The Super Bowl is no stranger to viral moments, and is often, in fact, primed for them. This year was no different. Coldplay was leading the halftime show, joined by Beyoncé — who had just released her first single in two years, “Formation” — and consummate showman Bruno Mars.
Yet even the combined star power of three of music’s hottest acts could not overtake a moment toward the end of the game, in which television cameras caught the Manning family celebrating Denver quarterback Peyton’s imminent victory. The only one not celebrating was Eli Manning, Peyton’s brother and quarterback for the New York Giants. As the rest of his family yelled and high-fived, Eli just stared ahead vacantly, almost in shock, as if he had just been blindsided by some horrible truth.
Eli Manning had just remembered that bees are dying globally at an alarming rate.
The fact that the global population of bees, which pollinate a significant portion of our fresh produce, is decreasing substantially has become a meme.
Bees have a storied history when it comes to internet-friendly nonsense jokes. Among a certain demographic, simply saying the word “beads” online will summon this GIF, similar to how saying “Bloody Mary” three times in the mirror will summon a murderous ghost.
Oprah releasing the bees, taken from an episode of Conan, is also a popular GIF response.
On Tumblr, the crappy Jerry Seinfeld animated film Bee Movie has found an ironic fandom whose members show one another affection by posting the film script in its entirety.
We could spend many hours, I think, mapping the cultural psycho-geography of bees. They are by turns cute and threatening; domesticated, food-generating insects that can quite literally kill humans; colorful carriers of both sweetness and poison. Also, the word “bees” is, just, funny. Bees! A wonderful Politico headline from April 2015 reads, matter-of-factly, “’Bees are good,’ Obama says as children scream.”
Bees’ peculiar cultural valence is only heightened by the crisis they (and we) now face: For the past decade or so, scientists have been warning the public about colony collapse disorder, described by the Environmental Protection Agency as “the phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen, plenty of food and a few nurse bees to care for the remaining immature bees and the queen.”
The EPA adds, however, that “Once thought to pose a major long-term threat to bees, reported cases of CCD have declined substantially over the last five years.” But as someone who receives the Google News digest for the search query “bees” every morning, I can tell you that our collective worry about the global bee population has not subsided. Colony collapse disorder is not the only possible culprit for why bee populations are in flux. The big specter looming over the hives? Climate change.
Which might explain why, in the last few months, the text string “bees are dying globally at an alarming rate” is appearing more and more frequently on social media. One of the first recent tweets to use the global bee die-off as a punch line, albeit in slightly altered form, appeared last September during the Pope’s visit to the United States, when @topshelftyson posted:
The gag truly took off at the end of the year when @SlimiHendrix turned the phrase into a photo meme, demonstrating the creeping existential dread of bees dying globally at an alarming rate.
The thing I love about bees dying globally at an alarming rate (the meme, not the ecological trend) is that it captures an entire process, not just a single emotion. We usually cathect memes with single, categorical emotions and reactions: confusion, triumph, anger, disappointment. Few capture the full host of feeling that “bees dying” does, the rise and fall of emotion felt when you remember that bees are dying globally at an alarming rate.
As a meme sensation, sudden existential anxiety is not new. One need only remember @BAKKOOONN’s famous tweet of a corgi by a pond to see the same character arc.
But “bees” approaches more than just regret. It is the full experience of angst; the existential vertigo one experiences at the summits of the Anthropocene. It is no coincidence that “bees dying” appears most frequently with images of people enjoying the full fruits of cultural and industrial modernity. Bees are dying at an alarming rate, and possibly because of manmade climate change; their demise might make growing the food we eat impossible. We have constructed a cultural life that forces the pressing questions of the environment and food supply outside of our field of view, and abdicated our own responsibilities to nature in favor of unsustainable, constant stimulation. What can we, as individuals, do to save the bees? The answers are unclear.
What is clear, however, is that at some point, you will find yourself in a good place — spiritually, emotionally, maybe even physically — and just as you start to think it can’t get any better, you will remember: “bees are dying globally at an alarming rate.”