In Our Lovely Deseret
Beekeepers across the country are deeply concerned. Honeybee colonies are failing at unprecedented rates. In the past decades, by most estimates, nearly a third of the North American population of these vital creatures has simply disappeared. Flowering plants—including fruits and vegetables—evolved alongside pollinating animals, chief among them bees. Nearly 3/4 of the worlds plants cannot sexually reproduce without the help of pollinating animals, and 1/3 of the major agricultural crops in the US depend on honeybees for pollination. The systematic failure of the hives (known as Colony Collapse Disorder), has been studied worriedly and extensively in recent years. No single, definitive, monocausal source of the phenomenon has emerged from the research, but it rather appears to be a kind of perfect storm of a wide range of factors, from pesticide use and urbanization to parasites and AIDS-like immuno-compromising viruses. And because no single explanation has been found, no simple solution can be offered for this complex and deeply threatening problem.
The purpose of this post is not to give a detailed account of CCD, its causes, or its solutions. Even this cursory overview does suggest some important lessons—about the relationship between the health of the natural world and the successes or failures of our modern industrial economy; about the importance of understanding evolution and co-evolutionary processes for addressing major ecologico-economic problems; and about our dependence, as an innovative and intelligent species, on natural processes which are beyond our control. But what interests me more is probing the implications of honeybee social ecology with its attendant problems for the stability, vitality, and overall health of a Latter-day Saint community whose foundational metaphor is the Beehive.
Two lessons in particular come to mind: first, the success of the community depends not just on its internal integrity, cooperation, hard work, commitment, and productivity but on the nature of its relationship with the surrounding natural world. In the case of the bees, the relationship with environmental surrounds is one of co-dependence and mutual benefit—bees take from the natural community around them the source of their sustenance, and in return they provide the priceless and necessary service of pollination. The bees derive nourishment from the environment but also contribute to its survival, vitality, and even diversity. It is a mutual relationship of give and take.
The second lesson is that we must be mindful of the potentially unpredictable and devastating effects that industrial modernity, consumer culture, and unrestrained corporate capitalism can have on the integrity of a community. Of course it would be both simplistic and inaccurate to ascribe the damage to honeybee communities solely to the effects of industrial production and capitalist consumption. Yet the complexity of the relationship between the two should not lead us to ignore it all together. There can be no doubt that the self-contained and self-sustaining unity of pioneer-era Deseret was compromised by its forced integration into the social, political, and economic life of the surrounding nation, though whether the results were, on balance, more negative than positive is perhaps an unresolvable question. The metaphor of the beehive should lead us to constantly evaluate and reevaluate our relationships with one another, with our neighbors and neighboring communities, with the natural world, and with a marketplace driven by the imperatives of productive profitability.
On a much more practical level, I’d like to share a suggestion a friend of mine made just yesterday during breakfast at a local restaurant. After hearing about Steve Peck’s successful exploits as an amateur apiarist (about which you will no doubt hear more in weeks and months to come), she wondered aloud what might happen if Mormons raised honeybees on the property of our local houses of worship. The symbolic value (cf. beehive metaphor) goes without saying. But there are also pragmatic benefits. It would be easy—there are enclosed spaces (where we protect our massive satellite dishes), as well as an army of potential volunteer workers (local leadership could call members to serve as ward and/or stake beekeepers). There’s also a nice parallel to some of the productive work traditionally associated with other institutions of deep religious commitment like Catholic monasteries. And the benefits to the local community (producing a useful and valuable resource) as well as the natural environment (the pollination of local plants and gardens) would dovetail nicely with another recent suggestion that ward property be converted into community gardens.
My thoughts here are far from fully developed, but suffice it to say that I’m experiencing renewed enthusiasm for the Mormon Beehive metaphor and for reclaiming it on behalf of a more environmentally aware and socio-ecologically responsible Mormonism.