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