Yellow, Black, and Blues

What We Know / by Joe Kloc /

A look at our agricultural past may explain why honey bees around the world began disappearing three years ago.

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While honey bees helped transform the ecology of modern farming, strong political, economic, and technological forces were also at work: Towards the end of WWII, the introduction of mechanized farming equipment like cotton harvesters drastically reduced the need for manual labor on southern plantations. Many workers headed for Chicago, seeking factory jobs created during the war. Half of all African Americans to move north during the first half of the 20th century did so in the 1940s. And by 1950, the largest population of Mississippians outside of Mississippi was in Chicago.

But as WWII ended and the cotton harvesters pushed even more workers north, soon the city ran out of jobs. So by the time Muddy Waters recorded “Honey Bee,” the buzzing of the bee, had in a few short centuries in the US, transformed from a foretoken of modernization—a symbol of “progress” —to a song of those struggling under the weight of the modern world they helped develop. The Chicago Bee, for example, was a newspaper promoting black artists, politicians, and workers in Chicago. In the 1950s, clubs in like The Beehive Lounge were a venue for the city’s jazz and the burgeoning electric blues scene. According to Horn, “when black musicians started singing about the honey bee, they were singing to an audience divorced from land, their family, and their heritage.” If not itself a modern blues song, the honey bee’s buzz had become, at the very least, a song of our modern blues. So Memphis Minnie sang: “I can’t stand to hear him buzz, buzz, buzz…”

Last month, Alaux’s group in France published a study in Biology Letters that suggests the extent to which our agricultural practices—and monoculture in particular—may have factored into the honey bee colony collapses of the past three years. “Bees are forced to go into huge fields and feed on only one type of pollen,” says Alaux. “Pollen is a major source of protein for them so we wanted to test the effects of this diet.” His group fed young bees pollen diets of varying diversity. Some were given many different types, while others only one. They found that, after 10 days, the bees that had eaten the less diverse diet of pollen ended up with weaker immune systems, making them less able to fight off pathogens and withstand the stresses of beekeeping. It wasn’t just pesticide-saturated pollen that was weakening the bees, it was the pollen itself—or more specifically, a monotonous diet of one type of pollen.

As a team of researchers recently found at Pennsylvania State, honey bees are even further plagued by the agricultural history contained in their pollen. Nineteen classes of pesticides have been used in the recorded history of farming. Some, like DDT, have been banned for more than 25 years. It must have been a curious feeling, then, that overcame the researchers when they examined more than a thousand different samples of wax and pollen and found traces of every class of pesticide ever used—including DDT. “It has caused concern world wide,” says Cox-Foster of the study’s findings, which are now being supported by other labs as well. “These pesticides are not going away.” This might not be all that bad if bees were feeding on the diverse pollen diet they had evolved to enjoy, as some bees would get the poison and some would not. But in today’s world of modern agriculture, if a particular crop is bad, every bee in the hive is going to taste it.

Of course, the exact role that mono-pollen diets and long-ago banned pesticides have played in the honey bee colony collapses of the past three years isn’t known. They are, after all, only a few details in the long and complicated story of bees and modern agriculture. Europeans spent centuries selecting for the poorest honey-producing bees; American beekeepers took these hives and began shipping them around the country, often multiple times a year, in order to propagate the growth of a farming industry that, as it grew, only put further stress on the bees that sustained it; farmers worldwide doused their crops with pesticides that weakened the bees’ immune systems; and the bees were weakened even more by the very pollen diets the monoculture crops provided. So what we have to make sense of, then, against this history, is how the 18 known bee viruses, 19 different classes of pesticides, and countless stressors of modern beekeeping all fit together to make the honey bee fly off and—in Muddy Waters’ words—keep on sailing ‘til it loses its happy home.

Muddy Waters is said to have written “Honey Bee” while riding a tractor on the Stovall Plantation near Clarksdale, Mississippi—and indeed, he may have penned the lyrics there. But the “Honey Bee” Waters had written in Mississippi is sometimes thought to have been a rewrite of the song “Bumble Bee” by the delta blues queen Memphis Minnie, which she recorded in New York in 1929. Waters may have learned the song from a record or he may have heard bluesmen like Son House playing it when they passed through Clarksdale. In any case, once Waters brought the song to Chicago it was not simply the electric guitar that shaped “Honey Bee,” it was the fact that his grandmother had died and given him an inheritance, enabling him to buy a car. This car made him an attractive addition to any Chicago band and in that way he began playing with Sonny Boy Williamson, a man who used to tour with Memphis Minnie and recorded his own “Honey Bee Blues” in 1938. No one story will ever be told about how Muddy Waters, now remembered as the “Father of Chicago Blues,” came to sing “Honey Bee” in 1951, because there is no one story to tell: To delve into the nature of a blues song is to concede a loss of narrative.

Originally published February 15, 2010

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