Tuesday, June 24, 2008

national pollinator week

Last Sunday kicked off National Pollinator Week (last Sunday was also my birthday; I don't think anyone planned it that way).

By now, everyone should be familiar with the problems facing honey bees: worker bees are just up and leaving the apparently healthy and functioning hive, and nobody knows why. There might be some parasite or virus that scientists haven't been able to pinpoint yet, but from what I've read it is more likely a combination stressors from all directions that are wearing the bees down to the point where I guess they just give up.

Pesticides are a big one; after all, it is not inconceivable that chemicals designed to kill one kind of insect may have effects on another kind of insect. Genetically modified crops are a big stressor, too, particularly Bt corn. Even if exposure to pesticides and GMO crops does not kill the adult bees outright, it will weaken their immune system and make them more susceptible to disease, and it will almost certainly disrupt the development of the more vulnerable larvae, who feed on the chemically-tainted nectar and pollen that the adult bees bring back to the hive.

Another stressor for the honey bees is a poor diet. Many (most?) commercial honey bees are trucked around the country to pollinate different crops as they go to flower, so for a few weeks they're in Maine pollinating blueberries, then later they're in Pennsylvania for a while pollinating apples, then they're in Florida pollinating melons, etc. Large scale, commercial farms almost exclusively have their field planted in huge, monocropped expanses, and there is precious little diversity (wildflowers, after all, are "weeds") and there are increasingly fewer and fewer greenbelts or hedgerows or other places left wild, and what that means is that the bee's diet is limited to whatever crops they are plunked down in. How do you think you would feel if you ate nothing but bread? (Which, actually, might be our fate if the honeybees disappear completely.) And many of these crop plants are ultra ultra hybridized to produce the biggest, most perfect-looking fruit. For us humans, this fruit is often less tasty and less nutritious than the more natural versions, so it would follow that the pollen and nectar are also less nutritious for honey bees. Bees in this situation might also be overcrowded in an attempt to ensure adequate pollination, which means that there's not enough nectar to go around and the bees go hungry.

All that traveling, chasing the bloom, adds to the stress of bees, and exposes them to a wider variety of diseases and other pathogens. Then there's a host of "smaller" stressors, like climate change or pollution or electromagnetic radiation from cell phones (although I think that last one has been disproven).

If honeybees go completely kaput, so does about one third of our food—pretty much all fruit, vegetables, beans, and nuts. Even meat and dairy products might become scarce or more expensive, since many animal feed crops (like soybeans or clover) are pollinated by bees. The only thing that would be safe, really, would be grains like wheat, which are wind pollinated. There are other insects that work as pollinators, but none on a commercial scale, and it wouldn't be worth it to try to domesticate some other species of bee or fly or moth or hummingbird for pollination purposes (as cute as a hummingbird farm would be), because we'd eventually just run up against the same problems. It's our agricultural system that's corrupt, not the honey bees.

So what can you do to help honey bees and other pollinators? One solution that's always mentioned is to plant flowers and vegetables in your yard, and although it sounds small and insignificant, it does make a huge difference. Native wildflowers produce better food for native pollinators, and heirloom fruits, vegetables, and flower varieties produce a higher quality pollen than many of the new hybrids, which are often sterile. You could also think about setting up a beehive of your own. Small scale and backyard beekeepers rarely experience the same calamities that commercial beekeepers do, and I reckon the bees are happier, too. Growing your own food also means that you are less dependant on big agriculture and all its evils.

Another important thing you can do is to support bee-friendly agriculture. Buying organic is a good start, and it's cleaner for the air and water and soil, but in my opinion a huge, monocropped, organic field is only marginally superior than a huge, monocropped, non-organic field. A better solution is to support small, local, sustainable farms, which may or may not be certified organic. Small farms are more likely to have a diverse selection of crops, and are also more likely to have pastureland or a woodlot or some other plot of greenery that is left in a wild state, all of which are better for bees and other wildlife. (Supporting local farms has a host of other benefits, too.) It's summer now in the northern hemisphere, and is the perfect time to go visit farmers markets or roadside stands, and buy local for the bees.

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