Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2291:
THE BEES' NEW HOME

by John H. Lienhard

Today, sex in the parking lot. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Bee pollinating tire Two years ago, the oddest thing in the parking lot: I was parked just under the southeast eave of my engineering building and I found a honey bee trying to pollinate the serial number on one of my car tires. I puzzled over the sight, took a picture, drove off, and left the bee to seek out something richer in pollen.

The hive exposed Then, this week, a cherry-picker crane rolled up to the building and positioned two men in white suits and headgear outside the third floor, under that same eave. They removed bricks as TV cameras recorded the moment. There was, it seems, a hive of almost a hundred thousand bees between the brick fašade and the structure.

These were not exterminators. This was an important rescue mission. Honey bees are becoming an endangered link in our vast agricultural system. The amorous bee on my tire was just an early warning as to what was happening here. Later, honey was found leaking out of the building's weep holes. Bees began showing up in the chemical engineering labs. It was clear that we were not alone.

Mike Knuckey, bee expert Actually, our apiary companions in the building were doing an important good work for us all. Our University boasts one of the loveliest campuses you'll find. Everywhere we look, we see greenery, sculpture, birds, flowers, fountains.

The hive that was being saved was essential to keeping our campus beautiful. The flowers and other plant life live or die by their efforts. Remove the bees and our campus would become dreary. And bees are vanishing, all over America. Our agriculture is under threat as hives die at alarming rates. About one third of our diet is served by bee pollination. Twenty-two states, including ours, have seen average losses of a third of their bees. Those losses reach eighty percent in some areas.

Bee and flower   Bee and flower

The main culprit is a mite that attaches itself to a bees' belly and sucks its blood. But why is this vulnerability on the rise? Pesticides also appear to've done a lot of direct and indirect damage. The environment has changed in poorly-understood ways. The situation is serious.

Luckily, when bee experts opened this hive they found it alive and well. They've relocated it in an undeveloped woody part of the campus, off everyone's beaten track. Bees can travel some three miles, so these will still be able to keep our plant life flourishing. For the moment, they're in a manmade bee-hive, but we hope they'll relocate themselves into better quarters -- a tree perhaps. I visited them today. They hummed about their new hive -- settling in. On the way back I drank in our colorful campus, all well within their range, and I thought about Emily Dickinson's words,

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee,
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

Well, I fear that "revery" is all we'll have, if bees become few.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


For more on the bee situation nationally, see these articles in the BBC News and the New York Times

My thanks to Alex Alexander, a Director of Plant Operatons at UH, for his extensive help and counsel. (All photos by JHL)

Cherry picker to the rescue

Tucked away in a new home

Fragment of the living hive

UH flowers


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2006 by John H. Lienhard.