Bees: Partners, Pirates & Rebels in the 21st Century

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Channel No 5, fried eggs, ashtrays, Febreze… the smell of unwashed bodies was quite overpowering as the stomping throng of 500 travellers jostled for space in the overheated waiting area. But high overhead, nestled in the white industrial beams of the lofty ceiling, the newly formed 63B Squadron hovered expectantly, absorbing the stench with relish.  At 9.00am, exactly as the security gates opened, the crowd began to move towards the screening areas and a lone pilot started her spiralling descent.

Expectant colleagues watched from above as air-ace Johnson cruised straight through the heart of the assembly towards her prey. Antennae raised in electric anticipation she flew direct and true until the scent she tracked became overpowering. Black and gold striped body quivering, Captain Johnson circled her quarry twice to confirm the overwhelming scent that flooded from the man’s dirty pin-striped trousers; then with a deft flourish, she rose up on a pocket of stale air to perform a graceful figure of eight dance above the man’s stinking cranium.

Forty-five minutes later, in the nerve centre of the Los Alamos research institute in New Mexico, USA, Dr Robert Wingo and lead test pilot, Group Captain Bobby “Buzz” Johnson, are heading the debriefing. The final phase of testing is almost complete and plans will shortly be rolled out for squadrons of honey bees to surpass canines as the sniffer of choice for both the military and private sector.

Sniffer Bees, Bomb Disposal Rats & Moths with the Munchies

“We’ve helped train pouched rats to search for landmines in east Africa,” began Dr Wingo, ” and had some success teaching moths how to root out drugs, unfortunately they could only detect cannabis… it was when we started working with bees like Buzz here, that we had our major breakthrough.”

Captain Johnson is on secondment from the British Ministry of Defence and works as the point bee on this Homeland Security funded project. This latest test, in a simulated airport environment, saw her detect half a gram of plastic explosive amidst 500 deliberately odorous participants.

“Dogs can be trained to pick out around ten smells at close quarters. With bees, there are no limits. Dead bodies, all types of drugs, explosives, money, fake money, you name it… and we can do it from distance. Dr Wingo, thinks it’s all down to his Pavlovian training methods, but in truth, we’re just great sniffers with 170 odorant receptors and a passion for work,” says Buzz.

“Bees are diversifying,” she continues, “hives around the world are failing, honey production is at an all time low. In the next few years we’ll be popping up in all manner of places, doing all kinds of things – and pollinating as we go. We have to adapt to survive, no matter what it takes.”

Happy to Bee a Revolutionary

Just over the border in Juaraz, old Mexico, a very special colony is adding credence to the Group Captain’s predictions. Amidst the cartels, cheese bootleggers and drunk American college students, a new bee-led movement is beginning to gain traction.

Dressed in tiny combat boots, bright yellow bomber jacket and aviator sunglasses, Mgnbeego cuts an imposing figure. As leader of the Global Free Bee Nation she is spearheading the campaign to bring freedom and equality to bees the world over.

“It used to be a choice. A partnership. Now we have disease, repression, poisons and Varroa mites. Humans used to be our protectors… now we’re dying off in droves. We need to start taking better care of our own kind if we’re going to survive”

Mgnbeego is an Africanised honey bee, as are many members of the Free Bee Nation, but there are also rainforest bees from Peru, Western city dwellers from London, Paris and Rome; plus comrades from across Europe, South East Asia and Russia. They’re a global community of freedom fighters, striving to see that every bee gets a fair shake.

“Just over a year ago in Brevard County, Florida, over 12 million bees died in a single week. Pesticide poisoning. Similar incidents have been happening all across the Southern United States, down into Mexico and beyond. Neonicotinoid pesticides will be the death of us all  if we don’t take action,” says Mgnbeego.

In small doses, these pesticides are killing off the bee population gradually and occasionally, like in Brevard County, in mass incidents: “It gets on your fur, in your antennae and makes you choke,” she continues, “We’ve got the best sense of smell in the world, we know when an area’s not safe. But our American honey bee sisters are eugenically bred to be docile and loyal these days, and the Queens and drones are imprisoned in their hives; when pesticides and poisons come along, half the population can’t leave and the rest won’t. All die. That’s where we come in. We free them.”

The Global Free Bee Nation have been responsible for the liberation of over 500 hives around the world so far. Often these actions are mistaken for Spontaneous Hive Collapse  or Colony Collapse Disorder, whereby a hive becomes completely deserted overnight.  A description of one of their most recent raids appears in the latest issue of the Free Bee Nations newsletter, The Rebeellion:

The low hum of expectant bee was the only thing that could be heard as the last wire was fixed into place on the excluder gate. Hundreds of tiny metal strands snaked their way out of the hive and onto the ground below, where an army of workers painstakingly coiled them into shape to create the five metres of slack needed for what was to come next. With the all clear sounded, the rhythmic buzz of the wrecking crew grew louder and slowly, a thousand harnessed bees hovered off the ground and began their approach run. Reaching the entrance to the hive, they turned in carefully practiced unison and as one accelerated horizontally from the honey coated doorway in a whirl of yellow and black. The delicately secured wires whipped after them, uncurling rapidly, until with a giant twang, became taught. A sharp juddering “Buzzzzzzzzzz” rang out as the squadron of freedom fighters drove through the recoiling bounce with a mighty crack, and the makeshift prison door was ripped free.

Pirates, Diplomats… and Partners? 

Mgnbeego and her associates have released an estimated 200,000,000 bees back into the wild since the movement began, but their worldwide organisation only liberates those who want to be free. There are complicated diplomatic niceties that must be observed before every insurrection. For Mgnbeego’s Americas division, it all begins with Ivana, an Eastern European bee from the Urals and leader of their Expeditionary Force.

“Once a hive has been scouted and declared at risk, I move in to establish contact,” says Ivana in her thick Russian accent, “I’m suited to this job for two reasons. We Eastern bees know how to handle ourselves. Piracy is in our blood and occasionally, knocking on the door of a hive unannounced provokes a hostile reaction. Either I manage to convince them I’m not a threat, or I have to fight for my life. It’s a fun job. If I persuade them that I come in peace… that’s where my second skill comes in. Fighting a few sleepy bees is nothing compared to succumbing to the pain of the Varroa destructor. If a hive is infected with this deadly mite, disease and death are certain. But not for all, Ivana is immune. They cannot kill me.”

The Varroa destructor, along with neonicotinoid poisoning are the main threats facing the honey bee today. The destructor mite infests hives, sucks blood, leaves open sores; deformed wings and is the villain behind actual cases of Colony Collapse Disorder. If a hive is heavily infected, all will die. Whilst Russian bees are less susceptible, there is still a danger of infection and contamination. Even Ivana and her Expeditionary colleagues are subject to intensive decontamination and quarantine before returning to the colony. Once first contact has been made by Ivana and her team, the diplomatic core move in to work with the hives upper echelons, including the Queen, to plan their release.

Grayston, a London born bee has helped liberate more than a dozen hives since joining the group’s diplomatic wing. “I’m a city bee,” she begins, “I lived in an upscale eco-hive on the roof of the Tate Gallery on London’s Southbank. We had no pesticide or mite problems in our hive, just a bit of pollution… but all over Europe, my people were dying off and the British Government was doing nothing to help. I felt like I should be making a difference.”

It was a news report at the start of February 2013 that spurred Grayston to leave the hive and join the revolution: “Dutch, Polish, French and Austrian governments had called for EU wide action on neonicotinoid pesticides. The EU responded by proposing a two-year suspension on all chemicals used on plants attractive to bees. After two years of campaigning, the extensive findings of biologists such as Marco Lodesani – whose team had proved these pesticides cause devastating harm to bees –  were at last being considered. Everything looked promising. But, unsurprisingly, such a proposal had the Pharma companies responsible for the pesticides up in arms, there’s big money at stake here… and they’re turning the screws.”

When the UK Government responded by commenting on the language in the EU press release and not the scientific results, Grayston, and many bees like her had reached their limit: “Some UK companies have withdrawn these insecticides from sale, but without Government backing, what good is it? The US,” she continues, “won’t be withdrawing these pesticides for another five years at the earliest, if at all. I had to do something to help my sisters and brothers; somehow I ended up here.”

“They make it to us by plane, train and their own steam,” says Mgnbeego, “we have a following, ask the right questions and our comrades will make sure you find us, or we’ll find you.”

Whilst Mgnbeego and her band carry on liberating their band of brothers and sisters, hives around the world continue to suffer. By her own admission, she can’t save them all. Without a definitive solution to the problems facing the bee community their numbers will continue to fall. In the meantime hive workers, both full partners and prisoners, will continue to supply honey and medicine; whilst pioneers like Group Captain “Buzz” Johnson will strive to serve mankind and make the world a safer place.

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