Garden Seeds, Honeybees, You, and Me

Trendle Ellwood
18 Min Read

Every day as we read our newspapers, scan our internet forums, or click through the channels on our television, we witness scenes of a decaying economy while being imprinted with words such as: recession, bank failures, bailout, and collapse.  Everyone seems to be feeling the pinch.  People are losing their life savings, retirement funds, jobs, and faith.  Occupations are being threatened or are going extinct due to cutbacks.  Houses are sitting on the market for years with no prospective buyers in sight, keeping people in limbo.  Predictions of future real estate crashes abound.  We are all affected to a lesser or greater degree with this seemingly bottomless pit of dire news which continuously deflates our spirits.

Yet, amidst the compost, something arises.  After the long, cold winter, spring does arrive.  During a down time in the retail world, seed companies are thriving with sales at a record high.  Rattling packets of vegetable and flower seeds are flying off the shelves at farm, hardware, and department stores all over the country as the whole nation is coming alive with the notion of tilling gardens.  Community and Learning Gardens are sprouting in almost every city, town, school, and village.

heirloom tomatoes

Could this frenzy of gardening be, in part, because of all of the publicized food recalls during the past few years, causing us to want to know where our produce is coming from?  I canned a lot when I was younger.  People would, at times, ask me why and comment that it is cheaper to buy food at the store.  They were not taking into consideration that if you cultivate and put up your own then you know what is in it.  Rising food prices at the grocery stores, combined with recent health scares, is causing growing your own food to be economical again.  For those of us with homestead hearts, isn’t this what we have always wanted?  Imagine, a homegrown tomato, ripe and warmed by the sun, having its day!

Gardens are erupting everywhere and in places that we would least expect them.  For the first time since FDR’s Victory Garden, there will be a plot at the Whitehouse, and an organic one at that.  It will measure 1,100 square feet.  What is the size of yours?  Maybe someday the size of our gardens will matter more than the size of our bank accounts, our credit card limits, or anything else.  The part about the White House garden that is really buzzing right now is the fact that it will host two beehives.

Subscribers to Bee Culture: The Magazine of American Beekeeping, received an e-mail with an ecstatic alert from the editor: “As far as we can tell, there’s never been a bee hive at the White House, so this first-ever apiary event is something that beekeepers everywhere are excited about.  The calls and contacts received in our office once this broke exceeded any event in the 23 years I’ve been here.” says Kim Flottum, Editor, Bee Culture.


This reminds me of how Victory Gardens were encouraged in backyards during World War II, not just for growing food, but also to boost the morale.  It is obvious that our spirits might need to be uplifted right now, people are having hard times, things are changing and we are not sure what they are changing to.  Time seems to be going so fast that we feel suspended in jet lag.  Yet, the rat race has hit a brick wall.  Kersplat!, it has crashed, just like Humpty Dumpty, who fell and broke into a million pieces.  Try as they may and try as they might, all the king’s horses and all the king’s men could not put Humpty together again.  Did our false Humpty need to fall?  Perhaps now that the charade is over it will become common for every family to have a garden and a bit of livestock in their backyard to help supply their food.

“The greatest gift of the garden is the restoration of the five senses.” ~Hanna Rion

When driving down the roads in autumn I have often seen apple, peach, and pear trees in backyards and on lawns, their fallen fruit left on the ground, to rot.  Why are we all so busy making money and running here and there that we drive to buy apples at the store but don’t bother to harvest and make use of the ones behind our house?  If the economy is so bad, how can we waste so much?  Perhaps now, when the apples are ready, it will be worthwhile to collect them?

Eating at our fast food restaurants, cafeterias, and churches, I see so much food being thrown into trashcans.  What we throw away does not magically go away; it goes somewhere.  We are just not looking to see where it goes.  Instead of going into landfills to ooze methane gas into the air and water supply, our leftovers could be going where they went in Grandpa’s day.  It was all flung out back to the chickens, the rabbits, the pigs, or the compost pile where it remained within the cycle of life and was regenerated to add to the quality of life, not to the demise.

Bigger is not necessarily better.  We thought we could live separated from our food source but it has not worked out so well.  We have all heard the horror stories of how workers at commercial egg factories, dairies, and slaughterhouses have been documented on film treating animals inhumanely.  When the chicken that lays your eggs was raised by your child and has been named Mama or Princess, you almost definitely treat her better than if she is a number in a cage with a 1,000 other squawking creatures.  We want to take control, put things in rows, tame nature into being orderly.  We have tried to make everything easier by making everything huge and “mono”.  Things can get too big.  We can take too much into our own hands, and want to take too much control.

In his blog on The Daily Green, Kim Flottum explains the war that is going on between commercial bee-farmers and the owners of huge mono-plantations of mandarin fields.  In California, the commercial bee farmers have been bringing their bees to pollinate orange and almond trees for years now, but the neighboring mandarin trees need to be kept hidden from the bees so that they won’t develop seeds and lose value at market.

When I saw a photo of these mandarin fields that was taken by Gerry Miller, of California Dept. of Food and Ag., and published on the June 08, cover of Bee Culture magazine I was appalled!  I have not been able to get that image out of my mind.  The shot taken from a helicopter looks down on acres and acres of veiled trees covered with white netting.  It is ugly and beastly; miles of frigid rows of imprisoned trees with no place for a butterfly to find a sip of nectar, no place for a bird to build a nest for her babe, and nothing for a hungry bee to eat.

All that land covered with plastic fish net from China.  Why?  So the mandarins will not get pollinated and form seeds, which would lower their value at market.  The mandarin farmers want the bees and their beekeepers to leave; the netting is supposed to be a temporary fix.  What will they do with all that fish net when they are done with it?  It is an engrossing story, full of the complexities of man-made nature.

Yet more evidence of the negative effects of mono-farming appears in the March 23, 2009, issue of Time magazine where there is an article by Kate Pickert describing the almond orchards in California where 660,000 acres of trees produce almost 90% of the world’s almond crop.  These orchards welcome the same beekeepers that the mandarin farmers turn away.  Every February over a million beehives, (more than half of the managed honeybees in the United States) are shipped there on flatbed trucks.

american bee hive

All is not well.  Pickert quotes a beekeeper: “The industrial pollination may be starting to take its toll on the bees.  Many keepers are feeding their colonies corn syrup, sugar, and pollen substitute to artificially bulk up hives ahead of the almond season, while killing off parasitic mites with pesticides.  Packing the hives smack in the middle of this land of almonds is comparable to us going to McDonald’s every day for a month, in the past you’d have a blend of sources, and the bees were so much healthier.” Orin Johnson.

Beekeeper Randy Oliver in the April 09 issue of American Bee Journal writes The Learning Curve 2009, and shares his experience of placing bees in the middle of a mechanically-pruned almond orchard where the trees are thickly planted and all pruned the same.  His hives there would dwindle and he attributed this to the fact that all the trees were so identical that the honeybees would lose all orientation and get lost when they tried to find their way back to the hive.

Kate Pickert tells us that many beekeepers believe that the monoculture diet may have contributed to the recent scare of Colony Collapse Disorder.  I find it interesting that with the bees we call it a collapse just as our economy is collapsing.  Our whole system of doing things for profit and money without thinking about the consequences or side effects is not working.

How right it is that the honeybee is the one to bring our attention to the idea that we need to work together and that we need to work with nature.  After all, in many ancient texts the honeybee represents the mother and is associated with goddesses of fertility and nature such as, but not limited to: Ma, Rhea, Cybele, Ceres, Artemis/Diana, and Persephone.

In the Mormon religion, honeybees represent the ideal for society.  The hive has been, through the ages of time, an exemplar of a harmonious, working community.  Honeybees all strive together for the common good.  Known to switch jobs within the hive, they are quite flexible in the duties that they learn and perform.  Worker bees can even go so far as to grow ovaries and lay eggs if the hive has lost its queen.  Yet these worker bees are not able to produce females, only drones.  The hive will die if it does not have a queen, but the worker bees produce drones who go out and impregnate another queen with their genes and so even though what was dies, there remains a chance for their genes to live on.

american bee

I wonder if we will listen to the message from the honeybee?  Can we switch jobs if necessary?  Can we sow seeds for the future while our society dies around us?  If it had not come out in the news that the bees might not survive, and if they didn’t, neither would we; nobody would care about the bees vanishing.  We humans are selfish.  We have become so individual in the western world, caring only for our own, that it is hard for us to imagine that the whole earth is related and what happens to the honeybee, or any other living creature, is also happening to you and me.

I like the way Kirk Webster put it in the April 09, issue of American Bee Journal: “Our current wasteful, greedy and destructive system of agriculture doesn’t have a billy goat’s chance in hell of producing food for our people 100 years from now.  In fact, it remains to be seen whether it will still function 10 years from now.  In all the discussions and arguments about what we must do to prepare for the future, there is one thing we all must agree on: In North America, at least, and for a long list of good reasons, we need more Farmers…”

When Webster says that we need more farmers he is not talking about huge mono-culture, industrial farms, he is talking about small family farms, “when farms were smaller, almost all of them had crops, livestock, pasture, fencerows and woodlots.  A varied landscape with plenty of good food for bees year-round, and much greater possibilities for beauty and human communities than the vast mono-crops of corn and soybeans offer today.”  Kirk Webster

“He who sees things from the beginning will have the best view of them.” ~ Aristotle

It is the environmentally aware teacher at the local school, it is the downtown community garden group and it is us, the small gardeners and homesteaders all over the country with garden plots that are needed now.  The accumulated effect of all of our sprouting will be a more lush terrain for the honeybees and the butterflies, providing all of us with an uncontaminated and diverse diet when we can no longer afford to munch on fast food.

The explosion of neighborhood and backyard gardens implies that, yes, we are listening to nature and opening to community.  We might not be able to change the economy or hide from the meltdown of a corrupt society, but we can change our own little corner of the world with a little exercise, planning, and a splattering of seed packets, which are cheap enough.

Small-time gardening brings a person into direct contact with nature.  In the garden there is a natural order to things that eventually puts you at ease.  As the soil crumbles through your fingers and the rain and the sun and the creator of it all walks through the seasons with you, and your crops grow, nature begins to speak to you and to touch her lessons to your heart.  Such as, there is always sun after rain, and spring always follows winter.

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