By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now
Rachel Carson once warned the world that the pesticides we were using to kill weeds were devastating birds, threatening to bring on a ‘Silent Spring’.
People woke up and banned the potent herbicide DDT, saving the American Bald Eagle and countless song birds (and fish, farm animals, trees and more). They began to control pollution and clean up rivers and lakes, answering Carson’s clarion call.
But we never really stopped manipulating nature to our own ends, especially when it comes to pesticides. Chemical companies switched to ostensibly safer versions, and then, fast forward a few decades, to a new class of pesticides that changes plants systemically, making crops toxic to insects — both those that are considered pests and those that are beneficial.
In the case of the honeybee, the switch to neonicitinoid pesticides has been one in a series of blows that’s left the species struggling for survival.
And so again, modernization threatens a Silent Spring. In this new version, the buzzing of the honeybees, upon whom an entire food web is balanced, could be squelched. And perishing with them would be a wealth of foods we depend upon because “40-70 percent of what you eat is pollinated by bees,” says Jon Betz, producer of a film about the honeybees, Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us?.
“We’re looking at a drastic loss of the food we like, our fruits, our nuts,” he said. “Any fruit that is not the color of oatmeal…you’re probably not going to be able to eat it if bees continue the way they are.”
Of the 100 crops that provide 90 percent of the food worldwide, 71 are bee-polinated, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO).
Colony Collapse Disorder, No Mystery
You’ve probably heard that the honeybees have been disappearing by the billions over the last five years, around the globe, lost to a syndrome called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). Studies show that in the past few winters, 31 to 36 percent of honeybee hives have been lost in the United States, compared with the usual winter losses of 10-20 percent, the apparent beginnings of a death spiral.
CCD has been portrayed as a mystery disease triggered by a tiny parasite call the varoa mite that feeds on bees or possibly by a reaction to pesticides. But Betz and Taggart Siegel, the director of Queen of the Sun say that the honeybees’ affliction is no mystery, but the very predictable result of a storm of stresses that humans have placed upon the bees.
Those stresses include modern pesticides, the annual trucking of bees across country to pollinate crops in areas that lack bees, monoculture crop systems that have stripped the land of seasonal food for the honeybees and the artificial insemination of bees that’s aims to strengthen the hives but actually weakens them.
First the pesticides. In the 1990s, agricultural operations began using neonicotinoid pesticides, which essentially making crops like corn, soybeans and canola toxic to insects. The honeybees, lacking the diverse diet they once enjoyed (which included wildflowers that evolve alongside the bees) feed on the pollen of these plants, and suffer neurological damage.
Studies have shown that the effect of these neuro-chemicals devastates the bees’ ability to orient themselves, a skill that’s vital so they can swarm, act as a unit and return home to the hive.
Compounding the problem is that the crops the bees are feeding upon have virtually consumed the landscape. Corn blankets the Midwestern states, propped up by controversial subsidies and its interdependence with the livestock industry which buys up around 80 percent of the corn to feed to farm animals.
Snack foods also rely on corn, the base material for the additive High Fructose Corn Syrup.
Farm policies and a skewing of the American diet toward meat and away from fruits and vegetables has created pollen deserts, “a kind of wasteland” in the Heartland, Betz said, stripping the bees of food and leaving them vulnerable to disease, even before they’re exposed to any pesticides. Compounding the problem, of course, is the fact that the food left to them has been made toxic.
Ironically, the bees are now being employed to counter the problem of monocultures, delivering a double whammy to the domesticated honeybees.
Each year honeybee hives on big commercial honey farms are packed onto 16-wheelers and carted from the Midwest and the South to the almond orchards of California. There they are released to pollinate the almond trees.
In Queen of the Sun, one critic of the practice, a biodynamic bee farmer, points out the obvious: That the almond growers should cultivate their own pollinators. Instead of planting every available acre in almond trees, which only bloom for three weeks out of the year, the almond growers should have land set aside for other blooming plants so they could sustain their own honeybee populations.
But trucking honeybees around — in winter no less — may not even the most elaborate work-around that man has devised for the bees.
Queen of the Sun takes a critical look at the artificial insemination of queens in the honey business, asking whether it has strengthened the bees or weakened them. Queen bees no longer live as long as they once did, a hint that they’ve been over-managed, and are frequently replaced in commercial hives to pump up honey production.
“They replace them like spark plugs,” says Siegel, who also directed The Real Dirt on Farmer John. This common practice, supported by conventional beekeepers (who are excused in the film for needing to make ends meet financially), goes against the natural flow of a beehive, “which loves its queen,” and assures the genetic hardiness of future generations with an orchestrated fertility ritual.
“It’s all about productivity and what can we get from the bees instead of how can we serve the bees,” he said.
“It’s very similar to what we’re doing to cows, and pigs and chickens,” added Betz. “We’ve sliced nature into these little components and what we want from her. We want a fatter cow, a bigger chicken…
it’s looking at these factors and ignoring the whole animal.”
“We’re thinking about either (using bees for) pollination, productivity or honey production, and we’re ignoring the needs of these impossibly amazing creatures,” he said.
“They’re under-appreciated,” said Siegel.
Hope for Bees
But not everywhere are bees being treated as if they can survive any assault, from the varoa mite, which starts to look like the least of the bees’ problems, to pesticides, forced migration and genetic tampering.
A growing number of biodynamic bee farmers are preserving the old-fashioned ways of letting bees graze on natural wildflowers, while congregating in non-mobile hives. (See more about biodynamic farming, which emphasizes harmony with nature at this website.)
The film introduces us to a handful of these mavericks(among a dazzling global array of beekeepers, full-bore characters, SlowFood advocates and of course, foodie author Michael Pollan, the Michael Caine of documentaries), including one veteran naturalist beekeeper, Gunther Hauk, whose bee sanctuary Spikenard Farm and Honeybee Sanctuary is thriving in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia.
“Colony Collapse Disorder is the bill we’ve gotten for all we’ve done to the bees,” Hauk says in Queen of the Sun.
Hauk and others are trying to ameliorate the situation by building honey businesses that treat the bees humanely and restore the natural and diverse habitat they need.
European nations that have banned neonicotinoids and genetically modified crops in general also hold out hope for the bees.
Of course, a few bee sanctuaries and a handful of countries banning chemicals will not be enough; if the situation is as dire as the film, and several scientific studies suggest, we’ll need a revolution in agriculture and a renaissance of beekeeping in backyards everywhere.
Or, we could face the consequences, because after the bees will come the birds and on up the food chain.
This second Silent Spring would ultimately silence us.
“You could call it Colony Collapse Disorder of the Human Being, too,” muses Hauk.
- There are many ways you can help the honey bees, by buying only organic honey or planting wildflowers. You can also see Queen of the Sun: What Are the Bees Telling Us? The film, which had a limited theater run in 2011, was released on DVD this year. It is available on Netflix, at Blockbuster and will be screened at Whole Foods Markets this month. To find a screening near you see Do Something Reel.com or Whole Foods on Facebook.
Copyright © 2012 Green Right Now | Distributed by GRN Network