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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

I'm Shocked! Shocked to Find That Bees Are Dying!

This week the USDA released the most recent results of this year's bee survey which revealed that 33% of all bee colonies under management perished in 2009.  The report sparked a brief flurry of news coverage (you can read some of these in the sidebar at right), but the stories were almost immediately and predictably eclipsed by breaking news regarding flooding in Tennessee, our Drill-Baby-Drill Drama off the Gulf Coast, Heidi Montag's most recent body work, and this morning a feature piece on the fattest cities in America.

I confess that I've never been able to understand why we call 'news' by that name.  Most of it is really old, or at least just unsurprising.  In Tennessee it rained a lot this spring.  The creeks and rivers came up as they have probably thousands of times and washed out whatever was in the way.  Off the Louisiana coast we punched a bunch of holes in the earth's crust for the purpose of releasing massive quantities of crude oil.  To facilitate this, we put in place a hugely complex (aka fragile), not to mention floating, system of extractive equipment.  When the 210,000 gallon per day spill started a couple of weeks ago, it was certainly a bad one, but in the end only one of about 270 which have occurred since offshore drilling began in the late 1960s.  As for the shocking revelation that we are fat, it's a virtual certainty that many millions more Americans heard that story on their car radios en route to get fast food than are aware that our sugar consumption has literally gone exponential in the last 20 years, rising from 26 pounds per capita annually to over 135 pounds, up from a modest 5 pounds in the late 19th century.

Viewed in the same way, the bee story is no more news than the rest.  Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the supposedly mysterious  'malady' behind this large scale die-off is about as real and about as surprising as Ms. Montag's dynamic curvature.

Certainly bees are dying at rates that make all of the world's wars of the last century combined look like polite disagreements over tea.  But CCD as a 'syndrome' is much less real than the fact that most beekeeping, like the rest of our industrial agriculture, is fundamentally extractive and destructive of life.  In the late 1980s, Wendell Berry noted in one of his essays that the amount of topsoil lost annually due to conventional farming practices far exceeded the amount of food produced in any given year.  Interestingly, one of our 'strategies' for accommodating (not countering) this destruction of the land has been to rely increasingly on petroleum to manufacture, transport, and apply artificial fertilizers.  Thank goodness we don't need soil to grow food.  It comes from supermarkets, silly!  Apparently, judging from the fleeting attention CCD coverage usually gets, we've determined that we don't need bees to grow food either.

Claude Rains in Casablanca perfectly expressed our cultural approach to 'news' of this nature when he delivered his famously fake lines, "I'm shocked!  Shocked to find that gambling is going on in here."  (croupier enters stage right and says to Rains, "Your winnings sir.")  With agriculture, forestry, energy, medicine, technology--really with virtually everything--we drive like maniacs toward a variety of cliffs and then somewhere about mid-launch into the abyss muster our most genuine affection of dramatic surprise to declare the existence of 'puzzles' and 'mysteries' and 'news' around the fact that we've just driven off the cliff.

As things accelerate alarmingly downwards, scientists are customarily called in to study matters and to suggest prudent courses of remediation.

Be a bee for a moment.  For millions of years you've evolved, freely breeding with the usual rapidity of insect populations, to become a creature accustomed to life in a stable, long-term colony probably housed in the protected hollow of a tree, a small cave, etc.  Your entire behavioral make-up is geared toward the gathering and storage of honey stocks to help your colony make it through winters, prosper, and even multiply.  The interior of your colony is a model of hygiene and order.  You've even learned to use naturally antiseptic plant resins as building materials which double as purifiers for your domain.  Nutritionally, your chosen food sources are nearly perfect:  complex sugar from nectar and pollen which is rich in vitamins B, C, A, D, and E and consists of about 35% protein.

Fast forward to the last fifty years or so.  (And, I do mean fast forward.  The shift from all of the above to what you're about to read in the new scenario has occurred almost instantaneously in the big scheme of things.)  You're still a bee, but your ability to breed freely and to adapt gracefully to environmental challenges has been utterly interrupted.  North American bee stocks have been bred down to a virtual genetic pinpoint focused entirely on honey production and docility.  Your home is no longer stable or even one that you choose.  Rather, you're given a thin-walled wood box, often augmented with artificial materials, paint, etc.  This salt box abode is also invaded on a regular basis and, in most commercial beekeeping setups, is actually moved from field to field several times each season, forcing your entire colony to reorient in search of food.  (The practice of regularly moving bees for agricultural purposes has been characterized as the single largest forced migration of a living species in history.)  What you find when you go out in search of food is mostly one thing (almonds, orange blossoms, clover, etc.) rather than the variety you're accustomed to.  Worse, it's heavily tainted with a variety of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides used to support commercial agriculture today.  Undeterred, you still muster your numbers and your instincts to store up considerable quantities of honey and pollen to get you through the winter, most of which is stolen from you to be sold.  In exchange for this nutritionally complete bounty, you're fed sugar water and occasionally a cocktail of something a biochemist has dreamed up and agribusiness has sold to beekeepers as a 'nutritional supplement'.

That was a long paragraph, one full of the dismal and mind-numbing realities surrounding this little corner of commercial agriculture, aka The Way We Eat.  So, let's recap:

  1. Bees are undergoing a massive die-off.
  2. In quite literally the past 50 years we've:
    • Bred bees down to a very narrow genetic base.
    • Largely narrowed their food supply down to a series of mono-crops.
    • Adopted a practice of radically and regularly relocating a large percentage of the bee population.
    • Replaced clean bee food sources with new ones laced with a wide variety of poisons.
    • Convinced ourselves (apparently owing to the success of our self-experimentation on the linkages between sugar consumption and health...see above) that bees don't need real food and can live well instead on mainly sugar water.
  3. We have discovered a mystery called CCD.
What do you think?  

Well, here's what I think:  I think that real news might better consist of some serious exploration of how it is that we do utterly reckless things like burn off millions of years of accumulated carbon in less than a century, or intentionally inject massive quantities of toxins into the land and water and air, or wash off a significant portion of our topsoil, or enslave entire species, or utterly deplete global water supplies, or introduce radical genetic interventions in the form of GMO crops, or even radically alter our own diet in the service of we do all of these things and still keep a straight face when we call in the scientists to help us explain the wreckage that results.

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