Just Thinking Out Loud: Why It’s So Hard to Save the World

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About a year ago, our local bee club hosted a fundraiser at the local movie theater. They showed More Than Honey, an excellent documentary about honey bees and and their worldwide population decline. After the film, there was a short Q&A with some local beekeepers. A woman in the back stood up and asked about honey production. She identified as a vegetarian and said that based on what she saw in the film, she was going to stop eating honey. She wanted to know if that was what honey extraction really looked like and whether or not it hurt the bees to take their honey.

If you haven’t seen the film, there is a part that, as a bee-lover, is kind of hard to watch. It shows a commercial honey farm extracting honey in a very systematic, very insensitive manner. The workers are yanking frames out of the hives, slamming them into huge extractors. It shows bees getting smooshed and hives being ripped apart. The woman likened it to something out of the upsetting documentary Food Inc. I had to agree with her and was disappointed when the guest speaker did not assure her that that is not how most small-scale honey farmers process honey.  He did say that the farm featured in the film has changed their practices, but she did not seem satisfied by his answer.

As we were leaving the theater, I made a point to end up near her as we were exiting. I mentioned to her that if she wants to eat honey, the key is to find a good, local beekeeper and ask them about their hives: how many do they raise, why do they raise bees, how many pounds of honey do they extract, etc.  She was very fired up and proceeded to lecture me about how humans were stealing from the bees and probably the reason bees were dying is because humans were eating all of their food. Ok. This is just plain not true, but there were so many misunderstandings and I had such a short time to correct them! She proceeded to explain that she cares so much for animals, she only drinks almond milk instead of dairy, doesn’t eat meat, etc, etc. The conversation was nearly over when she said, “I mean, I won’t even kill a fly. The only insect I will kill is a mosquito. I hate those things.” Now, I admit, I was a little fired up because she had equated beekeepers to factory farmers, so I said, “Well, bats and swallows would probably be upset to hear that, since they eat mosquitoes.” I thought I was pretty smart, but she didn’t seem to care at all about the plight of bats and swallows.

On the drive home my husband was lucky enough to witness my diatribe. Here’s a woman who is acting with only good intentions. She has strong feelings about animal rights and, therefore, is living her life accordingly. In her choice to only drink almond milk, she is sending a message to the dairy industry. However, as a beekeeper, I have a real problem with the almond industry. And this, my friends, is why it is so stinkin’ hard to change the world.

In 2013, 940,000 acres of California’s land area was taken up by almond fields. In fact, California holds over 82% of the world market of almonds. These trees grow in fields completely barren of other vegetation. Each February over a million beehives are trucked to California to pollinate these trees because without bees, there would be no almonds. In order to ensure a single bee visits several trees (a necessity for pollination – the pollen from one flower won’t set fruit on the flower from the same tree), the growers must flood the landscape with bees. We’re talking between 2-3 hives per acre. I’ll do the math for you, that’s 1,880,000 – 2,820,000 beehives in one place at one time. Because per hive prices are on the increase, almond producers have become picky about only paying for strong hives (8 full frames or more), so the number of honeybees that get trucked to California each year is around 1.7 million. That’s about 85% of available commercial honeybees. (You can see a list of keepers and brokers HERE.)

California almond fields

California almond fields

So I look at that woman who will only drink almond milk and I think about the impact that industry has on the honeybee population in this country. I think about the fossil fuel used to drive the hives around. I think about danger of placing 85% of our pollinators at the same place at the same time. I think about how much water is necessary to irrigate fields of this magnitude.

Likewise, I have friends who worry about peak oil and climate change and fight hard for alternative energy solutions, such as ethanol. As a beekeeper, I know that ethanol means the growing of more corn. I know that in this country, it is nearly impossible to buy corn seed that is not coated in a neonicotinoid class of pesticides that will inevitably end up in the soil. I know that wind pollinates corn, but that bees frequently visit corn for the pollen found in the tassles. I know that when farmers plant corn in large-scale operations, they shoot the seeds into the soil and the dust (which carries with it pesticide residue) often settles on the edges of fields, in puddles and on dandelion heads. Bees visit these places. It’s getting harder and harder to deny that pesticides are waging a devastating war on the honeybees in this country.

My point in this post is not to criticize people who have agendas other than honeybees. In fact, we need a variety of people to fight for a variety of causes to ensure that each gets the attention it deserves, but my time with honeybees has forced me to ask some questions about priorities and also to really internalize just how damn hard it is to change things. After all, what benefits one organism, may be to the detriment of another.

It is very Orwellian to think about when you step back and consider how our food supply is generated. How it should work is a farmer should plant a seed (let’s take apples, for example), that seed would grow into a tree and that tree forms flowers. That flowers are then pollinated either by wind or insect (insect, in the case of apples). It’s pretty problematic that our crops are not producing because we don’t have the insects to do it. When I plant my garden I take for granted that the tomato plants will grow fruit and the squash plants will produce squash. I worry about tempurature, soil quality, and rain. I never worry that there are enough pollinators (not just honeybees) to pollinate my plants. But increasingly, this is something we should be worrying about.

Without a significant honey bee population, growers in China have taken to pollinating by hand.

Without a significant honey bee population, growers in China have taken to pollinating by hand. Source

The reality is, we are only one step away from having to pollinate our food by hand or machine. Trucking millions of hives of honeybees around the country to pollinate our fields is simply NOT NATURAL. Here’s the pollination schedule:

I don’t have a solution and I certainly don’t think anyone should stop fighting for whatever cause inspires him or her to act.  I simply wanted to contemplate how complicated this world is. It seems as if your fight to save one piece comes at the expense of something else. That’s depressing, I know, and so I’d leave you simply with the challenge to go out and do something for the good of the planet. Don’t just post on Facebook, actually DO something. Because really, as individuals, that’s all we can do.

I tell myself that keeping bees, living simply and naturally, and buying locally help, but sometimes it feels like those things are only a minuscule dent in an enormous problem.

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One thought on “Just Thinking Out Loud: Why It’s So Hard to Save the World

  1. I had to pollinate my pumpkins last year. I do get lots of bumblebees in my garden but they just weren’t there at the right time/don’t like pumpkin flowers!

    There is much debate about how ethical it is to eat animal products but I am with you on the problems almond milk production might create, for example.

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