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The Worship of Honeybees: Colony Collapse Disorder and the Purpose of Creation

Monday, 1 December 2014  | Richard R. Glover

Honeybees are remarkable creatures. The honey they gift to us is produced by collecting and consuming nectar from flowers, which is partially digested and regurgitated multiple times until it reaches the desired consistency. It is then stored in near-perfect hexagonal combs constructed from wax—secreted from special glands in their abdomens. To prevent fermentation, an army of worker bees line the edges of the combs and flap vigorously, creating a wave of air that evaporates water from the honey. This further thickens the honey into the form in which we consume it. To collect the pollen required for a large jar of honey, honeybees will travel the equivalent of three times around the world.[1]

Honeybees (and other types of bees) provide an even more vital service by pollinating food crops. The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that of the approximately 100 crop species providing 90% of the world’s food, 71% require bee pollination.[2] Some 4,000 types of vegetables grace our tables as a result of bee pollination. While this is not a requirement for all plant species, many will nonetheless produce larger and higher quality fruit when pollinated by bees. It is estimated that the economic value of such pollination is around US$215 billion annually.[3] The past 50 years has seen a four-fold increase in agricultural production that requires animal pollination, while that not requiring animal pollination has doubled, indicating our increasing dependence on creatures such as bees. Alongside this trend has been a corresponding increase in commercial farming of honeybees for pollination, contributing to a 45% increase in the number of honeybee colonies worldwide over the last 50 years. These colonies are primarily populated with Apis mellifera, the European honeybee.

1. Honeybees as Fellow-Worshippers and Fellow-Workers

The delight we rightly take in the cleverness and productivity of honeybees mirrors God’s delight in them. Honeybees, after all, are part of God’s creation. As such, they are fellow-worshippers and fellow-workers with humanity. According to the biblical story, all that is exists only because God desired it to. God spoke creation into existence for its own sake, giving it value in and of itself. Hence the repeated refrain of Genesis 1: “And God saw that it was good.” Though God’s creation is good from the outset, it does not follow that it must stay the same; in fact, God’s good creation is far from static. Instead, God created with a goal in mind, a goal that was not achieved immediately. In the Genesis account of the days of creation, in which, after six days of calling forth creation from nonexistence, God rests (Genesis 2:1–3). This rest is not a ceasing of all activity but an entering into a new state of being, “a new type of time, blessed and set aside … in order that what was created could be.”[4] In this sense it can be said, in Colin Gunton’s terminology, that creation is a project, “that which God enables to exist in time, and is in and through time to bring to its completion, rather like an artist completing a work of art.”[5] God’s creative word throughout Genesis 1 allows each aspect of creation to exist (“Let there be…”) and to be fruitful into the future (“Let the earth produce…”). Even before humanity was made, God has freed the creation simply to be, moving toward fulfillment by growing and flourishing.

The goal of this project is worship. God’s creation is able to revel in its existence and actively return to him in praise. Even the great monsters of the sea are a source of delight to God, and return his delight in playful revelry (Job 41). The psalmists write that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the works of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). Indeed, all the creatures God has made are joined together in what Richard Bauckham has called “the community of creation.” Psalm 148 calls all of God’s creation, animate and inanimate – sun, moon, stars, whales, mountains, trees, cattle, snakes, birds, kings and serfs, young and old – to praise God together. Creation is like an orchestra in which each part has an important role without which the entire symphony begins to unravel.[6] As the biblical story progresses it is this goal of Sabbath rest that figures as an image of God’s promise for his people and, through them, for the whole creation (Deuteronomy 5:15; Hebrews 4:1–11). Israel was rescued from slavery in Egypt in order worship as she entered into the promised rest that is creation’s goal (Exodus 3:8, 7:16).[7] Thus according to a Christian theology of creation we can say that honeybees are fellow-workers in the project of creation and fellow-worshippers in whom God delights.

II. Human Beings among Other Creatures

Yet more can and must be said about the relationship between honeybees and humans. The key designation given to humanity in the Christian scriptures is the image of God. Image-bearing is connected to a special task, described as “dominion” (Genesis 1:27–28). In the technological mastery over nature in our modern age, it would be easy for us to understand this dominion as complete control over the creation for our own ends. Against this, what we see in Genesis is dominion portrayed as a nurturing enhancement of creation. God’s image-bearers are to rule over creation on his behalf. This is “[a] role of caring responsibility for other living creatures”.[8] A Christian theology of creation therefore places limits on how we use what God has made, using it in order to fulfill our calling to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28) while also being mindful of what our fellow-creatures need for their own flourishing. Our fundamental fellowship with the rest of creation becomes apparent in the interdependence of our dominion over it: the ground Adam works in the garden bears fruit for his sustenance and delight (Genesis 2:5). Honeybees powerfully display this creative principle of interdependence. We bear a responsibility toward honeybees to care for their flourishing, and we are brought reciprocally closer to fulfillment as a result of their fruitfulness. Understood as fellow-worshippers, fellow-workers, and fellow-creatures, the state of honeybees serves as a kind of barometer of human worship.

III. Honeybees in Crisis

Honeybees are faced with global crisis. Between 2007 and 2010, colonies in the United States reported an annual loss of around 30%, with similar losses are being reported across Europe.[9] While some winter losses are to be expected, these losses have been extraordinary. Wild honeybees – just as vital as pollinators as their commercial counterparts – are likely suffering similar losses.[10] Given the importance of honeybees in pollinating major food crops, such declines are highly problematic. While this decline may be part of a global trend toward loss of biodiversity,[11] several factors seem to be contributing to the decline of this particular species. A mysterious phenomena known as Colony-Collapse Disorder (CCD) has arisen in the U.S. and Europe, with reports also emerging in China and Japan. CCD is marked by the absence of adult worker bees (with only young worker bees remaining). While the mass death of the absent adult worker bees seems likely, very few dead bees are found in CCD-affected colonies. While no definitive diagnosis has been established, it is likely to arise from a combination of factors. Among these is the parasitic mite Varroa destructor, now introduced from its native Asia to every inhabited continent except Australia through the import and export of commercial honeybee colonies. Varroa mites compromise honeybee immune systems by feeding on their internal fluids and spreading other diseases.[12] Another is the widespread use of a class of pesticides called neonicotinoids, which can persist in soils, seeds, and plants across multiple seasons. The effects of neonicotinoids on honeybees include impaired memory, a possible explanation for the empty colonies that characterize CCD, and impaired olfactory senses, meaning honeybees are less able to locate sources of food.[13] Economic factors also play a role, as small-scale beekeepers are replaced by large-scale commercial operations that facilitate the spread of disease, while management techniques geared less toward honeybee wellbeing in favour of economic motivators.[14]

IV. Assessing the State of Our Worship

The Christian scriptures makes it clear that the whole project of creation has been derailed through humanity’s rebellion, who have desired to become gods in place of the God whose image they bear. The failure of God’s image-bearers to rule has brought the whole creation into disarray. The ground no longer brings forth fruit, but rather thorns (Genesis 3:17–19); indeed, the earth mourns (e.g., Hosea 4:1–3). The current predicament of honeybees illustrates this well. In our rush to wrestle fruitfulness from the creation we have produced technologies that have caused unforeseen harm. While such desires are not straightforwardly evil, representing in part our instinctive desire to nurture creation and bring forth fruit,[15] the effects of such efforts serve to underscore our alienation from our fellow-creatures. Our preference for profit has led to increased commercial trade in honeybees, contributing to the spread of disease by congregating colonies in larger and larger complexes. While the very presence of the Varroa mite within the creation reminds us that there are forces of disorder active in creation beyond our control, their spread across the globe nevertheless speaks to our inability to fully comprehend natural systems and our effects upon them. The consequences of these developments in terms of economic cost and food security vividly illustrate the interdependence of God’s image-bearers and their fellow-creatures: failure to properly exercise our image-bearing rule threatens to undermined honeybees” reciprocal serving of our needs. The flourishing of honeybees has been compromised, and as such the symphony of creation’s praise to our Creator – our worship – is also compromised.

V. Beekeeping as Grace

Nevertheless, a Christian theology of creation also provides hope for us and for all our fellow-creatures. For in Jesus Christ one has come who has borne the image of the Creator perfectly. He is “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), the exact representation of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3). This perfect Image is the New Adam, who is in every way what the first Adam failed to be (Romans 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15:45–49). Indeed, though the whole of creation groans in its bondage to corruption, it awaits “the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:20–22). By dealing with the rebellion of God’s image-bearers and freeing them for worship, the true Image is “reconciling to [God] all things” (Colossians 1:20). And this reconciliation is not only future, for God’s image-bearers are already new creations (2 Corinthians 5:17). The project of creation is back on track, its goal guaranteed by the work of the one who is both the perfect Image of the Creator and the one who created (Colossians 1:15–16).

God’s grace in refusing to allow his creation to fall short of its goal can be seen in moves already underway to rehabilitate our honeybees. The European Union has moved to ban certain neocotinoid pesticides.[16] Growing numbers of amateur urban beekeepers caring for smaller colonies are contributing to honeybee health, while planting native flowers in our gardens assists proper nutrition and encourages migration among wild bees.[17] A greater awareness of pests such as Varroa destructor is contributing to safer trade across continents, while Swedish researchers have developed a partial solution to CCD in the form of an immune-boosting honeybee medicine.[18] Time will tell how effective these measures are, and whether or not we can overcome the desire for mastery and profit that compromises the lives of these fellow-creatures.

As members of the new Adam, Christians are in a position to perceive the deeper theological significance of the plight of honeybees. Rehabilitating honeybee populations is the theological equivalent of recruiting new timpani for the orchestra; it is a partial effort toward enabling our fellow-creatures to worship. Urban beekeeping is a grace given us to better worship God in creaturely interdependence against the obscuring of these relationships in our modern technological society. Participating in and facilitating scientific research into safer pesticides is akin to Adam’s tilling and irrigating Eden, investigating how best to encourage the mutual flourishing of creatures who share in a common Creator. In view of the freedom God has given to his creation, and looking forward to the final reconciliation of all things to the Creator that has begun in the resurrected Christ, the church should do what she can to facilitate and encourage attempts to rehabilitate honeybees. This would be rightly considered an act of proper praise and worship to our Creator.

Richard R. Glover (BA, M Political Economy) is a student at Moore Theological College in Sydney. His interests lie in reflecting theologically on social, political, economic, and cultural issues. He blogs sporadically at richardrglover.wordpress.com.

[1] International Bee Research Association: http://www.ibrabee.org.uk/.

[2] UNEP, Global Honey Bee Colony Disorders and Other Threats to Insect Pollinators (2010). Unless otherwise indicated, statistics throughout this essay are from this report. Available at http://www.unep.org/dewa/Portals/67/pdf/Global_Bee_Colony_Disorder_and_Threats_insect_pollinators.pdf.

[3] Smith, et al, “Pathogens, Pests, and Economics: Drivers of Honey Bee Colony Declines and Losses”, EcoHealth, 10/4 (2013). Available at http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10393-013-0870-2.

[4] Andrew G. Shead, “Sabbath”, in Graeme Goldsworthy (Ed.), New Dictionary of Biblical Theology (Leicester: IVP, 2000).

[5] Colin E. Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study (Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1998), p. 12.

[6] Richard Bauckham, The Bible and Ecology: Rediscovering the Community of Creation (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), pp. 76–82. 

[7] Shead, “Sabbath”, 747.

[8] Bauckham, The Bible and Ecology, 33.

[9] “Britain’s Honeybee Colony Deaths Among Worst in Europe, Study Reveals”, The Guardian, 8 April 2014. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/apr/07/britain-honey-bee-colony-deaths-worst-europe-study.

[10] Van der Sluijs, et al, “Neonicotinoids, Bee Disorders and the Sustainability of Pollinator Services”, Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 5/3–4 (2013). Available at http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877343513000493.

[11] UNEP, Global Honey Bee Colony Disorders.

[12] Smith, et al, “Pathogens, Pests, and Economics”.

[13] Palmer, at al, “Cholinergic pesticides cause mushroom body neuronal inactivation in honeybees”, Nature Communications, 4 (2013); available at http://www.nature.com/ncomms/journal/v4/n3/full/ncomms2648.html. Williamson & Wright, “Exposure to multiple cholinergic pesticides impairs olfactory learning and memory in honeybees”, Journal of Experimental Biology, 216/10 (2013); available at http://jeb.biologists.org/content/216/10/1799.

[14] Smith, et al, “Pathogens, Pests, and Economics”.

[15] I am indebted to conversations with Alison Glover and Andrew Shead for this observation.

[16] Van der Sluijs, et al, “Neonicotinoids, bee disorders and the sustainability of pollinator services”

[17] Smith, et al, “Pathogens, Pests, and Economics”.

[18] “Bee Colony Collapse Defense Goes Global with Hybrid Breeding and New Medicine”, The Guardian, 2 October 2013. Available at http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2013/oct/01/bees-insects-colony-collapse-gut-medicine-hybrid-queens.


Gordon Preece
December 2, 2014, 2:29PM
Great article, Richard. I've been following with concern and responding in an armchair activist way to various protests re the state of bees. But you've put it in a thoroughly theological context within a more intimate, caring, humble notion of human dominion.
Byron Smith
December 3, 2014, 1:31AM
"While the very presence of the Varroa mite within the creation reminds us that there are forces of disorder active in creation beyond our control"

Prior to human-led bee migrations, varroa mites were only found in Apis cerana (Asian honeybee), which have evolved to be better able to cope with them. Thus, the second half of this sentence is correct: "their spread across the globe nevertheless speaks to our inability to fully comprehend natural systems and our effects upon them".

"A greater awareness of pests such as Varroa destructor is contributing to safer trade across continents"

Although the Australian government is spending no more resources in preventing/delaying the entry of varroa into Australia. When it arrives, the experts at my local bee club expect 80-90% mortality rates for Australian hives within a handful of years.

"Participating in and facilitating scientific research into safer pesticides"

And into food producing methods that rely less or not at all on pesticides.

Great article, Rich. Love it!
Ian Hore-Lacy
December 9, 2014, 11:05PM
Great article! I second Gordon's comments.
There is so much that we take for granted, such as bees in relations to food supplies. In our dominion we have thus been negligent.

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