Twilight of the honey bee

Photograph by Steve Tracey

Photograph by Steve Tracey

If all mankind were to disappear, the world would regenerate back to the rich state of equilibrium that existed 10,000 years ago. If insects were to vanish, the environment would collapse into chaos.” ~E.O. Wilson~

The decline of the honey bee (Apis Mellifera) strikes at the heart of food justice. More importantly, it strikes at the heart of what life on Planet Earth will look like for humans in the foreseeable future. If concerned citizens are to understand poverty and racism, they must look squarely at how they use Earth’s resources. Honey bees are the foundation for much of human agriculture, and their intimate relationship with flowering plants is being put to the test. “Colony collapse disorder” or CCD is a phenomenon which is being credited with the dramatic decline of honey bee populations both in the United States and abroad.

It is impossible to grant human beings absolution as the ultimate cause of this. The use of pesticides, especially those containing neonicotinoids, are a suspected component. But colony collapse isn’t about a single cause; rather it’s a collection of causes that end in an indictment of human civilization. When the hives first affected by CCD were tested, they were found to contain over 120 contaminants, from pesticides to fungicides – chemicals used to maintain the superficiality and integrity of agricultural endeavors. But these are only some of many factors. Pests and diseases like the varroa destructor, American Foulbrood and braula coeca are enough to bring the honey bee population to a deeply worrisome place.

Here’s why this is a huge concern:

Bees pollinate roughly 80% of U.S. agriculture, and are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we consume. The loss of habitat due to farming practices has weakened all insect populations, but more acutely that of the honey bee, and this should be a concern to all consumers of fruits and vegetables.

Noted entomologist Marla Spivak talks about this in her TED lecture, Why bees are disappearing:

Photograph by Steve Tracey

Photograph by Steve Tracey

Now we have the best data on honeybees, so I’ll use them as an example. In the United States, bees in fact have been in decline since World War II. We have half the number of managed hives in the United States now compared to 1945. We’re down to about 2 million hives of bees, we think.

And the reason is, after World War II, we changed our farming practices. We stopped planting cover crops. We stopped planting clover and alfalfa, which are natural fertilizers that fix nitrogen in the soil, and instead we started using synthetic fertilizers. Clover and alfalfa are highly nutritious food plants for bees. And after World War II, we started using herbicides to kill off the weeds in our farms. Many of these weeds are flowering plants that bees require for their survival.”

Activists and progressives who want social justice should also see their passions mirrored in the interconnections in the world’s ecosystems. In the same way that we can trace poverty to its root causes, we can trace the decline of the honey bee. It’s us. Human need is a function of poor resource management. Racial injustice, poverty, war and famine all flow from a deep misunderstanding of our surroundings and how we should relate to them.

Nature is a cooperative experience that can’t possibly happen as isolated incidents or in a vacuum. So part of achieving true justice is looking at insects like bees, beetles or ants as part of a larger scheme of life. It’s seeing that humans are only a part of the wonder of this world. Only greed pollutes this with a desire to control, to use, and to superimpose ourselves onto the world. As we use the bee and it dies, so do we. If not immediately, then existentially, because we’ve failed to see the all-important connections all living things share.

Food justice is also about creating a sustainable culture that respects the relationships of all living organisms. The decline of the honey bee is telling us something about the ultimate price of human encroachment without a full understanding about what that means. An ounce of the natural world is worth all of the tens of billions of tons of metal and concrete that are twisted into our cities.

In spite of the odds there’s hope too:

The good news is that these modern trends can be challenged and people are challenging them, by becoming urban beekeepers. Between its Seattle Community Farm and Marra Farm Giving Garden, Solid Ground’s Lettuce Link program maintains a dozen beehives. The irony of these efforts is that urbanized areas may in fact be the bee’s salvation. Urban areas offer a diversity of food and climates that more rural areas are increasingly lacking.

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Join the struggle to save honey bees:

Cities and their surrounding neighborhoods provide an opportunity to balance out what’s being destroyed. There are several Seattle-area groups that deal with all aspects of urban beekeeping. There are ways to get involved because there’s a lot of wasted space locally. Backyards, empty lots and rooftops offer opportunities that go unrealized.

Want to do something about this right now? Here’s how:

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