Have you noticed the absence of environmental issues in the media whenever there are big party political struggles, as currently in the UK, or where capitalist profits are at stake? The public visible world concerns economic growth or lack of it, interest rates, proposed burka bans, migration, terrorist attacks, the Olympics, the intentions of China or Russia. All these issues are connected, yet the connections are made invisible. The lack of context increases our level of fear. I suspect it reminds us of being small and young, at the mercy of (often) irrational grown ups, whose behaviour made no sense. But while we seek comfort in our cappucinos, environmental degradation keeps on happening.
Among other things, the global honey bee population keeps decreasing, although it’s impossible to get accurate figures. Because of the vast differences in bee keeping practices it’s hard to know just what’s happening. In addition, there are vested interests involved, so that there’s no agreement about severity of the decline and what is causing it. Sound familiar? Yes, just like global warming.
The friends I stayed with in Newfoundland, Canada, keep bees. Here, I am holding the syrup with which we humans fob them off. The bee population in Newfoundland is free of the viruses plaguing bees in many parts of the world, and the local beekeepers want to keep it that way. They restrict imported queens lest they be infected.
Honey bees are not the only pollinators (and they aren’t native to the Americas), but they are super-important to humans because they are relatively controllable. I learnt from my friends that most commercial beekeeping is migratory. Who knew that bees are rented out, to arrive on lorries, to do their pollinating work and be moved elsewhere? OK, a lot of people did. You can herd sheep, but not cats. You can ride horses, but not zebras. And apparently you can move honeybees around so that their instinctive behaviour makes you a profit, but you can’t do that with bumblebees or pollinating flies.
These commercial practices are certainly stressful to bees. Well, I can’t say I’d like it. The bees are specially bred, which means the colonies lack the genetic diversity means increased resistance to mites and viruses. The stress and the exposure to unfamiliar local pathogens, together with exposure to pesticides and fungicides, are probably among the interacting factors producing ‘Colony collapse disorder’ In that frightening scenario, the beekeeper discovers that most worker bees have disappeared, leaving the queen, a few larvae and some nurses – even though food is still present.
No surprise that climate change is almost certainly a factor in colony collapse disorder. Increased rainfall washes pollen away and makes bees unwilling to fly out. Increased droughts diminishes the number of flowers available. The unpredictable weather plays havoc with the complex instinctive pathways, in which one event is followed by another. Bees are incredible creatures, but not known for flexible, creative thinking. (As we humans are, when not infected by that pesky capitalism virus).
While all this is happening, we are taking photos of our delicious dinners and posting the result on Facebook. Why? Maybe we can’t bear so much beauty to end up as mush in our insides. So much colour. So much work. So many acts of pollination. So much profit for (some of) the manufacturers, transporters and sellers of food.
So little profit for others of them, especially the growers. Perhaps bees are like the canaries they used to take down coal mines. If the canary died, you knew there was gas and you got out of there quickly. Bees are dying. Bees are losing their way home. Bees are no longer able to pollinate the huge amount of food crops we need, or want, them to pollinate (9.5% of global agricultural production).
Innocent consumers are buying plants advertised as bee-friendly, plants so impregnated with pesticides that they actually kill the bee which sucks their nectar and burrows into their stamens.
Even before Brexit, the National Farmers’ Union in the UK lobbied the government and obtained 120 days in the year exemption from the EU moratorium on neonicotinoids. “The ‘neonics’ are thought to affect parts of the bee’s brain where sensory information related to orientation is stored. Scientists fear that exposure to even low doses of the substances could confuse bees, making it harder for them to find good sources of nutrition or safely return home to their hives.” They affect both wild bumble bees and honey bees. They are probably a factor in colony collapse.
Enemies of bees: Syngenta, Bayer Crop Science, Monsanto… and many more.
These firms are employing good and clever people to do bad things – to lie, to misinform, to misrepresent, to lobby, against the interests of bees and humans. Sad to see middle-class prostitution on such a scale.
China – the best and the worst?
I’ve seen beehives on cliffs in Turkey, and was told they were put up there to protect them from bears. Now I read that while in some parts of China, honey bees have disappeared and farmers are pollinating their crops by hand with feather dusters, in the Shennongjia Nature Reserve, 700 beehives have been hung off a cliff to attract wild bees. Bee keepers climb precariously from hive to hive.
Honey is appreciated in China for its health-giving properties. and used in traditional medicines. I am sure that Chinese consumers know pure honey from honey of poor quality. But China is vast and diverse, and exports may be a different matter. The US has imposed import taxes on China for ‘dumping’. N.L.Garcia, writing in the American Bee Journal, analyses the global fall in honey prices and its possible causes. How can so much cheap honey be available, when productivity per hive is steadily decreasing, and demand (led by the US) has risen? He suspects that adulterated honey, probably from China, is being imported by various other countries who are repackaging it and exporting it as local, avoiding the US taxes. There are several ways of adulterating honey. You can increase productivity by using antibiotics, which leave a residue in the product. You can add syrups. You can harvest immature (watery) honey and dehumidify it in ‘honey factories’.
But, Garcia argues, artificially low prices will drive beekeepers out of business. And the world will be the poorer, because there will be even fewer honey bees to pollinate our food crops.