Unnatural Selection

Honeybees are dying in huge numbers. As they die from what’s called Colony Collapse Disorder, two-thirds of the fruits and vegetables we eat are threatened. What’s killing the bees is industrial agriculture and industrial civilization. Their death is a harbinger of more ecological havoc to come—in this fiftieth anniversary year of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.

Six years ago I reported on Colony Collapse Disorder. At the time, the mainstream media had just gotten wind of the issue. Now it’s been elevated to the status of a big issue through the attention of the New York Times because it’s a threat to Big Ag and Big Bees.

Big Bees? Yes. There are industrial scale beekeepers. For example, a featured “human interest” in the Times coverage is a beekeeper who ordinarily ships 13,000 beehives on 31 tractor-trailers from Montana to California each year to pollinate vast orchards of almonds—where, in fact, 9 out of every 10 almonds in the US are produced. This year, the beekeeper was only able to ship 3,000 hives.

I have to say that using the word “beekeeper” to talk about a business that hauls 13,000 hives halfway across the country just sounds wrong. The beekeepers I’ve known are people who haul their hives around to local orchards in beat-up ¾-ton pickups missing most of their paint. I guess I’m just old fashioned.

In any event, the Times article turns to concerns about pesticides and their effect on bee survival. The latest culprit is a new class of insecticides called neonicotinoids that are incorporated via genetic modification into crops so they will produce their own insecticide thereby eliminating the cost of spraying. The European Union is likely to ban their use because of the effect on bee populations. In the US, the Environmental Protection Agency approved their use, but the Center for Food Safety (representing four beekeepers and five environmental and consumer groups) has filed suit to reverse that decision.

The pesticide industry is waving its hands, saying that scientists (meaning their scientists) really don’t know enough. On the other hand, the Times article raises the issue of multiple environmental causes, but quickly drops it. This seems to me to get closer to the matter.

Focusing on a single pesticide as the cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is very likely hopeless. By that I mean that it is hopelessly antiquated science. We know that it is common, and likely normal, for pesticides, herbicides, and other biologically active agricultural chemicals to interact to cause greater harm in combination than the simple sum of the harm from each individual chemical taken in isolation.

Early theories of Colony Collapse promoted the idea that mites and viruses caused honeybee deaths. That view is held by many, particularly in England. This does not detract from the view that bioactive chemicals cause Colony Collapse: weakened resistance to chemicals is no surprise after an exposure to a pathogen—and vice versa. It also points to the synergistic effects of environmental assaults generally, not just from chemicals.

And there’s yet another view about what might be at work: exposure to electromagnetic fields. It’s interesting that, although the Times article never mentions it, EMF exposures is the topic of the second comment to the article on the Times website. And, indeed, research on the EMF effects is over 40 years old.

Then there are the industrial conditions under which honeybees toil: packed up in Montana in huge masses, packed onto trucks, covered with a tarp, then jostled and slammed for 2,000 miles. That trip brings them carrying local pathogens and agricultural chemicals, which they then spread in their new home. And when they return to their permanent home, they bring pathogens and tainted pollen from their workplace.

It’s stressful—not good for resisting environmental assaults—and a public health nightmare.

Finally, recent research suggests that a key ingredient to pollination and the survival of honeybee colonies is missing from the fields to which industrial honeybees are brought to do their work: native, wild honeybees. The monoculture of industrial agricultural production in addition to the simplification and destruction of habitat generally has reduced or eliminated wild bee populations that contribute to the health of domesticated bee colonies.

Colony Collapse is not the result of imprudent use of chemicals in agriculture, a use that can be modified by still better chemicals. Colony Collapse is caused by our mode of agricultural production, which mistakes soil for a factory floor and creatures for the means of production.

Do not be fooled into thinking the buying organic will solve this problem. Industrial organic agriculture is still industrial agriculture.

A book on my shelf has the title “The Farm as Natural Habitat.” Sane people will recognize that our means of subsistence and mode of food production should pay homage to Rachel Carson.