Bee blindness

I’ve been thinking for ages about writing some articles about ecology and Christianity. But I’ve been so worried that the material about ecology for Christians would seem superstitious to the ecologists, and the material about Christianity for ecologists would seem heretical to the Christians, that I haven’t dared publish any of it. But all I really want to do is get people thinking, so on the basis that the most thought-provoking sermon is the awful, erroneous sermon, here is one about bees and Jesus. Follow the links for more information or source material.

Jesus, carpenter turned edgy stand-up comedian, told a silly story about a man with a plank in his eye, who patronisingly offered to take the speck of sawdust out of his colleague’s eye, despite the fact that he couldn’t see anything because he had a fucking great plank in his eye. (Luke 6.41-2)

I’ve thought about this a lot over the past year, ever since I read Dave Goulson’s book A Sting in the Tale in hospital, where as well as being cured of my physical ills I was enjoying an intense digital detox as my phone was broken and there was no WiFi. But what does Goulson’s tale of bumblebee adventures have to do with Jesus’s plank-man?

I’d always thought the pollinator crisis was about honeybee decline.

I didn’t know, in hospital, that a few weeks later I would begin working for Buglife, where my adventures with bumblebees would redouble. Not professionally, you understand: I’m only qualified to shuffle information and talk to people. But as soon as spring arrived, we would go out at lunchtime and start identifying things; and one of the easiest things to identify was bumblebees.

There are only six common sorts, and they wear distinctive strips like rugby players.

Red tailed bumblebees (all black with a red tail) and Common carder bees (brown or gingery) are easy. Buff tailed, White tailed and Garden look more similar and I never reliably distinguished them with their yellow-and-black stripes and a whitish tail. It took me a while to spot an Early bumblebee, black-and-yellow but with a gingery tail, and it felt like completing a collection when I did. And all before Pokemon Go even arrived.

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Common carder bee on scabious, in the wildflower garden of Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh

There’s actually a seventh common sort now, the Tree bumblebee, with a ginger thorax, black abdomen and white tail, which has moved in rapidly from Europe. Whereas most bumblebees nest in burrows under grassy tussocks, like rabbits, Tree bumblebees nest high up, like Blue tits – in fact they often take over their nest boxes.

Plank-man wasn’t the only story Jesus told about not being able to see. You know the phrase, “the blind leading the blind”? That’s one of his. The context was his friends warning him that he was starting to annoy influential people, to which he replied, “Leave them, they are blind guides. If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit.” (Matt 15.14)

I never said Jesus’ sense of humour was tasteful.

Bees have different roles within the colony, and I also learned a bit about distinguishing queens, workers and males. I knew before that queens are the huge ones, but I didn’t know workers could be tiny, tinier than you could imagine a bumblebee to be, little fluff-balls. Nor did I know that males generally have yellow faces, and never sting, although unlike my colleague Scott I haven’t yet been quite brave enough to test this by holding a yellow-faced bee for its portrait.

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But these seven bumblebees are just the start. There are 24 UK species of bumblebee, and once you know the common ones you can tell when you’ve seen something more interesting. I spent a long time watching this Field cuckoo bumblebee and wondering what it was before another colleague Suzie enlightened me. Cuckoo bumblebees sneak into bumblebee nests, kill the queen, and let the workers raise their young.

Field cuckoo bumblebee
Field cuckoo bumblebee

Jesus was actually quite obsessed with blindness, so it’s not surprising there are so many stories of him healing physically blind people. Blindness is his central accusation against the religious teachers of the day, as in this extract from a tremendous rant:

“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, if anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing, but if anyone swears by the gold of the temple is bound by his oath. You fools! Which is greater, the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred? Woe to you, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin – but you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” (Matthew 23.16-24)

I never said Jesus was restrained.

But these 24 bumblebees are still just the start. Pollinating insects include over 200 species of solitary bees, over 250 species of wasp, as well as flies, butterflies, moths and even beetles. There are reckoned to be 1500 species of wild pollinator in the UK.

And yet, how many times when we are talking or thinking about “pollinators” do we say, or mean, “honeybees”? British honeybees are not 1,500 species, they are one species, Apis mellifera.

It was domesticated perhaps 10,000 years ago, and is not a natural part of our ecosystem, any more than an Aberdeen terrier, Herdwick sheep or Orpington chicken. Equating honeybees with pollinators is as if you were trying to tell someone about the diversity of UK mammals: Wildcat, Red squirrel, Badger, Otter, Harvest-mouse, Pine marten, Water vole, Weasel, Dormouse — but they insist on referring to them all as “sheep”. Except it’s 15 times worse because there are only 101 species of mammal in the UK, not 1,500.

Jesus didn’t make up this stuff about blindness. He got it from reading the prophets, like Isaiah, raging about the lazy, corrupt religious teachers of his day:

Israel’s watchmen are blind,
they all lack knowledge;
They are dogs with mighty appetites;
they never have enough.
They are shepherds who lack understanding;
they seek their own gain. (Isaiah 56.9-11)

I never said Jesus was original.

But why does this matter? It’s very interesting, of course, to know about Common carder bees and how to distinguish groups of hoverflies by the loops on their wings, but is this not somewhat arcane knowledge, like my arcane ability to recite that passage from Isaiah about human and environmental restoration:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow. (Isaiah 35.5-7)

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Eristalis hoverflies mimic bumblebees, and are distinguished by the prominent loop in the central vein near the tip of their wings.

It matters because we rely on pollinators to produce chocolate, strawberries, apples, tomatoes, carrots, cotton, peanuts, and much more: one in three mouthfuls of food, in fact.

And pollinators are under threat, from climate change, development (building houses and road etc), but most of all from intensive farming practices.

And when nature is under threat, its best defence is found in diversity. One pollinator which nests in sandy banks might go extinct, but one which nests in grass might survive. One whose grubs feed on thyme might go extinct, but one which feeds on dead-nettles might survive. A disease might wipe out one species, while another might be resistant. Nature is so complex, so full of factors we barely understand, that to rely on one species, honeybees, which did not even evolve to live here, is wilfully to blind ourselves to our own ignorance of what it is we are relying on.

We think we can march in and fix nature: “bees are declining! Start beekeeping! Hey we could be like Christian monks in the olden days!” when really we should be stepping back to let nature recover in its diversity. Over one summer, a 40-hive apiary will take enough pollen to feed four million wild bees; or in other words, four million wild bees, in all their resilient diversity, will starve: and if a disease were to come along that wiped out the honeybees, so will we.

The best blindness story about Jesus is the one where he heals a blind man, then the sceptical religious teachers come and investigate the healing. The blind man persists in calling a spade a spade, and the teachers insist he must be mistaken. It’s worth reading the whole story, (John 9) but it ends up with the teachers saying to Jesus, “What? Are we blind too?”, and Jesus saying, being blind does not make you culpable; but claiming you can see when you can’t makes you guilty.

Being a Christian does not mean being like Christian monks in the olden days: it means imitating Jesus.

The first step to imitating Jesus — along with forgetting about being tasteful, restrained, or original, and keeping your sense of humour — is taking the plank out of your eye: the plank of introverted obsession with human-made objects and human-made concerns and conventions, with which we have blocked out all knowledge of the rest of life.

The second step to imitating Jesus is to be a healer. I set up the Wild Reekie group to ‘discover and restore nature in Edinburgh’, which with the help of a little social media magic has resulted in over 150 people, mostly less knowledgeable about ecology than me (which isn’t saying much) coming to events to learn about it. We had lots of events over the summer looking at pollinators, and I had lots of fun passing on my newfound knowledge of the seven common bumblebees. But my favourite conversation was with the lady who wasn’t sure whether what she was looking at was a bee or a wasp.

“That one’s a hoverfly”, I said.
“Oh, so not very interesting,” she said.
“Not at all,” I said, “There are hundreds of species of hoverfly, they’re really interesting and very beautiful.”
“Oh — so they are interesting then!”

I don’t think she’ll ever see a hoverfly — or fail to see one — the same way again.

I didn’t even know how many species of hoverfly there are (283, according to the very good field guide); and my knowledge of why they’re interesting extends to a vague knowledge of a life cycle that begins with leathery things in muddy ponds.

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An Early bumblebee posing for Wild Reekie at Lochend Park in Edinburgh

But all it had taken to discover that they’re very beautiful — meaningful — important — in Christian terminology, sacred — was looking at them: something I never really did before I was cured of blindness, and took out the plank, that week in hospital.

 

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