The other day I had lunch at the Colonial Inn in Concord with a couple of friends. It was a beautiful late summer's day, and we sat out on the porch. The porch is surrounded by lush gardens, so we were surrounded by harmless droning bumble bees going about their busy-bee business with the begonias, and by not so harmless yellow jackets that just seemed to be hanging around for the free lunch. The yellow jackets were pretty aggressive - one of them crawled down my straw - but eventually they got the point and realized that we were going to give them the brushoff and not let them light on our food.
Bees are another one of those things that us city folk don't have to think about too much. We do have them, but they are decidedly not something I give much thought to. Us city folks, we spend more time fretting about silverfish and rats. (I noticed that the neighbors a couple of doors up have two new rat traps out back of their house. Yuck.)
If I thought anything about what bees did, it would fall into two categories: buzz around and make honey. Even when I see the all those hives on my annual pilgrimage to Brookfield Orchard (home of the Happy Apple), I thought it was because Brookfield sold honey. The bees' role in the apple making process never occurred to me.
But a recent article in The New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert ("Stung," August 6, 2007) has got me thinking about bees.
Agriculture relies on honeybees to pollinate/cross-pollinate many crops, including apples, "blueberries, cranberries, cherries, cucumbers, watermelons, cantaloupes, and pumpkins", and the bees that they rely on are often migrant workers, owned by commercial beekeepers who truck them around the country following the different pollination seasons as surely as migrant workers follow the crops that need picking.
The magnitude honeybees required is truly staggering. Kolbert writes that the California almond industry alone needs the help of 1.5 million hives to service it.
Unfortunately for farmers (and consumers: as the price of pollination goes up, so does the price of what's being pollinated), we are now being plagued by something called "colony-collapse disorder."
Sounds grim, and it is.
Starting last year, it seems, honeybees are dying off. Some apiaries have lost up to ninety percent of their bees.
There were and are a lot of different theories about the "why": drought, insecticides, cell phones.... But it seems that, whatever the "why" is, the dead and dying bees are infected with multiple ailments, which Kolbert characterizes as "an insect version of AIDS." (A virus from imported bees is the likely suspect for "lead pathogen.")
Honeybee die-offs are not unheard of - a paper cited by Kolbert states that there have been 14 unexplained wipe-outs in the last 100 years. Still, there is ample cause for alarm. Honeybees are what is called a generalist that can pollinate so many different fruits and vegetables. (Think Type O blood.) Replacing them won't be easy.
Further, wild pollinators are also dying off, and many species are becoming extinct because of loss of habitat, pesticides, and - yes - climate change.
Lately when we think of species becoming extinct, we're likely thinking polar bear. And I, for one, do not want to live in a world where the only polar bears are in the Central Park Zoo.
But, as Kolbert has it,
...if it's a bad sign when an ecosystem loses its large mammals, it is probably an even worse sign when it can no longer support its insects.
Citing a report from the National Research Council, she continues:
"Pollinator decline is one form of global change that actually does have credible potential to alter the shape and structure of the terrestrial world."
When I was a young folkie fan, one of the more popular songs was the anti-war anthem, Where Have All the Flowers Gone?
We may be asking ourselves that question again soon.As the last words of the song go:
When will we ever learn, when will we ever learn?