Friday, August 29, 2008

Calhoun’s Cannons, The Bay News, Tolosa Press, SLO, CA for August 29, 2008

Counting Bees

All summer I waited for them. Sitting in the bright yellow Adirondack chair under the striped patio umbrella in Kifani’s Corner, coffee mug in hand, I watched the blooming flower beds for a sign of them. Improbably dressed huge yellow and black bumble bees came to scramble among the sweet smelling lavender spears. And insolent flies, annoying in their persistence, looking for dog poo. And dozens of white butterflies dancing over the Four o’Clocks. And hummingbirds, playing kamikaze above the lemon tree while screeching at me to fill their little feeders. But no bees.

Granted the weather hasn’t been normal. A sudden day of 109’ temperatures left many plants in the yard fried to a crumbly crisp, followed by chilly June Glooms in what should have been a sunny August. So it’s understandable that the normal number of bees out foraging might drop a bit through sheer confusion. But bees are notorious workers who normally let nothing keep them from their appointed rounds.

Except now something is causing a mass disappearance of the bees. Billions of them dying off in something called “colony collapse.” And the die off is a huge problem. Notes Al Meyerhoff, former director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s public health program, in and Op-Ed in the L.A. Times, “Here in the U.S., the bee kill is a big problem. Domesticated bees were brought to the U.S. on the Mayflower. Today, they contribute at least $15 billion to the nation’s agricultural economy. For example, California’s $2-billion-a-year almond crop is completely dependent on honeybees from about 1.5 million hives for pollinations. This year, more than 2.4 million bee colonies – 35% of the total – were lost in the U.S., according to the Apiary Inspectors of America. Some colonies collapsed in two days.”

The culprit or cause is unknown at this point. Some point to the possibility of some new disease organism infecting hives. Others, like Mr. Meyers, suspect our factory farming’s focus on “monoculture” – instead of rotating crops which discourages settled colonies of pests, we grow the same crop year after year and as a result have to use stronger and stronger pesticides to control the rapidly evolving bugs who come to live and dine on a sure thing. Other scientists suspect the synergy of our overall pesticide use is finally catching up to our little buzzing “canaries in the coal mine” – while one particular poison may not be harmful, combine it with the pea-soup of pesticides and chemicals we’re awash in, and it can spell real trouble.

Whatever the cause turns out to be, the present loss of honeybees is sure to be costly to farmers – not enough bees available to pollinate the crops means fewer crops and higher prices for the consumer. And a true world-wide colony collapse would be a real-world catastrophe since bees and plants have co-evolved together in a perfect symbiotic dance – no bees, no flowers, no flowers, no food.

And who could imagine a world without flowers? Or the bee’s hum on a warm summer’s day? It would be an unbearable world without color and music.

In my little corner of the world, instead of dozens of bees humming in the bushes, I have only been able to count about six bees, sometimes seven or eight. That’s far too few for a summer in full bloom. I can only hope the mystery will unravel and have a solution.

In his Op-Ed, Mr. Meyers ended with a quote from Rachel Carson, whose book “Silent Spring” helped to transform the way most of us now view nature. In a 1954 CBS documentary, Miss Carson warned us that, “Man’s attitude toward nature is today critically important simply because we now have acquired a fateful power to alter and destroy nature. But man is part of nature, and his war is inevitably a war against himself.”

And in that war, the fate of the small honeybee is intricately tied up with our own future. So perhaps counting bees is as good a way as any to be reminded of a powerful irony: It is the small things underfoot, unseen by us in our blind, self-important rush that will determine our own survival. By taking care of the tiny natural systems all around us, we are taking care of our own lives as well.


Patrick O'Hannigan said...

Carson was right about man's atttitude toward nature being critically important, but by fingering DDT as the main cause of her "silent spring," she motivated governmental action to ban it completely, thereby ensuring that malarial mosquitos would kill hundreds of thousands more people in developing countries.

*PG-13 said...

Good point. But I'm still not sure what you're saying. Are the malarial mosquitoes and the malaria Rachel Carson's fault? She identified a serious issue. She did so so effectively that she - in your words - motivated governmental action. That the governmental response to her findings created (or extended) another problem isn't the first time government(s) got it wrong. They've been getting it wrong pretty much most of the time ever since in my estimation. More often out of lack of action than as a result of action taken. These are deep and complex issues and we usually don't fully appreciate how complex they are until we've stepped into it a bit. Rachel Carson was a founding leader in the global environmental movement. Her analysis and writing came not a moment too soon. When Silent Spring was published the world was still pretty ignorant of what it was doing to itself. The DDT thing was its first near-global-wide response to anything other than war. So we needed to learn not only how to respond but how to respond quickly. We're still learning. And some miscalculations will be made. But we're getting pretty close to some tipping points where inaction IS a deciding, final and possibly fatal decision.

I believe the earth has a huge capacity to self-correct and may be forgiving of many of our errors. Of course such self-corrections may not necessarily benefit mankind. And there's a good lot of errors to be forgiven. So, do we use our intelligence - I use the term loosely - to at least try to correct our errors when we identify them? Even if that means we might create other problems? Or do we hold our breath, shut our eyes and ignore what science is telling us. Uh, we're talk'n real science here; Not Political Science or GWB's science ;-)

*PG-13 said...

I should have added this wikipedia link to my previous post: Criticisms of environmentalism and DDT restrictions. The rest of the article is a good read too.

In the 2000s, critics have claimed that Carson is responsible for millions of malaria deaths, because of the DDT bans her work prompted. Biographer Mark Hamilton Lytle finds these estimates unrealistic, even assuming that Carson can be "blamed" for worldwide DDT policies, and suggests that malaria is much less significant than a number of other widespread preventable public health problems in Africa. Carson never actually called for an outright ban on DDT.

Some experts have argued that restrictions placed on the agricultural use of DDT have increased its effectiveness as a tool for battling malaria. According to pro-DDT advocate Amir Attaran the result of the 2004 Stockholm Convention banning DDT's use in agriculture "is arguably better than the status quo. For the first time, there is now an insecticide which is restricted to vector control only, meaning that the selection of resistant mosquitoes will be slower than before." But though Carson's legacy has been closely tied to DDT, Roger Bate of the DDT advocacy organization Africa Fighting Malaria warns that "A lot of people have used Carson to push their own agendas. We just have to be a little careful when you're talking about someone who died in 1964.

I take issue with anybody minimizing the threat of malaria in Africa but I think the rest is pretty straight.

Sorry. I guess I'm just a little sensitive when intelligent well-based science is painted black with such a thick brush. Also, Rachel Carson is hero to me.

Mike Green said...

Travel Update, click on me

Churadogs said...

PG-13 sez:"I take issue with anybody minimizing the threat of malaria in Africa but I think the rest is pretty straight."

The DDT/malaria/mosquito thing also points up the complexity of all of this. If we hadn't banned DDT the bugs would have mutated, evolved and adapted into super bugs who ate DDT for breakfast, thus creating another problem, while the DDT would go on making a mess of a whole lot of other species. (We're seeing this now with antibiotic resistant staph/TB etc. caused by our overuse of antibiotics.) Also, having a handy one-shot killer prevented development of low-tech, safer (more expensive) methods such as biological agents to kill mosquites, DNA manipulation to alter their breeding habits, etc.. Oddly, the wonderful program "Just Nets" that buys mosquito nets by the billions is working amazingly well -- something as simple as that. Often, when we have a "miracle-
simple" fix we do that even though it may be the worst possible thing in the long run.

Maria M. Kelly said...

We hiked Valencia Peak today and I wanted to let you know that there were many more bees up there then I've seen down here most of the summer.

Bev. De Witt-Moylan said...

An interesting note on the dearth of bees throughout much of the summer came up at a compelling seasonal foods and gardening workshop conducted last Saturday in Paso Robles by The Institute for Sustainable Living, a local non-profit. Among the many reasons posited for the notable lack of bee activity was the unique extreme smokiness of the atmosphere for so many weeks resulting from the hundreds of fires all over CA, since smoke inhibits bee activity. As the air cleared, the bee activity has increased. One of the presenters did say that Mr. Stoltey, the Atascadero beekeeper, is very worried about his bees.

In my own garden I have seen a resurgence of bees to near normal levels for this time of year. I grow plants they like a lot including germander, rosemary, lavender, and thyme, among others.

One of the CDO recipients who keeps bees has had a good year and is harvesting abundant and delicious honey.

It is an encouraging respite, given the dire news worldwide.

The foods and gardening workshop emphasized how far from natural planetary cycles, and from Nature itself, our agribusiness practices have taken us, to the point where we no longer know what's really in season when, and we have virtually lost the art of preserving foods grown and harvested in season to eat when their season has passed.

About 50-60 people attended this 4-hour workshop which was only $10 and included a wonderful light lunch prepared from donated organic produce by a chef who spoke about working with organic foods in season who utilizes only organic meats and produce(

Another presenter was the extremely knowledgeable owner of the only truly organic produce stand in the county in Templeton ( She seemed to know all about the food industry, including Big Oil's influence on agribusiness through fertilizers and pesticides, not to mention the chemical companies who are patenting our food. She also has many positive ideas for how people can take back their food at the local level.

A SLO Naturopathic Doctor gave an excellent talk on the properties and interactions in foods and the energetic importance of eating foods in season.(

In the audience were some people who work locally in agriculture and livestock, so the discussions were a lively give and take.

I attended the workshop as a favor to a friend and ended up feeling lucky to have been invited. To find out about The Institute for Sustainable Living and the next workshop contact

Sewertoons said...

Don't forget Monsanto's influence on what seeds can be purchases and grown by large and small farmers (in certain areas anyway).

Churadogs said...

Re Bev's comment on smoke fromt he wild fires. Very interesting. Since our forests are more and more at risk, we're sure to have smokier and smokier burn seasons. Poor bees.

Alon Perlman said...

Article in the New Yorker- this time last year-like AIDS in bees
6 web pages,"Normally, if you cut open a bee its innards, viewed under a microscope, will appear white. Hackenberg’s bees were filled with black scar tissue. They seemed to be suffering not so much from any particular ailment as from just about every ailment. “There was just so much wrong with them,”"
As regards DDT it is credited with saving millions and there are programs that are reintroducing it in Africa. Had it continued to be applied at the rates it was applied when Carson took action, we probably wouldn't be around to blog about it.
and for limited reintroduction of DDT

Alon Perlman said...

oh Oh hot off the presses-sierra club magazine Sep/Oct 08
P24-Decades Old deposits of DDT-Researchers estimate that as much as 8.8 Pounds of DDT are being released into the Antarctic every year through glacial melt. Alon