of the bee population. Benjamin and McCallum cite the possibilities: "genetically modified crops, pesticide poisoning, invasive parasites, malnutrition, and the stress of being moved long distances" as well as overwork.

It seems that we're again committing the common error of searching for a single cause, some unified theory, for a complex phenomenon. Rarely is there only one reason. All of the above are valid causes. Each is an example of our Aristaean propensity to obliviously, greedily plunder the Earth without a thought to the ecological consequences. The result is disequilibrium and disease.

The only common solution would be a change in our attitude to the earth -- to understand that the earth is animate, and that we are in a constant dialogue with it. And when we treat it disrespectfully, it will not remain inert, but respond in kind, as the nymphs did to Aristaeus, with the death of the bees.

Aristaeus is a hero because his journey entails the emblematic, obligatory initiation through death to rebirth. A new swarm of bees is born from the dead bulls. But the journey's real value to the hero is a conscious recognition of his crime and the consequent refinement of his natural instincts. Its value to us is a timeless lesson to heed and emulate towards resolving our current, very pressing crisis.

Like Aristaeus, we must make a sacrifice. A sacrifice of our greed for profit. A sacrifice of our old attitudes and outdated ways of treating the earth. We must become reborn to a new consciousness that reciprocates the gifts that the earth has so generously provided. A return that will effect a balance in our relationship with nature, and a renewed blossoming in its bounty -- bees included.