Honeybees have been part of both our agriculture and our mythology for millennia. From Mesopotamia to Maya bees have been depicted as symbols of eloquence and prophecy. The Delphic oracle was often called the Bee, and the eloquent Plato, Pindar and Saint Ambrose were all said to have had their lips anointed with honey.
In ancient Greece, bees were believed to carry messages between this world and the next. Today, bees seem to be communicating as clearly as ever a message from the world to come, not in an afterlife but here on Earth. Their message is one of warning.
This spring, Elmwood, Ontario beekeeper David Schuit lost 37 million honeybees – nearly half of his population. He suspects that they were poisoned by neonicotinoids sprayed on nearby cornfields. The chemical is a neuro-active insecticide derived from nicotine, the agent in tobacco plants that protects it from insects. It was developed after many older pesticides were banned, and is not toxic to most vertebrates, including humans, but, unsurprisingly, is lethal to insects.
While Schuit was watching his bees die, three neonicotinoids were placed under a two-year ban in the European Union until more research can be done on it to test its effects. The Green Party of Canada is now calling on the Canadian government to follow suit. The EU’s moratorium followed a flurry of contradictory and inconclusive studies funded variously by industry and lobbyists before the European Food Safety Authority concluded that the use of neonicotinoids on crops attractive to bees was unacceptable.
While scientists and politicians have come out strongly on both sides of the ban, researchers Greg Hunt and Christian Krupke of Purdue University claim to take a middle path, advocating the temperate use of pesticides only where there is a demonstrated need, rather than coating every corn seed with enough to kill over 100,000 bees.
Hunt and Krupke’s solution may be useful if we want to maintain our current agricultural practices, but we need to evaluate whether or not we actually do. Do we need to grow enormous fields of corn? It is no secret that monoculture is extremely hard on the health of soil, water, wildlife and humans, in addition to requiring larger amounts of pesticides. The bees are not just warning us about themselves but, like canaries in a coal mine, are alerting us to much larger and more complex issues.
And we cannot afford to ignore that the issues are complex. While the moratorium may be a good place to start, trying to eliminate our agricultural problems with a pesticide ban follows from the same simplistic thinking as does trying to eliminate pests with pesticides. Underlying both is the mindset that the problem can be solved with one quick and simple solution. But, as the bees themselves are telling us, everything is inextricably connected.
In taking steps to improve agriculture, we must anticipate possible negative repercussions. What if crops fail due to insect damage and food prices rise? We need to be prepared for that possibility: either to accept it, or to have contingency plans in place, along with our petitions.
In our important hurry to save the bees, we must remember to listen to their whole message, the one that not only tells us about pollinators, but also raises questions about our agricultural ideologies, food security and public policy. As we rethink our agricultural practices, we can, as many medieval thinkers endorsed, take a lesson from the bees: to work not only as quickly and industrially, but with the same sensitivity to interconnectedness.
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