An old meaning of the word vivid is lively and vigorous. And what can be more lively and vigorous than foraging bees? They and their produce are life-enhancing too, and in elemental ways. Their importance in the human life-cycle, for one, is marked in an old Shropshire custom of ‘telling the bees’ when someone dies. So it is my belief that we can’t think too much, or too often about bees. Not only do nearly three quarters of our food crops depend on them for pollination, but the natural environment needs them too – those plants and trees whose flowers are also pollinated by them.
Up at the allotment we are very lucky. We seem to have plenty of bees, and many varieties too, but then most of the allotment gardeners rarely use pesticides apart from the odd slug pellet. Yesterday when I was there, my raspberry patch was thrumming with bee-hum. It was mesmeric. They also love my neighbours’ phaecelia which is grown as a green manure. Pete and Kate decided to leave theirs standing just for the bees. The flowers are beautiful anyway.
My field beans are another favourite. Again these beans, a relation of the broad bean, are usually grown to dig in before flowering and fruiting. But courtesy of the bees, I leave mine to produce masses of pea pod sized pods. The beans are small, and more delicious versions of broad beans. So thank you, bees. Also the bean blossom has a blissful scent. It’s a win-win-win situation.
The debate over whether neonicotinoid pesticides are responsible for the massive bee deaths across the globe wrangles on. You can follow some of the arguments in the two BBC Science reports at the links below. One recent startling discovery by a study at Newcastle University, is that bees are attracted to the pesticides. They seem to like the nicotine in much the same way humans do. Researchers have yet to discover if bees also get hooked on the stuff.
So why do we need pesticides? The actual fact is that any large-scale, mono-crop production will attract, in huge numbers, the pests that use that crop for their food and reproductive cycle. Monoculture environments also lack the kind of predator insect diversity, that would, in a naturally diverse ecosystem, keep such crop pests under control.
So the demand for pesticides is created, and the drive for profit, and for the production of cheap food keeps us locked into pesticide dependence. It’s not hard to see why we seem stuck with this system. The economics of unpicking it look impossible to broach.
Here’s another thought, though. Mono-crop systems are also vulnerable to new pests — whose advent is ever more likely, either through accidental imports or by climate-shift trans-located pests that may have no natural predators in their new-found homeland.
I have personal experience of what happens when dependence on one particular crop meets an alien pest. In the 1980s the Central American Larger Grain Borer beetle was introduced into Africa in a consignment of food aid maize, and once there, spread up the continent like wildfire, chomping the contents of village grain stores to dust. (And being faced with such a pest, who would knowingly want to put insecticide directly onto their food before eating it?). This infestation is what took us to Africa in 1992 where Graham was working on a project to introduce a natural predator to check the LGB spread. (See Carnations, crooks and colobus at Lake Naivasha, and Letters from Lusaka part I ).
The consequences of this particular dudu’s arrival were compounded by the fact that, since colonial times, maize had become a staple in many African countries (European settlers doled it out as rations in part payment to their African labour), so largely replacing the local cultivation of a wide range of native, more nutritious small-grain crops. Maize is also a hungry, water-demanding plant that can easily fail if there is insufficient rain. And, if repeatedly grown on the same ground, it will soon deplete fragile volcanic soils and contribute to erosion. This happened on Kenya’s native reserves during World War II when Western Province farmers were encouraged to grow maize for export to Europe to support the war effort. They grew bumper harvests, but the land suffered, and probably has never recovered.
So we see in just one example the kind of vicious downward spiral of impoverishment that can result when humans think they know better, and don’t consider the consequences of tinkering with an existing system.
In fact, when we left Kenya in 2000, German agricultural aid workers were advising rural farmers to go back to cottage garden farming methods, mixing different crops up together to fool the pests, and so avoid the need to buy expensive pesticides. i.e. advocating precisely what Bantu farmers had been doing for a couple of thousand years before colonial agricultural officers told them that inter-cropping was bad practice, and that they needed to adopt European cash-crop methods in order to grow export-worthy produce.
All of which is to say, we all of us need biodiversity for our well being, if not for our survival. With climate change, we cannot afford to limit options in food production by remaining in thrall to the reductionist models perpetuated by factory farming, supermarket buying power, genetic engineering that reduces native crop diversity, and by the pesticide hegemony in general. At the very least we need the bees. Anything that threatens them, threatens to seriously limit our good food choices. The health of humanity and the planet’s ecosystems depends on them.
As consumers we have buying power. It is perhaps the one real power we do have, otherwise corporations would not spend so much money trying to persuade us to buy their goods. If we are able, we can support small local producers who do not use pesticides. We can say no to genetically modified crops that have caused their producers to give up, or lose their native crop varieties. We can grow bee-friendly plants, and if we can afford to, buy only organically cultivated produce. We can grow as much of our own food as possible. It’s amazing what can be grown in containers if garden space is in short supply, and sprouted seeds can be grown in the kitchen all year round. So let’s keep our bees vigorous and lively, in whatever way we can!
© Tish Farrell