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Archive for April, 2011

Why would a bee need a sanctuary? Bees are not hunted in the manner of large charismatic animals, such as elephants. They don’t threaten livestock, in the way of wolves or foxes. Nor do they need vast plains on which to roam, like antelopes and caribou.

Why, then are there bee sanctuaries sprouting up, brightly, here and there, like clover in the lawn? Bees, it appears, need sanctuaries so they can just be bees, living like bees are supposed to live: pollinating flowers, making nests, swarming, digging, and buzzing.

Consider the honey bee, a creature almost unimpeachably helpful to humans. Not native to North America, honey bees were imported from Europe in the 1600’s because of their ability, like Rumpelstiltskin, to turn straw into gold, to change the lowly plants of field and wayside into vats of gleaming, amber honey.

Along with this miracle of transformation, honey bees are estimated to pollinate about one third of all the food we eat, either directly, for many fruits and nuts, or indirectly, by pollinating plants consumed by farm animals. These pollination services generate $15 billion worth of crops in the United States alone.

Most of us imagine that bees go about their business of making honey and pollinating plants by waking up on fine spring days, packing the kids off to school, and flying out the backdoor for a busy day of flower flitting.

The reality is a bit less romantic. The honey bees responsible for pollinating major U.S. crops are loaded on trucks, wrapped in plastic, and driven hundreds if not thousands of miles to where they are needed. They are often fed high fructose corn syrup to give them the energy to accomplish their Herculean tasks. Think of it: feeding corn syrup to a honey bee. That, surely, is nature turned on her head.

The U.S. almond crop, one of the country’s most lucrative, now covers over a half million acres in California’s Central Valley. This land, on which nothing grows but almond trees, is breathtakingly beautiful when in bloom, but it’s as barren as a desert to most animal and insect life.

There is no balance of prey and predator to protect the trees from disease, so pesticides and herbicides must be used. There is no natural cycle of growth and decay to replenish the soil, so chemical fertilizers must be applied. When the almond crop has finished blooming, there is no other food to sustain a population of local bees, so bees must be imported, from as far away as the East coast and even Australia.

Yet, in our efforts to extract as much as possible from nature, we risk destroying the workings of systems we don’t fully understand. Over the last few decades honey bees in the United States have been afflicted by a rapid and dramatic decline, known as “Colony Collapse Disorder.” Bee keepers open their hives to find that their workers had vanished overnight, never to return. Up to one third of U.S. hives have disappeared.

Although scientists have been unable to pinpoint an exact cause for disappearing bees, continuing research implicates a combination of stresses including pesticides, parasitic mites, habitat loss, disease, and changes in plant flowering times triggered by global warming. Many native bee populations are also in sharp decline, likely affected by the same stresses as honey bees.

What bees need sanctuary from is this death by a thousand cuts. I came across the concept of a bee sanctuary in a recent documentary called Queen of the Sun. This beautiful film follows the plight of honey bees through commentaries by bee keepers, entomologists, writers, and philosophers.

Gunther Hauk maintains a small farm in Illinois with a honey bee sanctuary at its heart. It is a place where bees can find a wide variety of flowers, full of nectar, free of pesticides, and blooming for the entire season. It is a place where bees can live and breed within a functioning ecosystem, where they might be able to develop natural resistance to some of the diseases and parasites to which they are susceptible.

It’s also a place where bees work for people, making honey and pollinating crops. Farms like Hauk’s strike a balance between gathering the resources that people need to thrive, while continuing to let natural systems provide some of the heavy lifting of fertilizing plants, fighting disease, building soil, cleaning water, and maintaining a balance of pests and predators. This is important because, simply put, we don’t know how to replace all the services provided by nature; we have to let her do some of the work.

It all makes sense, yet what I found most striking about the people profiled in Queen of the Sun is that everyone in the film is madly intoxicated with bees. Bee keeper Yvon Achard brushes his moustache against honey combs crawling with bees. “They like it,” he announces happily, grinning widely at the camera. It’s clear that Achard likes it. And the bees? They don’t sting him, at least not while we’re watching.

All the romantic communing with bees depicted in the film is, perhaps, a bit over-the-top. Even if I had a moustache (which, maybe I will if Governor LePage has his druthers), I would not likely be kissing honey bees with it. Nevertheless, the film conveys an important message. If our only goal in interacting with nature is one of extraction, we will continue to disrupt system after system that we don’t comprehend and don’t know how to fix.

If, on the other hand, we can drum up some affection for the plants and animals we derive our nourishment from, there will be limits on the degree to which we can tolerate exploiting them. This in turn may protect us from ruining the natural systems we rely on for survival. The needs of other living creatures, such as food, clean air and water, and healthy soils–are largely the same as our needs.

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