03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Bees and Tough Choices

Most of my adult life, I've been a beekeeper, which has taken me deep into a tiny niche of the natural world and shown me the wonderful interplay of design, behavior, adaptation, and interrelationship with other species that has enabled honeybees to survive and thrive over the millennia.

Bees exhibit plenty of behaviors that may at first seem cruel but make sense in the grander design of bee culture and survival. One good example is the life of the drone bee--and at this time of year, I'm thankful I'm not a drone. On first consideration the drone's life looks pretty good. The only male bees in the hive, drones are outnumbered twenty to one by female workers. They don't have to gather honey, feed themselves, or do any work. Their days consist of getting fed and flying into the fields to hang around with other drones, enjoying the weather and preparing for that rare instance when a young queen needs to mate. A half-dozen of a hive's several thousand drones may eventually get to fulfill their life's purpose--mating in the air and dying in the process. For most drones, however, summer is a long, pleasant, and uneventful season.

One morning this month I witnessed the downside of being a drone. We had a recent frost, and I was up on the hillside behind our house hefting the hives to make sure they have enough honey for the winter. The ground in front of the hives was covered with dead and dying drones. When the mating season ends and the weather turns cold, the workers discard the drones rather than feed and care for them through the winter. Because the queen can produce more drones in the spring, there is no reason for an assisted-living program for aging drones. I saw many drones trying to get back into the hives, only to be forcibly dragged away again by the guard bees. Exiled from warmth and comfort and unable to feed themselves, many had already perished from cold and hunger.

It may seem a heartless system, but everything about bees and their behavior has a purpose tied to the hive's survival. Honeybees have co-evolved with plants and other animals in ways that both ensure their own survival and contribute to the survival of many other species. Even in the harsh life-and-death drama of the drone, I have learned to see all the beauty and fascination of nature at her best and most complex--revealed in patterns, behaviors, and relationships that have evolved over eons.

As a difficult human year draws to a close, I find myself looking for a similar sense of order and hope in the behaviors of our own hive. Unfortunately I can't detect a pattern of sustainability in how our species behaves: not in the roots of our excess-driven economic meltdown or our habits of growth and consumption. As bad as the pain and loss in this recession continue to be, it distresses me to think that the real headline is not about our economy, which will recover, but about our profound and growing impact on land, water, air, climate, and the other species with which we share this planet.

In 1949, conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote of a land ethic under which humankind would treat land not as a commodity but as a community of all species, including our own. Sixty years later, it is clear that such an ethic must serve as a foundation for our urgent work to halt and reverse mankind's cumulative impact on nature and ourselves. And our ability to know and connect with nature--wherever we are--is key to developing that ethic before it is too late.

We can't make that connection or build that land ethic without close-to-home access to places where we can experience nature and other species. That's why I am a conservationist working to protect or create the places where each of us, no matter who we are or where we live, can experience and nurture our own profound connection with the natural world.

Like Leopold, I am convinced that being human requires a regular dose of that connection--not only for our own well-being, but also for the survival of our planet. There are countless ways for us to get in touch with nature: watching birds, standing in a stream with a fly rod, stretching our legs on a trail, lying on the grass and staring up into the sky, getting our hands dirty in garden soil. For me it has been working with honeybees.

For many organizations it has been a year of tough choices and learning to do more with less. And it has also been a time to seize wonderful conservation opportunities that exist right now across the American landscape--from inner-city gardens and green playgrounds, to protected farms and ranchlands, to remote and inspirational wilderness.

May the year to come be kinder to us all and bring us a full measure of meaningful relationship with the land, nature, and each other.