The Vanishing Bees

Here’s a new one for the documentary round-up. Compared with the ones I’ve been watching lately about education and human trafficking, I thought this would be more lighthearted, easy-to-digest documentary. Wrong. The documentary was downright alarming because it wasn’t just about bees; it was about our environment and the precarious balance of it. I watched Food, Inc. a few months ago, and I highly recommend watching Vanishing of the Bees alongside it. Food, Inc. is helpful because it introduces viewers to the concept of factory farming. With that backdrop, Vanishing of the Bees was more alarming. It’s not in the viewer’s face with the piles of dead chickens and rivers of manure, a veritable gore-fest in Food, Inc. Instead, it’s a quiet, and perhaps more powerful, reminder that we live in a phenomenally designed ecosystem and that we need to be far more careful than we are about the ripple effects of what we do as we innovate our crop production techniques.

Here are two themes of which I’m becoming increasingly sensitive to as I learn more about our food system:’

  1. Mono, mono, mono — As production becomes key, we’ve introduced an industrial mindset to our farming practices. I’m not saying that small farms of the past would sustain the population today, so I’m not advocating for a return to 1900s style farming. But our consumption patterns are problematic. We should know that. This movie explains that in a push for production, we’ve built monocultures across the country, areas where only one crop exists. This disrupts the balance of nature, often detrimentally. It increases the severity of pest invasions and crowds out helpful co-existing crops and insects like bees that help with pollination. And the interventions to make these systems work often compound problems rather than solving them. The demand for bees and the disruption of nature means that now bees are trucked from Florida to California back to Florida then to the Northeast and then home again to Florida. Native bee populations are not sufficient to support pollination in these regions. Something seems off in this model, and it certainly doesn’t seem ecofriendly since the bees make their cross-country journey on tractor trailers.
  2. Manipulation.  – The bee breeding business is highly manipulated. Did you know that bees are artificially inseminated? I’m fully aware of the practice in the world of horses and pigs and dogs, but bees shocked me. More alarming than that though is the fact that the problem of bees going missing by the thousands has now been definitively linked to systemic pesticides used in fertilizers and genetically-altered crops. The bee keepers are finally seeing a connection. When they take their bees to pollinate a crop treated with these systemic pesticides, the bee keepers often face catastrophic loss of bees shortly after the bee hives are retrieved from those areas. Bees in France were disappearing under virtually the same conditions as bees are in the United States; the systemic pesticides were banned and within a year the bee population was making a significant comeback.

So, here’s what really gets me. This isn’t good journalism because I’m burying the lead, but here’s what happens to the bees. They feed on the plants containing the systemic pesticides, specifically those classes as neonicoinoids; they don’t die immediately because the dosages are not lethal. The bees take this pollen back to the hive where it is introduced into the systems of developing young. And, these are the young who just disappear one day. They leave and never make it back to their hives, abandoning all the young in their hive and their queen, which is the last word in bizarre in the bee world. The bees wind up with weakened immune systems and damaged nervous systems. Neonicotinoids do not affect humans in the same way that they affect bees by any stretch of the imagination. However, the substances in these pesticides did cause increased anxiety in adult rats.  And, though studies are only in the preliminary stages, there is some evidence that these substances have more impact on the rat brain in utero than was previously conjectured as scientists hypothesized about the affect of neonicotinoids on the brains of mammals.

So what?

I guess that’s the question it’s important to ask, or else I’m just venting here. The Environmental Protection Agency at this time is aware of the situation, but it only on the cusp of investigating these links. Unfortunately, the time period  for posting to their open call for comments on the issue expired in September 2012. You can track the progress of their investigations.

While that process unfolds, act local. The next time I need honey, I intend to buy it at farmers market or other organic source. Part of the reason for questionable beekeeping practices is because our market is currently flooded by honey from other countries that contains cheap additives. Honey producers in the United States cannot compete with the prices driven artificially low by these artificial fillers. I probably only buy honey once a year or every other year, but still, a drop in the bucket is a drop in the bucket.

I have no idea yet what to do about corn and wheat without getting super dramatic (not ready to go gluten free), but this is starting to come onto my radar as I realize how much of my diet is filled with these crops that have been genetically altered. I love me my bread, so this is something I need to sort through. I’m not going to panic and swear off of all bread, but the cheap wheat and corn based snack food I buy is looking less and less appealing these days.

And, finally, consider watching the documentary. If nothing else, the hour you spend should leave you with a greater appreciation of the delicate design of nature.