Mendo Island Journal — Timely. Useful. Sometimes Cranky.

Todd Walton: No Honeybees

In Todd Walton on June 8, 2012 at 6:04 am


“The busy bee has no time for sorrow.” William Blake

I am not a master gardener. I’ve been growing vegetables and flowers and herbs for fifty years, and at various times I’ve made my living as a landscaper, gardener, and pruner of fruit trees. A renter for most of my life, I have moved many times and had many gardens ranging in size from quite large to very small. I have gardened in cool climates and moderate climates and hot climates, in sandy loam and rich black earth and barely arable pygmy; and I’ve made a habit of picking the brains of other gardeners about the how’s and why’s and do’s and don’ts of growing things. Which is all to say, I know something about gardening, but would not describe myself as an expert.

People exploring my gardens used to ask, “How do you attract so many honeybees?”

And I used to reply, “Borage and white clover.”

I was twenty-one and the proud creator of a big vegetable garden in Santa Cruz when I discovered how incredibly attractive borage is to bees, and I have known about the bee-seducing power of white clover since I was a boy and had the arduous task of mowing a large lawn of white clover with an old dull steel push mower, a weekly chore that gave me bigger muscles than most of my friends and made me the dreaded enemy of hundreds of happily grazing honeybees.

However, as of early June in my Mendocino garden of 2012, I have yet to see a single honeybee visiting the big beautiful borage plants with their myriad blue flowers, nor have I seen any honeybees delighting in the robust white clover growing between two of my vegetable beds. Bumblebees abound, thank goodness, as do various other pollinating insects, but honeybees are notably and sadly missing from my garden this year. How come?

“What is not good for the swarm is not good for the bee.” Marcus Aurelius

For several years now I have been reading articles about the ongoing and accelerating collapse of honeybee colonies in the United States and Canada and around the world, resulting in the shocking disappearance of honeybees. I have counted myself extremely lucky to have plenty of honeybees in my garden here in Mendocino given the dire state of honeybee populations elsewhere; but right now there are no honeybees in my garden, and I think I know why. Someone around here is using neonicotinoids.               

Neonicotinoids, as with previous generations of insecticides, kill insects by attacking their central nervous systems. But unlike these predecessor poisons that killed bugs during and shortly after spraying, neonicotinoids are absorbed into the tissues of plants and remain there, fully toxic, through an entire growing season (or seasons) which, of course, includes those weeks and months when the poisoned plants are flowering and being visited by unsuspecting honeybees, who then return to their hives coated with poisonous pollen and poison the entire hive.

The science confirming the direct causal link between neonicintoids and honeybee colony collapse is indisputable, so much so that France, Germany and Italy, among other nations, have wisely banned the use of neonicotinoids. However, the giant pharmaceutical/pesticide companies, including Bayer (of Bayer aspirin fame) that produce and sell neonicotinoids, are spending many millions to dispute the science so they can continue making billions selling this latest greatest poison, of which jillions of gallons are sold and deployed in the good old U.S.A.

“Against stupidity the very gods themselves contend in vain.” Friedrich Schiller

Can we agree that manufacturing and knowingly employing a chemical that is the proven cause of honeybee annihilation is stupid and shortsighted? Good. Yet isn’t it interesting that people acting in such stupid and shortsighted ways are frequently (as in most of the time) the captains of industry and the rulers of nations? Why would this be? Darwin suggested that Nature selects for traits that aid in the continuation of a species. If that is true, then stupidity must contribute (or have contributed) greatly to the survival of the human species, for why else would stupidity of such epic proportions be so prevalent in so many human societies and a dominant trait of leaders in those societies?

I realize that traits often come in bunches, and that avarice and greed and cruelty and narcissism might be bundled with stupidity to give certain individuals a survival edge over others. But it still seems odd to me that people who knowingly extinct honeybees should have any advantage over those who dedicate themselves to making the world a wonderful place to be a bee.

If you suppress grief too much, it can well redouble.” Moliere

I am very sad about the disappearing honeybees and our collective unwillingness to put an end to the cause of their disappearance. I am also very sad about the broken down nuclear power plants at Fukushima continuing to radiate the earth and the ocean (speaking of incredible shortsightedness and stupidity) and our collective unwillingness to shut down all the nuclear power plants in the world. Then, too, I am sad about our collective unwillingness to address the gigantic problem of human overpopulation. I am also sad that…well, the list is long and I will only add that for the first time in forty years of growing garlic, I am losing a sizeable portion of my crop to root maggots. And though there is no obvious causal connection between the absence of honeybees in my garden this year and this onslaught of root maggots, I cannot help feeling the two phenomena are related.

I have no doubt that a pharmaceutical agribusiness consultant would tell me, “Now see, if you had drenched your young garlic plants in neonicotinoids, or better yet planted garlic cloves soaked in neonicotinoids, you wouldn’t have a root maggot problem. No sir, because neonicotinoids kill bugs dead and keep on killing.”

“Insects are born from the sun. They are the sun’s kisses.” Alexander Scriabin

When I was ten and eleven, I was an avid collector of butterflies and insects. I had several cigar boxes filled with specimens of dragonflies and bumblebees and beetles and wasps. Each specimen was carefully skewered on a long pin that passed through the insect body at a perfect balancing point and then stuck firmly in the bottom of the cigar box. A small square of paper identifying the bug—both the common name and the Latin name—was skewered on that same pin beneath the specimen. My butterflies were displayed in black-framed cases of glass pressing down on specimens arrayed against a background of white cotton, an ensemble suitable for hanging on the wall.

I had an excellent butterfly net and a glass jar half-filled with solidified gypsum plaster soaked in formaldehyde. Most bugs dropped into this jar with the cover quickly affixed would die in a matter of seconds, though there were some beetles and larger butterflies that lived on for several terrible minutes before dying. I did not like killing things, but I loved hunting for butterflies and bugs, and I wanted to have fine specimens of every insect in my domain. I remember it took me dozens of attempts before I successfully skewered a mosquito so it appeared to be a mosquito rather than a squished blob of protoplasm.

One day while roaming the fields, I caught sight of a Black Swallowtail butterfly, a species rarely seen in our watershed, and I was desperate to catch her, for then my collection would be second to none in the neighborhood. I chased that big beautiful butterfly over hill and dale, and though she eluded me for a good long time, she eventually alighted on a bush of bright red flowers and I netted her and killed her in a tizzy of triumph.

But when I added her beautiful black-winged body to the case in which I displayed my most spectacular butterflies, I suddenly felt stupid and mean; and I never hunted butterflies again and nevermore showed off my insect collection to admiring friends. Not that I think there is anything wrong with a child collecting insects. I learned a great deal by doing so, and I had many wonderful adventures while questing for those marvelous beings. But ultimately I realized that I was trying to catch happiness and keep it in a box, which turns out to be impossible. Better to leave the bugs to live their lives as they leave us to live ours, with the exception of ticks and mosquitoes. I do try to kill those little buggers when they come to bite me.
This article appeared in the Anderson Valley Advertiser June 2012


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