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  • February 14th, 2020

TO BEE….OR NOT TO BEE

By Joel M. Vance

 

I was maybe 6 years old, it was a pitch black night, cold in winter time, no time for a runty little kid to be out way past bedtime. But I was with the big men, mere shadows in the night, our path lit by a coal oil lantern (that’s kerosene for you city folk) —those being the days before rural electrification brought artificial lighting to the gullied hills of Chariton County, Missouri. We (they) were on a time-honored mission in rural Missouri. We were going into the nearby woods to cut down a bee tree and rob the resident bee colony of its winter food.  I may rot in hell for that environmental crime, but what did any of us know at the time?

 

After they had cut down the tree, someone handed me a small chunk of honeycomb and I can remember vividly the incredible sweetness of the honey there in the frigid winter night. Although refined cane sugar long since had become available to those whose idea of formal dress was a clean pair of Big Smith overalls, honey still, as it had been in pioneer times when it was the only available sweetener, still was a cherished accompaniment to the morning’s scratch made biscuits.

 

Missouri and the then territory of Iowa once nearly went to war over bee trees, the so-called Honey War of the early eighteen hundreds. A Missourian cut down some bee trees in territory disputed between the two political entities and both sides bristled at one another on another wintry night but ultimately stood down from armed conflict and today the border fight has been long settled, but the fight over honeybees is just beginning.

 

The little insects with the fiery butt ends today are the most prominent of all the pollinating insects in the United States, although they are immigrants, brought to this country by other immigrants—sorry, Donald Trump– yet another example of how immigrants have benefited our nation. Without pollination, the food crops we depend on for survival would wither. If you took sperm laden man out of the equation, leaving only women to populate the planet, you’d probably have a better society for a while, but it takes two to create and maintain civilization. That is equally true of plants which rely on insects carrying pollen from male to female vegetation to raise the veggies, fruit, and other food products that sustain us.

 

The Environmental Protection Agency which we all know as the EPA has been a mixed blessing ever since its creation in the early 1970s during the Richard Nixon administration. Under the Trump administration, the EPA has become a joke agency mostly dedicated to undoing what over the years it developed as some notable environmental protections.  All too often it has been become the fox in the chickenhouse with a political hack administrator who has seemed more interested in protecting the polluters than the environment. 

 

                The EPA currently is hanging fire on a ban of the pesticide clothianidin which the EPA approved for use on plants in 2003 even though its own scientists objected.  In brief, clothianidin is accused of causing “colony collapse,” an epidemic that has resulted in more than 30 percent of honeybee colonies to die off each year since 2006.  Europe’s leading food safety organization, the European Food Safety Authority equivalent of the EPA, has termed the pesticide an unacceptable danger to honeybees.

 

                And in case you’re tempted to reply, “Who cares,” the quick answer is “you’d better.”  Without bees to pollinate crops that provide just about every vegetable and fruit food humans eat, it would be a hungry time a’comin’.  Not to mention the incredible economic tangle that would result if corn and other crops lose their source of pollination.

 

                 Honeybees are the most efficient pollinators that exists.  Wind will scatter pollen, but it’s fickle and indiscriminate.  Bees are specific, flying from one blossom to another, with the precious pollen clinging to their legs. 

 

The threat is not just pesticides that kill pollinating insects; it also is herbicides that kill the flowering plants where bees and other pollinating insects gather pollen. Once we had a thriving colony of butterfly weed, a beautiful orange blossom milkweed beloved by butterflies and other insects. We have never sprayed anything anywhere close to those plants, but over the years they have dwindled to a single plant. A partial solution is to buy and plant butterfly weed and other native plants from nurseries that specialize in native plants, shrubs and trees.

 

Honey bees expanded to North America with human-assisted migration during the 17th century. Many Europeans fleeing wars, poverty, land laws or religious persecution brought extensive beekeeping skills to the United States during the next two centuries. Meanwhile, English colonists took bees to New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania, completing human-assisted migration of Apis mellifera around the globe.

 

Beekeeping became commercially viable during the 19th century with four inventions: the moveable-frame hive, the smoker, the comb foundation maker, and the honey extractor. These inventions still support commercial apiculture. A fifth invention, a queen grafting tool, allows beekeepers to control genetic lines.

 

 

                If the EPA does not take immediate action to ban clothianidin, it will be several years before it reviews the pesticide again.  And several years is just about what it has taken to create an environmental catastrophe in the first place.   Given another five years or so and we could be out of honeybees. 

 

                Clothianidin is more and more pervasive and the only American studies as to its longterm safety are from the industry that produces it, termed by the European FSA as “deeply flawed.”  Bobwhite quail eggshell thickness was affected when the test birds were given a diet consisting of relatively large amounts of clothianidin-treated seeds.  If you remember back a half-century, we almost lost the bald eagle because of eggshell thickness problems, due to so-called “hard” pesticides.  Will clothianidin be the next insidious pesticide threatening the Midwest’s most popular game bird?

 

                Or is it already?

 

                Dan West, who owns an apple orchard near Macon, Missouri, and who also has about two dozen honeybee hives to pollinate it, is convinced that clothianidin is bad news.  And Macon County is Missouri’s largest ethanol processor and ethanol depends on corn….which is a crop where clothianidin has become endemic.  For years West has rescued bees who have taken up residence where they’re not wanted, especially in houses. Rather than exterminating the invaders, West extracts the colony and relocates it to his orchard where the newcomers not only pollinate the apple orchard but also provide honey which West sells from his store in Macon. “I’m still beekeeping and rescuing bees but not as much as I have in the past,” he says.  “Gotten wiser and don’t like heights as much either.  The beekeeping rescues have turned more to catching swarms, which is kinda of an art in itself.  Caught 12 or so last year  and have a friend who caught 22 or so.”

 

He says, “Easier in the long run and still a joy to see them take off and produce a full colony and maybe even some honey their first year.  Our area of North Central Missouri is still doing well in an overall sense.  The bees are still plagued by pests including mites as well as the small hive beetle. The small hive beetle although I personally have little problem with them are particularly sinister in as much as they will hide in the hive and mimic a hungry bee, getting the passing bee to feed them directly. They lay eggs in open brood and also in honey and if the colony is not strong, the colony will soon perish.”

 

If nothing else the threat of honeybee extermination should emphasize how historically important honey has been to mankind, both as a sweetener and as a homeopathic remedy.  Honey as medicine is almost as old as bees and human ailments. The human digestive system must convert cane or other sugar, but the bee already has done that in making honey so people with digestive disorders could benefit from honey by cutting one step out of the process. 

 

                Many a country kid has had a ragged cough soothed by a judicious mixture of honey and whiskey.  Which of the ingredients did the most to mellow the kid is open to debate, but in addition to kiddy cocktails, honey has been used as an ointment for rashes and burns.  Despite its long tradition the jury still is out as to whether honey really cures or ameliorates anything.  But it tastes so good!  A south Missouri bee enthusiast once discovered a bee tree filled with honey that tasted exactly like bourbon whiskey.  He theorized the bees had been feeding on residue from an Ozark moonshiner’s still.

 

                At the other end of the bee-honey production line, bee venom is widely used to treat arthritic pain.  Vermonter nurse assistant Reyah Carlson is an advocate of apitherapy which she used to treat Lyme disease.  “I don’t claim cures,” said Carlson, who said she had been stung 25,000 times. “In some cases, it’s ongoing treatment for life. For many diseases including multiple sclerosis and lupus, it’s a great way to keep things in check and under control.”  But some are violently reactive to insect stings to the point of death–anaphylactic shock.

 

Honey use in food is thousands of years old. The Egyptians flavored baked goods with honey but, disconcertingly, also used it in embalming corpses.   Many tea drinkers, including me, sweeten tea with honey, as do many others trying to wean themselves from processed sugar.  Honey is mainly fructose, about 38.5 percent and glucose, about 31.0 percent.  There are small amounts of other compounds hailed as antioxidants.  

 

                The late Senator Henry (Scoop) Jackson proposed  legislation that President Nixon signed in 1970.  The law and several other environmental revolutions came into being in the 1970s—notably the Clean Air Act extension and a number of clean water acts.  All had their direct roots in the tumultuous 1960s when the nation, led by activist youngsters, decided enough was enough on civil rights, voter rights, and the environment, and became a force too strong to resist.

 

                The first Earth Day in April, 1970, was the catalyst.  Another great Senator (what ever happened to those) Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin, created the Day as a way to focus attention on an environment gone haywire and 20 million Americans celebrated it.  That many voters will get Congress’s attention every time and presently there was an agency dedicated to cleaning up our fouled nest.

 

                It has not been an easy row to hoe.  The EPA is under direct control of the White House and thus its dedication seems to reflect the philosophy toward environment of whoever sits in the Oval Office.  Some have been notably hostile to environmental regulation and even the most liberal often have been lukewarm when it came to regulating industry or farming.

 

In April 2008, the Union of Concerned Scientists said that more than half of the nearly 1,600 EPA staff scientists who responded online to a detailed questionnaire reported they had experienced incidents of political interference in their work.  The EPA has repeatedly ignored scientists’ warnings and Americans’ urgings to ban some pesticide use, citing lack of evidence. It’s pretty scary when the watchdog bites the farmer rather than the fox in the chicken house.

 

                And that brings it full cycle to clothianidin, one crop farmer’s pest control tool.  Studies show that pesticide dust released at planting time may persist in nearby fields for several years and be taken up into non-target plants, which are then foraged by bees and other insects.  Dan West says,  “Overall I’m not terribly worried about our bees here in North Central Missouri.  Even though we are a farming area and pesticides are the norm with farmers the bees seem to overall be holding their own.”

 

                In the seven decades or so since the end of World War II, farming has increasingly relied upon pesticides and herbicides to the detriment of native plants. Call them weeds if you want, but many of those unwanted plants are precisely what bees and other pollinators need for survival.

 

Some solutions? Abandon the decades old philosophy of “clean farming” which mandates that a landowner scrub his holdings of anything resembling a weed. Encourage instead leaving native plants that offer pollinators safe haven. The state of Minnesota is pioneering incentive payments to homeowners to plant their lawns with pollinators.

 

The late Don Christisen, prairie biologist for the Missouri Conservation Department, once got crossways with  officials in his home city of Columbia when he allowed his lawn to go unmowed. To the city, it was unsightly and an affront to their idea of beautification. Don countered by having his lawn declared a prairie research area, immune from mowing. Instead, he showcased a mini native prairie, exactly what Minnesota is proposing its landowners should do and get paid for it.

 

It’s encouraging that Minnesota’s pioneer program is a start toward solving the impending crisis posed by the loss of pollinating insects. If we could as a society discourage weed growth and insect invasion by chemical solution, perhaps we can, with research and dedication, reverse the problem we created and bring back an environment rich with pollinators and pollinating insects.

 

Maybe the little insects with the stiletto tails will persist in spite of the scary array of threats to their very existence—and, by extension, our existence.

 

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1 Comment

  1. Darrell Taylor

    February 15th, 2020 at 2:36 pm

    Reply

    Amen, right on.



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