Bumbling Toward an Earth Ethic here at Home
David R. Weiss – July 31, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #35 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
It began with a Spanish swear word, I’m sure, but I’ll skip that part. Last Thursday after supper two of our grandkids were playing baseball in our side yard. “Baseball” is overstatement; they were taking turns swinging at an assortment of tennis balls and light plastic baseballs pitched to them underhanded by their dad, Will. “Side yard” is also overstatement; this thin strip of yard is only 15 feet wide—and interrupted by a tiny porch, two window wells, a sandbox, a bird feeder, and a small flower bed. It hardly counts as “yard” and only manages to make a very makeshift baseball field because John (5½) and Benjamin (3) are equally small.
When Will, who’d been pitching while barefoot, slipped his feet back into his sandals—that’s when the swear word slipped out. Even if his English were stronger (it isn’t), in moments of existential crisis you naturally fall back on your mother tongue. And this was such a moment, so it was Nicaraguan Spanish that whistled its way through the pain. While Will’s sandals were sitting on the lawn a large bumble bee was nosing its way through one of them—and found itself suddenly trapped between leather thong and Nicaraguan foot. One of the bumble bees unique “features” is its barbless stinger. Which means these bees can sting without dying … again and again. But I don’t think it took more than one plunge of the stinger into the soft flesh between Will’s first two toes for all debate over current occupancy to be decided. The sandal belonged to the bee.
On Friday night two other grandchildren, Nora (7) and Gretchen (6½), were here and had high hopes of playing in the sandbox after supper. But as we prepared to uncover it we noticed a small flurry of bumble bees nearby. There aren’t any flowers right here—not even any real clover in the grass to speak of—so why so many bees? It didn’t take long to trace their meandering paths to a common point: entrance to an abandoned rodent burrow now clearly repurposed as a long-stay bumble bee bed and breakfast. Oops.
My first instinct—duly accompanied by twin pangs of tragedy and vengeance—was to ask myself, “How do I kill them all?” My first internet search was “exterminating bumble bees.” That’s how far sin—brokenness from (and toward!) the web of life—has crept its way into my impulses.
Soon I noticed a clear parting of ways in the narratives told about bumble bees. Every site that profited from extermination services amplified the threat. They sting. And it hurts. And they can sting repeatedly. And they will aggressively defend their nests. Damn villains. But there was another story told. Less often to be sure, but there are those who champion the bumble bee, who speak of it with wistful wonder (even if also with healthy respect for its personal space).
Did you know, the bumble bee is the only social bee native to North America? Honey bees were brought here from Europe. All the other bees native to this continent are solitary. Bumble bee nests, started early each spring from scratch by a single queen, only hold 50-200 bees; maybe 500 max—compared to honey bee nests with 10,000-50,000 bees. Bumble bees are thus “small town” bees.
But big time pollinators. They actually pollinate more effectively than honey bees. Their wings beat about 130 times each second (which is par for honey bees, too), but their size sets them apart. They actually generate heat as they bumble about, meaning they can start their flights earlier in the morning and continue into the cool of the evening. It also means they’re among the first pollinators to be out and about in the spring … and among the last still buzzing about in the fall. Speaking of that buzz, and owing again to the combination of wing beats and body size, bumble bees can cause “buzz pollination”—they actually … I might say erotically (see GIT #32) … vibrate plants into releasing pollen. Their fuzzy bodies carry more pollen from plant to plant. And some bumble bees have such long tongues they can feed at (and thus pollinate) flowers that other bees just can’t effectively flirt with.
Unlike honey bees, whose hives might endure for years, bumble bees hold more modest expectations; their nests just last a single season. Each spring a queen emerges from her winter hibernating place (usually a tiny hole in the ground, or a nook under some tree bark), goes on a flower feast to restore her energy, and then scouts out a spot to start her nest. Once settled, she lays eggs—all female. None will become queens—these are all workers, and all summer (living just 4-8 weeks each) they collect nectar and pollen, pollinate plants, clean and protect the nest. By late summer the queen starts laying eggs to produce male bees (drones) and new queens. Besides eating, the male bees have just one job: mate with a new queen. Most don’t even manage to do that before they die. The new queens, once “satisfied,” bulk up on food and find a safe solitary place to over-winter and start the whole cycle again next spring.
All in all, they’re pretty amazing little creatures. And, all in all, under rising threat from habitat loss, pesticide use, and a changing climate. Suddenly extermination seemed barbaric. Surely I could hire someone to relocate the bees without killing them. (In fact, I did find such a person.) But those bee-friendly websites practically plead with people to leave the nests undisturbed. Since only the new queens survive from one year to the next, even trying to safely relocate the live bees right now would risk damaging the as yet un-hatched (likely un-laid) new queen and drone eggs. Every future generation of this nest—and the untold millions of flowers, fruits, and vegetables the bees will pollinate—rests on my next move. So what do I do with the bumble bees nesting in our side yard?
All ethics is finally household ethics. I’ve often urged my readers to imagine a wider sense of community: to entertain the truth that we are interwoven in creation itself. Not apart from, not above, but entirely in, with, and under it. (Which is, ironically—maybe appropriately—exactly how Luther describes the mystical-real presence of Christ in the Sacrament.)
So I’ve roped off the nest area with yellow caution tape and posted signs offering both a word of caution and a few “fun facts”—why not take a little educational delight in these bumbling sojourners? Our swing set is several yards away; no worries there. The sand box is closer than I wish, though with a watchful adult nearby, toddlers ought to be fine playing in the sand while bees hover above the entrance to their home just a few feet away. As for baseball, given John’s growing savvy as a slugger, it was probably time to take those games up to the park anyway.
Ideal? I’m tempted to say very quickly, “Of course not.” But, wait. Our entire ecological crisis—from overheating climate to chemically wounded ecosystems, from badly polluted land, air, and water, to countless species pushed to the brink (nest by nest by nest!)—stems from our presumption that we come first. And these nests (we eventually found two entrances, likely to two nests) actually invite us, from grandparents to grandchildren, to remember that we come … always … together.
Preserving a pair of bumble bee nests in our yard will not stop climate crisis. But among all the choices we face on a daily basis, re-thinking the ones closest at hand—the ones right at home—is how we build the resolve to do face the even bigger challenges ahead. So along with the bees, we are bumbling toward an Earth ethic that includes all of us.
PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith
* * *
The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.
 My bumble bee background comes from: www.bumblebeeconservation.org, www.buzzaboutbees.net, www.bumblebee.org, and www.blog.nwf.org/2014/04/5-facts-about-bumble-bees-and-how-to-help-them.