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Peace Meal Supper Club #3: Pollination

For this month’s Peace Meal Supper Club #3: Pollination, I developed a menu to highlight the harvest that has come to us through the gracious work of summer’s pollinators. I wanted to provide various portals into the beneficent hall of mirrors that is our interdependent ecosystem. As I studied the topic more, that hall of mirrors turned into a house of horrors. Thankfully, there is a way out.

One of the principal ideas behind Supper Club is that everyone who attends learns something new about the world around them. This has been a great challenge for me, too, as I must read up on topics with which I might have only moderate familiarity. It’s a crash course each month, for I must complete my research, develop a menu, plan its execution, and write an essay to guide the discussion. Suffice to say that this month’s topic has proven to be a monster. The overlaying of so many issues, the potential impact of continued negligence, the purposeful attacks by industry on our natural systems, the willing cooperation from Congress, betrayal by government agencies, and the millions of unseeing eyes and unlistening ears—it is tough to wrap one’s head around all of it.

I offer my apology up front for the length of this article. Trust me, I have left many things on the cutting floor. This really is only a peek into the stormy darkness inhabited by our most loyal of friends, the pollinators.

Please, when you reach the “Things To Do” section, believe that any one of them can make a real positive difference.

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Pollinators, just through the act of being themselves, provide humanity with well over a third of its principal diet. Hiding in all that delectable food are valuable nutrients we simply cannot live without. It’s no stretch to say that our fate is linked with the fate of the bees. Yet they are facing a perfect storm of deadly factors, with the final outcome affecting more than just us and them. The fertility of the earth, and the vibrancy of life upon it, stands in jeopardy.

The facts of this brewing storm are readily available. To begin with, over 100 US and Canadian food crops require animal pollination.[1] Considering non-food crops such as cotton, ninety percent of commercial crops in North America require animal pollination. Beyond commercial crops, seventy-five percent of all flowering plants on earth require animal pollination of some kind.[2]

Animal pollinators include diverse species of bees, butterflies, moths, and myriad other insects. Birds and bats play a significant role, as do many other animals. Bees, however, are the most active commercially, in the form of professionally managed colonies which are trucked around the country from one blooming field to another.[3] In 1947 there were 5.9 million captive bee colonies in the US. In 2005, there were only 2.4 million.[4] This drastic 50% reduction is but one indicator of the storm.

Captive pollinator populations can be quantified, even if the numbers are so large that they stretch our comprehension. Wild pollinator populations, however, cannot be counted so easily. According to the National Academy of Sciences, “For most North American pollinator species, long-term population data are lacking and knowledge of their basic ecology is incomplete. These information deficiencies make definitive assessments of North American pollinator status exceedingly difficult.”[5]

The work of all these pollinators is of dire importance to us. Just consider a short list of food crops made possible by their work: apples, oranges, tomatoes, melons, peppers, squashes, cucumbers—all fruit-bearing plants whose large blossoms evolved to summon the desire of pollinators. Other food plants—broccoli, carrots, fennel, leafy greens, onions, and a host of others—need animal pollination in order to produce seeds. All of these plants add diversity and essential nutrients to the human diet, such as omega oils, antioxidants, vitamins, fiber, and protein.[6]

Some plants which are not routinely consumed by humans—clover and alfalfa, for example–require animal pollination in order to produce seeds. As any biodynamic gardener will tell you, these cover crops are useful for nitrogen development in soils. They are critical, therefore, for any attempt at natural and sustainable food production.

The causes for pollinator decline are numerous, interleaved and linked in an impossible Gordian root-ball. A primary factor among native pollinators is habitat loss, due to sprawling cities and agricultural fields, industrial complexes, oil and gas exploration, mining, and coastal developments. Alongside habitat loss is habitat fragmentation, in which natural areas lie in non-contiguous pieces across a region. Loss of biodiversity, a natural result of so much human development, means less and lower quality food for pollinators. Pesticide use quite naturally diminishes pollinator populations, but the use of herbicides also takes its toll. Both of these alter the landscape significantly, greatly reducing habitable areas. [7]

In addition, diseases and parasites are spread by the interaction between migrating bee colonies being used by commercial pollination services. This not only affects commercial bees, of course: wild bees are also exposed to the pathogens. Wild pollinators work in the same fields as their migrant sisters, and authorities acknowledge that they are suffering many of same effects.[8] We just don’t know how to quantify the wild impact.

Industrial-scale monoculture also plays a large part. The almond groves in California—where 80% of the world’s almond crop is produced—cover an area the size of Rhode Island.[9] Almond trees bloom for only 2 to 3 weeks per year, which means that for the remaining 50 weeks, the area is a vast pollinator desert where no bee can survive. For this reason, 1.6 million commercial bee colonies are trucked in to service the trees as they bloom. When the blooms drop, the hives are loaded up and trucked to other US fields needing pollinators.

These pollinator deserts also exist across vast portions of the American Midwest, where wind-pollinated grains are produced. The vast ‘breadbasket’ of the nation provides no sustenance for bees. The native pollinators that once lived there have been starved out. This is repeated anywhere monoculture exists, regardless of crop. Once a pumpkin field has ceased blooming, there remains no more food for the pollinators.

The cumulative effect is this: the land has become so toxic and unsupportive that bees and other pollinators can no longer function naturally. Massive die-offs are to be expected. The term “colony collapse disorder” (CCD) was coined in 2007 as a means of identifying, and hopefully diagnosing, these massive die-offs.[10]

CCD—a frightening and complex convergence of factors–is more than just a loss of bees, however. It signals a complete breakdown in the ecosystem. We haven’t just poisoned a few bugs. We’ve invoked a systemic ecological collapse.

Government and institutional reports can’t help but relate the problem in terms of economy, as if that were the only thing at stake. From the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) comes this assessment, from their 2007 report “Status of Pollinators in North America:” “Severe shortages of pollinators could cause many common food crops to become more expensive and perhaps less available, but there is no strong evidence for a current pollination crisis in agricultural production in North America. Most animal-pollinated crops can be serviced by honey bees, and farmers are accustomed to paying more for these services when necessary. Chronic pollinator shortages should lead to market adjustments and other innovations, although the demand for supplemental pollination has been strong recently, especially among California’s almond growers. Importing managed pollinators from other countries or regions can lead to the introduction and spread of pathogens and unwanted bee species.”[11]

(Their report contains such circuitous indecisiveness throughout, as if Rimsky-Korsakov were the chief editor.)

The report’s executive summary states the primary concern more succinctly: “Managed pollinator decline and rising cost of pest control could increase pollinator rental fees.”[12] But it’s a much bigger problem than the economy, and will need a bigger solution than just paying higher rent.

By the way, it’s not just human sustenance at stake, but also food which supports a vast number of other species, from bears to birds to voles. Fruits can account for 60% of a grizzly bear’s late summer diet. Roughly a quarter of all birds consume, as a major portion of their diet, fruits and seeds that result from animal pollination. The pollinating insects themselves serve as food for some birds, lizards, and spiders, and are therefore an even more integral part of the food web.[13]

The NAS report acknowledges: “There is a possibility that a cascade of ecological consequences could follow from the loss (or change in abundance) of roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits, and seeds—all of which can be resources for herbivores (including seed predators)—produced by plants. A broad range of herbivores and frugivores is supported by such resources, as are parasites and parasitoids of those species. Decreases in seeds, nuts, and fruits could be damaging to many species of insects, birds, and mammals, even if plant populations do not exhibit declines. More severe effects are expected if populations of mature plants become scarcer.”[14]

The Xerces Society puts it this way: “Pollinators are a keystone species group; the survival of a large number of other species depends upon them… [T]hey are essential to the reproductive cycles of most flowering plants, supporting plant populations that animals and birds rely on for food and shelter. Pollinators are also indicator species, meaning that the viability and health of pollinator populations provide a snapshot of the health of the ecosystem. As the insects that many plants require for adequate pollination disappear, the effect on the health and viability of crops and native plant communities can be disastrous.”[15]

Further, “the loss of pollinator species reduces the redundancy of pollinator services in the ecosystem, and thus its resiliency, so that further losses of pollinator species would likely have more severe consequences for the ecosystem.”[16]

All of these concerns figure into scientists’ expectations of the sixth great extinction, presently approaching our doorstep.[17]

It’s almost as if humans—in the form of corporations and government agencies–are now tinkering at the sub-molecular level in our biosphere. As if the natural world’s DNA is being genetically modified in a massive and uncontrolled experiment. The consequences are troubling, and potentially irreversible.

The momentum is fierce, and as predictable, attempts to shift the inertia meet with institutional resistance. In 2013, for example, a bill was introduced to modify the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act (FIFRA) to push for faster approval of pesticides to control parasitic pests, such as the varroa mite. While beekeepers protested that many stressors were harming pollinators, this bill only focused on the authorization of another pesticide. A House Agricultural Subcommittee hearing, however, invited no beekeepers. However, Bayer AG, developer of neonicotinoid pesticides, was invited.[18]

This only adds insult to injury, for Congress had already blocked certain pollinator species from protection under the Endangered Species Act, at the discretion of the Secretary of the Interior.[19]

As if we didn’t already know this, it’s time for us concerned citizens to play the role of pathogens within the dominant system. We must use alternative avenues for subverting the collusion between agricultural industry and our government. One need not be an alarmist or a hyper-reactionary to understand that our system is not functioning healthfully.

Yet simple acts on our part can lead to better conditions. If we do not feel we are changing the dominant inertia, we should be confident that we are acting as preservers, holding on to the things that do work, so that they will be vibrant at the moment that they become vital.

Here are several accessible and sustainable acts everyone can perform. Collectively they will establish alternative habitats, safe houses for our companions, the pollinators.

What To Do:

Put out water for bees. This is something we all can do, starting today. As habitats are compromised, bees have a difficult time finding fresh water. Use a shallow pan, and place small stones in it so the bees have a place to light while they drink.

Support organic agriculture, even if it the fields are thousands of miles away. “Organic” is far more important than “local.” Can you explain why this is true?

Plant food gardens. With the food gardens, you are feeding pollinators as well as yourself, thereby lessening the reach of industrial agriculture. By growing what you need throughout the summer, you are providing a progression of diverse blooms, which all pollinators need.

Support a CSA or similar farm, one which grows diverse crops that flower throughout the spring, summer, and autumn. Organic small-scale farms provide environments where pollinators thrive.

Create habitats, specifically with native flowering plants, like wildflowers. You’ll find planting guides at two of the websites listed below.

Adopt a bee colony. Although it is a recent development, there are vegans who keep bees simply to provide them a good home. This is no different than adopting a hen, goat, pig, or dog from a sanctuary or shelter.

Learn more. Here are a few suggestions to get you started.

The Organic Consumers Association has countless articles regarding bees and issues they face. These links lead to a few of them.
http://www.organicconsumers.org/bees.cfm — The main page of the bee section.
http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_5356.cfm contains a list of ways in which we’ve meddled with the natural lives of bees.
http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_25288.cfm provides an overview of Colony Collapse Disorder.

Pollinator Partnership: http://pollinator.org/index.html
They offer comprehensive planting guides for supporting pollinators: http://pollinator.org/guides.htm#guides
https://www.pollinator.org/SHARE.htm The Simply Have Areas Reserved for the Environment program provides a wonderfully accessible way in which everyone, anyone, can provide natural habitat.

The Center for Food Safety covers a multitude of topics, including pollinators-related challenges.
http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/304/pollinators-and-pesticides
http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/304/pollinators-and-pesticides/bee-decline-and-pesticide-use

The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, www.xerces.org, exists specifically to help insects survive in a world that seems determined to eradicate them. They have extensive guides for planting and preservation, such as this one: http://www.xerces.org/pollinators-great-lakes-region/

The Pesticide Action Network has a current campaign focusing on pollinators and pesticides: http://www.panna.org/current-campaigns/bees

More Than Honey, a film by Markus Imhoof, provides a powerful and spell-binding look into the modern world of bees. http://www.morethanhoneyfilm.com/about.html

Attracting Native Pollinators, by the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, published by Storey Publishing, 2011. This book is an easy-to-read and informative guide for protecting our native bee and butterfly populations.

Bee Basics: An Introduction to Our Native Bees, a joint effort between the Pollinator Partnership and the USDA Forest Service. Apart from beautiful illustrations, it contains many practical ideas for helping bees. It is available in free PDF form here: http://www.pollinator.org/books.htm

Status of Pollinators in North America, by the National Research Council (comprised of the National Academy of Sciences, the National Academy of Engineering, and the Institute of Medicine), published by the National Academies Press, 2007. Available for free download: http://www.nap.edu/download.php?record_id=11761. The Organic Consumers Association has a review/synopsis on their website: http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_9255.cfm

The Year the Monarch Didn’t Appear, New York Times, Nov. 24, 2013: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/sunday-review/the-year-the-monarch-didnt-appear.html?_r=0

Declining Bee Populations Pose A Threat to Global Agriculture, a Yale e360 report, April 30, 2013: http://e360.yale.edu/feature/declining_bee_populations_pose_a_threat_to_global_agriculture/2645/

End Notes:

[1] Attracting Native Pollinators: Protecting North America’s Bees and Butterflies, Xerces Society, 2011; page 5

[2] Status of Pollinators in North America, National Academies Press, 2007, page 1

[3] Itinerant colonies of bees are nothing new. The Egyptians regularly barged hives up and down the Nile, following the blooming plants along the river. Today’s commercial operations truck thousands of hives from the US Southeast over to California, up to the Great Plains, to Maine, and back down to Florida. For a peek into the practice in the late 1800s, see the American Bee Journal, Volume 14, No. 1, here. A more contemporary view can be found at www.beyondpesticides.org/pollinators. Click the link entitled “Economic Value of Beekeeping.” It will launch a PDF report.

[4] “Declining honey bees a ‘threat’ to food supply,” Associated Press & NBC News Report, May 2, 2007; http://nbcnews.to/Y3qN1u.

[5] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 1

[6] From the Status of Pollinators in North America report, pages 104-105: “An evaluation of experimental evidence for pollination requirements of 107 globally traded fruit and vegetable crops (representing 40 percent of global plant-based food production) by Klein et al. (2007) shows that animal pollination improves production in 75 percent of the crops studied. Most cultivars of another 10 percent of the crops require animal pollination. Another 8.5 percent of the crops do not benefit from animal pollination and its role in production of the remaining 6.5 percent crops is not known. Many crops, however—notably the staple grains that form the foundation of most human diets (rice, wheat, maize, sorghums, millets, rye, barley)—are self-pollinating or pollinated by the wind. Together, species that do not rely on pollinators account for most of the world’s food supply by weight (FAO, 2005).

“Pollinator declines, therefore, do not fundamentally threaten the world’s caloric supplies. However, fruits and vegetables, which add diversity to the human diet and provide essential nutrients, tend to depend heavily on pollinators (Prescott-Allen and Prescott-Allen, 1990; Roubik, 1995). Seven of the nine crops that provide at least 50 percent of the vitamin C available to the human diet globally depend partially or entirely on animal pollination for the production of fruits or seeds (oranges, cabbages, green peppers, tomatoes, melons, tangerines, watermelon) (FAO, 2005; Free, 1993; McGregor, 1976; USDA-NASS, 2006b)

“… Although estimates of the proportion of the human diet that is attributable to animal pollination are occasionally attempted and frequently cited (for example, McGregor’s 1976 estimate that one-third of the human diet can be traced directly or indirectly to animal pollination), the proportion likely varies among countries and regions and depends on dietary preferences, seasonal availability, cultural practices, and economic status of consumers.”

[7] Attracting Native Pollinators, pages 74-76; a more extensive list is given in Status of Pollinators in North America, pages 93-94.

[8] Status of Pollinators in North America, pages 87-93

[9] United States Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, 2014, California Almond Objective Measurement Report, available here.

[10] Global Honey Bee Colony Disorders and Other Threats to Insect Pollinators, United Nations Environment Programme Report, 2010: http://pollinator.org/PDFs/CCD_Colony_Disorder_Threats.pdf. A concise overview of CCD can be found on the Pesticide Action Network website: http://www.panna.org/current-campaigns/bees. The Organic Consumers Association has an entire repository of articles on the topic: http://www.organicconsumers.org/articles/article_25288.cfm

[11] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 129

[12] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 6

[13] Attracting Native Pollinators, page 8

[14] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 127

[15] Attracting Native Pollinators, page 11

[16] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 129

[17] The Sixth Great Extinction is Underway, and We’re to Blame, Time Magazine, July 25, 2014, available here: http://time.com/3035872/sixth-great-extinction/

[18] “New Pollinator Bill Helps Pesticide Industry, Not Bees or Beekeepers,” Center for Food Safety press release, September 12, 2013, available here: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/press-releases/3459/new-pollinator-bill-helps-pesticide-industry-not-bees-or-beekeepers

[19] Status of Pollinators in North America, page 12

 

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