I have often described my column writing approach as starting out with a topic and then writing so I can see how it turns out in the end. Still, I was surprised recently to find I had written my usual 750 or so words (“This is the Life: With bees dying, we need to take notice”) without actually touching on the New York Times story that had pushed me to write about the importance of bees. The piece was written by Mark Winston, a biologist and the director of the Center for Dialogue at Simon Fraser University (SFU).
Winston says that about one third of hives around the world have collapsed in each of the last 10 years. He also says we can learn from this experience, that it can teach humans how to avoid a similar fate.
“Honeybee collapse has been particularly vexing because there is no one cause, but rather a thousand little cuts,” Winston wrote. It was that sentence that spurred my thinking about the importance of honeybees and the many, many factors involved in causing the collapse of hives. Wouldn’t it be lovely if we could just eliminate the use of neonicotinoids and consider the problem solved?
Winston lists what he says are the main elements of the problem — pesticides applied to fields and different ones applied to hives to control mites; fungal, bacterial and viral pests and diseases; nutritional deficiencies caused by single crop agriculture; and the practice, particularly in the U.S., of trucking bees around the country to pollinate crops. It is the interaction of these elements that is the real issue. One or a few pesticides might be relatively benign in a bee colony, but more than 120 different ones can be found in a typical hive, creating what Winston says is a toxic soup. The interplay of these chemicals can harm bees’ immune systems, making them more susceptible to diseases.
Anyone who has read about honeybees in the U.S. knows the insanity — how else to describe it? — that has resulted in at least two thirds of all the honeybee colonies in the entire country being trucked annually to California to pollinate the vast almond orchards. The travel itself is hard enough (and many beekeepers spend much of their year hauling bees from crop to crop, a more lucrative business than selling honey) but it doesn’t take a lot of deep thinking to conclude that the almond industry itself is a perfect illustration of what is wrong with modern agriculture. Thousands of square miles of almond trees have been planted with no thought to plant diversity. With some forethought and planning, there is no reason why other crops couldn’t have been distributed throughout the trees, avoiding the problems that inevitably arise from monocropping. Other crops could have resulted in bees (and human workers, for that matter) staying for longer periods of time, perhaps even year-round. Crop diversity would have kept more bees off the highways for longer periods of time. Instead, they are trucked in to pollinate the blossoms and then, job done, loaded back onto trucks to head for destinations around the country, fed sugar water to sustain them on the travels. Is it any wonder these things are dying off?
We need to study, Winston says, how even low doses of combined chemicals affect not only honeybees, but human health, too. And, he says, we need to consider that there is an option for the hauling of honeybees to pollinate crops. Wild bee species, of which there are thousands of species, are facing a similar fate, but with a healthier environment they could be doing much of the needed pollination.
Winston’s theories have been tested at SFU, with fascinating results. In a test on farms that grow canola, studies indicate that farms that leave a third of the area unplanted to allow indigenous plants to grow and support the nesting and foraging of wild bees are more than twice as profitable.
“Such logic goes against conventional wisdom that fields and bees alike can be uniformly micromanaged,” he writes. “The current challenges faced by managed honeybees and wild bees remind us that we can manage too much. Excessive cultivation, chemical use and habitat destruction eventually destroy the very organisms that could be our partners.”
“And this insight goes beyond mere agricultural economics. There is a lesson in the decline of bees about how to respond to the most fundamental challenges facing contemporary human societies. We can best meet our own needs if we maintain a balance with nature — a balance that is as important to our health and prosperity as it is to the bees.”
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.