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Considering bees, industrious but not industrial

Nowadays when I see bees in my garden, I pay close attention. I have noticed at least four different types. They buzz purposely—so focused on the periwinkle blue flowers of my rosemary hedge. I crouch down to examine their fuzzy bodies and the gorgeous floral interiors that are the center of their apian attention. The wondrous dance of bees and flowers has been evolving for millions of years, but in the past few, it has it become frighteningly tenuous. Since Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) was first recognized in the U.S. in 2006, news about the plight of honeybees and native bees has only worsened around the world. Last year alone, an estimated 30 billion bees died. Bees pollinate over 80 percent of all food crops and are responsible for about one-third the calories we eat, and though we rarely remember this fact, we are wholly dependent on the busy little buzzers. Although a specific cause for CCD has yet to be been nailed down, several building factors have likely contributed. Pesticides could be causing the immuno-suppression of bees, or a combination of factors, such as blood-sucking varroa mites, diseases, and nutritional stress, might all interact to weaken bee colonies to the point of collapse. What’s clear is that all likely contributing factors are linked to our industrial approach to pollination:
  • We’ve become too dependent on a single bee species to pollinate our crops, which makes our agriculture extremely vulnerable to problems caused by pathogens, especially in the face of environmental stresses.
  • Global exchange of bees has allowed the spread of pathogens. Although the Honey Bee Act of 1922 long prohibited importation of hives to prevent the spread of disease, varroa mites likely hitchhiked in with smuggled queen bees, and at least one virus associated with CCD is likely to have entered the U.S. in 2005, when Congress approved an exemption in response to pressure from almond growers, who were in desperate need of pollination by more commercial hives.
  • Just last week, the Seattle PI reported massive fraud in honey, with tons of honey from China flooding into the U.S. contaminated with illegal antibiotics—unapproved for food in the U.S.—but used widely in China to cope with prevalent hive diseases. In most organisms, indiscriminate antibiotic use increases the likelihood of antibiotic-resistant diseases.
  • Rather than enhance habitat to keep bees well nourished with floral nectars, beekeepers have increasingly used corn syrup as a supplemental feed, leading some researchers to question the nutritional adequacy of bees’ modern diets and whether that might play a contributing role in vulnerability to disease.
With news of last year’s honey production cut in half in the UK and farmers fearing for their orchards in Italy, the European Parliament took action on the bee front. In November, according to the Christian Science Monitor, the EU approved the creation of Bee Recovery Areas. Though the Parliament’s vote will carry no legal weight, it is a strong recommendation for EU member states to take action.) Bee Recovery Areas would be pesticide-free zones planted with nectar rich flowers—swaths of bee heaven located in the midst of farmlands that have become inhospitable. The areas would amount to less than 1 percent of the land, but would offer important refuge to these crucial pollinating insects. In addition, France and Germany have already banned a class of insecticides implicated in massive bee-die offs. Here is the U.S., government policies have thus far focused on determining the specific cause of CCD, breeding disease resistant bee varieties (with genetic engineering techniques), and figuring out how to better track bee health. Yet last year’s Farm Bill also recognized the importance of improving habitat for bees—both honey and native. Already, on-the-ground work of increasing habitat favorable to bees has been started by key non-profit groups, such as the Xerces Society, which has been collaborating with farmers to plant more hedgerows of bee-nourishing plants close to crop plants. Funding for some of these projects has come from the USDA through existing conservation cost-share funding programs. No matter which particular cause ends up as smoking gun, farming with fewer pesticides, organic farming, and planting more hedgerows close to crop plants will all be important approaches to consider—and soon—as we aim to avert this global bee catastrophe. Bees are undoubtedly industrious creatures, but they are not industrial. Finding a solution to the CCD crisis demands we recognize that agricultural models based on industrial production are neither resilient nor sustainable. We must recognize the ecological context of farming. At this point, improving habitat for bees—both native and honey—may be the single most important precaution we can take. I am glad to think that my rosemary hedge might offer some small swath of refuge to bees in this troubled world. To learn more about pollinators’ plight and what you can do to help, including how to plant for bees, see the Pollination Partnership website, which offers free regional planting guides. See also the website of the Xerces Society. If you want to read a book, check out The Forgotten Polllinators—which helped inspire me to realize that we must all become more “literate” about the ecological context of our kitchens. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- Ann VileisisAnn Vileisis is the author of Kitchen Literacy: How We Lost Knowledge of Where Food Comes From and Why We Need to Get it Back, which was recently recognized as a Finalist for the Connecticut Book Award. Visit her website.