THE SILENCE OF THE BEES
Then There Were NONE
When I think back to my earliest childhood recollections of growing up in England some of my fondest memories recall a countryside composed of verdant fields brimming with birds, butterflies and bees, millions and millions of bees. The butterflies we would catch (and release, mind you) with the same little nets with which we scooped tiddlers from the various ponds, transporting them here and there in jam jars; the bees we simply tried to avoid. An occasional sting reminded us to stay vigilant, but as there were bees practically everywhere it proved a tough task. Still, rather a small price to pay for so much abundant pollination – though of course no one thought of bees as anything other than bees. “Poll-in-ators?”
It was back then, in hindsight, an ecosystem still largely intact. The fields I refer to lay on the outskirts of my home town and were easily accessible by bus, bike or on foot.
Not long into my youth however very strange things began to happen. The Dutch apparently sent their elm disease across the North Sea and we retaliated in kind taking out their stately elm population with our own deadly version. Butterfly numbers accelerated their steady decline to a point that they suddenly became rare and strangely exotic in their native land.
By the time I hit adolescence mankind’s wholesale assault on nature began to play out like a very bad dream. Everywhere I looked told the same story – nature clearly did not matter. It was of no concern. Developers, planners, home owners, the government (any government)… everyone it seemed all treated poor old Mother Nature with equal degrees of contempt.
Architecture didn’t matter. Lovely old rustic buildings were unceremoniously demolished and brushed aside like so much rubble. The parks (my absolute sanctuary as a child) became neglected and dangerous. The countryside around every urban community adopted an eerie apocalyptic aspect before finally succumbing to the inevitable housing development, retail park, warehouse district, football stadium and the like.
Even the very food I ate morphed from a dull but dietary splendid meat and two veg to a quite ghastly assortment of fast food outlets, take-aways, “kebabs”, pizzas, tacos, curries of every stripe, and stir-frys of every persuasion. But most startling and sinister twist of all was the sheer number, not to mention size, of the fast food establishments that engulfed, annihilated and ultimately replaced the simple, nutritious homemade food of my youth.
Thankfully I never bought into any of it. I have not and never will set foot in a McDonalds. Very early in my adulthood I recognized the benefits of investing in my own health. Meat and two veg, or perhaps more accurately three veg and the occasional meat, are very much the order of the day in our little household. Organics have been a staple for many years now and currently I am attempting the daunting task of growing food at an altitude of 7,300 ft. Combined with regular thirty minute bursts on the truly excellent Vision Fitness elliptical and I can honestly say that I have never really felt better.
For almost a dozen years we have lived without feeling the need to jeopardize our health by plying toxic waste upon the land we call home (or anywhere else for that matter). How ironic then that the biggest threat to me and my family’s well-being would come from outside my jurisdiction, leaving me helpless to resolve the matter. For if an environment is no longer healthy enough to sustain bees what of the implications regarding human health? First it was the butterflies, now the bees. While I’m at it I see practically no snakes these days. I don’t think I have spotted one in the sculpture garden this year. We’re talking little fellas just a foot or two long – insect eaters and none of them remotely poisoness.
At the risk of repetition regular readers may well be aware that this to be the twelfth summer for the Colorado Rocky Mountain Sculpture Garden – and so I feel that I am well positioned to monitor a trend, whether it be in the form of unusual weather patterns, or species’ extinction.
Although hardly as populous as their counterparts in my homeland, or indeed the Pacific Northwest where I lived for a decade and a half, the bee community I discovered upon my arrival here in the valley constituted numbers that advanced no possible cause for alarm. Funny little blighters they were; a bit on the skinny side compared to the monsters of my youth, but bees all the same. Rocky Mountain bees.
However after witnessing their steady decline, year-after-year I finally felt compelled to do something positive for my furry friends and so I began to take stock of the sculpture garden’s bee population, meager as it had become. I began with a certain amount of confidence that the numbers would steadily grow from the piddling few I had observed scattered here and there, lost in the foliage of plants that were once literally crawling with busy little bees… colonies of them. I realize now that I was simply willing them to go forth… and multiply. But, alas, it wasn’t to be. I think our best day bagged 14, but more often it was sevenish, then four, then one, and, finally… none.
It’s been the same story for over a week now… ever since that fateful day – the day I was finally exposed to the true awfulness of it all. The day I saw finally read the writing on the wall.
It was a day like any other, lovely early summer pleasantness had descended upon the valley and I was casually enjoying the moment with my 21 year-old son Joseph when I became aware of what I conceived to be a garden hose systematically dousing a tall stand of trees on an adjoining property. Perplexed by the seeming redundancy of it all I moved closer to the fence-line for a clearer view of this oddly pointless practice. Twenty yards distance however I needed no further explanation as I stumbled into a toxic air bath. Pesticide!
To my horror I then caught glimpse of the stocky ‘Ghostbusters’ character. Twenty, thirty feet of unbelievably smelly poison jetting from his oversized wand. A huge tank provided him with plenty of ammunition, and he seemed well intent on jettisoning the lot.
Confronted as to the necessity of his actions I receive a bucket of bull about the infamous “Pine Beatle”. Unable to adequately breathe amid such putrid toxicity I desired to cut the conversation short: “But that’s a Blue Spruce”, I informed him, “…and that’s an Aspen!
“You have a good day, sir”. Turning on his heels he was off and out of sight in seconds flat.
The infamous Pine Beatle perhaps? ( yeah yeah yeah )
For long moments I found myself lost in thought as I tried to process events and contemplate their disturbing implications. Huge, unbelievable amounts of toxic chemicals had been dumped upon the local environment. The air still stank. A sickening sensation engulfed me. Why? How had it got to this? There’s no Pine Beatle around here. To my knowledge there are no Pines Beetles to be found anywhere on that entire property, or anywhere around these parts to be honest. There are no pines, or precious few, as we live on the valley floor. And even if there were pines, and beetles, and beetles residing in pines… is this really the way to be dealing with it?
As I stood there, my mind in a whirl, the first of many implications came crashing home: the bluebird box! Yes, the little box that I carefully relocated to what I thought to be a safer place when we first moved in over 11 years ago (far too near the house originally)… had received a full, saturating dose. Oh my God!!!
Sure enough it wasn’t long before I bore witness to the pathetic spectacle of our funny little bluebird’s agonized death throes. Stumbling around the garden, dazed…. Unaware of even the cat’s menacing presence he (or she) staggered from one former refuge to the next, until finally succumbing amidst the quiet cool calmness of the gladed sanctuary to be found behind Green Man solar fountain. Some small comfort during her final moments perhaps, but he/she will be sorely missed at the water trough.
My maternal grandfather was renowned for many things: preacher, social activist, pacifist… and gardener extraordinaire. Born into rural nineteenth century England the countryside ran through his veins like the thick brown muddy rivers that drained it. Fearsome in his beliefs, fiery in his convictions, convulsed in his admiration for nature, a ride with him in the family car was to receive a none-stop commentary on the sheer simplicity, grace, beauty and efficiency of nature’s time-honored ways. “Smell that!” he would blurt every time we passed an especially pungent farm or newly manured field. “Breathe it in – do you more good than anything you’ll get from the doctor”.
I learned how to whistle in his greenhouse – fascinated and lost in a forest of ripening tomatoes. I watched as he transplanted this into that, that over there, along with the simple arts of splitting plants and trimming leaves. There always seemed to be something to do, something amazing.
And so I’m wondering how, if I could bridge the years and communicate as of old, I could possibly explain the little matter of the missing bees. How could I possibly get his head around the fact that, just as the once plentiful butterflies all but vanished from day-to-day life, now it seems that it’s the turn of the bees. I could also mention the snakes, the Dragonflies, the Lady Birds (or ‘Bugs’ as they are known in America). I could mention all sorts of species all over the world… but cannot imagine his reaction to what we have come to know as The Bee Crisis. No bees would be like no clouds, or no rain, or wind, or birds.
“The birds and the bees and the sycamore trees”. Bees are enshrined in the Big Rock Candy Mountain, and it doesn’t get much more iconic than that.
The thing is: what are we going to do about it?
Lost for an explanation to the missing bee crisis I set about reading a few theories as proposed by the on-line main stream media. The results proved depressing in the extreme. Loaded with purposefully misleading throw away lines such as ‘the scientific community is divided’, and ‘opinions differ as to the cause’ each and every account bent over backwards to deflect attention from the 800 lbs chemical gorilla in the room. PESTICIDES.
Now, there are plenty of informative websites dispensing some very disturbing truths regarding the dangers of spraying such toxic poison upon the land but this is not one of them. I would say just click around and judge the truthfulness of each site for yourself. Such is the evidence of their destruction upon the landscape that I do not, have not, and never intend to use pesticides, fungicides, herbicides or any other cides upon land under my jurisdiction – they all amount to suicide in my book. Toxic chemicals ARE to blame for the destruction of our environment. ‘Landscaping’ now apparently includes leashing a deadly force of toxins upon every square foot of lawn, shrub, flower bed, kitchen garden, hedge and tree. So once where we had millions and millions of birds and bees now we have perfect lawns and empty trees, how sad is that?
What we, the people, can do is we can stop buying the stuff. Stop buying poison, stop using poison. Stop using landscape companies that show such nasty disregard for nature that they destroy as much of it as they possibly can.
We can also vow to use only organic practices, support the organic movement, and generally be nice and kind to the land.
Another thing you can do right now if you would is this: please go to your favorite flowery place, a park, your garden, a window box, a field, or wherever you love to go. Go there and take a count of the bee population. Take notice of just how many bees you find, how many different kinds of bees, and decide to monitor them. I’ll practically guarantee you’ll be the only one looking after them and so give them all the help you can. Bees need a source of fresh clean water for instance. Small things can make a difference. But if someone is spraying chemicals in the vicinity introduce them to your bee colony; it could make all the difference.
Once you have a handle on your local bee situation why not get back to me: leave a message in the box regarding the Great 21st Century Bee Crisis and how it is impacting your area.
Finally, this whole bee thing has hit me rather hard. Never in a million years did I imagine I would someday preside over a garden utterly devoid of bees, it is nothing short of a nightmare. But what I find even more strange and disturbing however is the public’s response to all this: ‘Oh yes, I’ve heard that bees are in decline’. No they are not. Well, they were in decline, now they seem to have disappeared. Big BIG difference. Just what part of ‘extinct’ lies beyond the public’s grasp. Admittedly an extremely skewed and biased media does an excellent job in muddying the water but really… we are talking bees here, people, bees!
Sadly the bee picture appears equally grim throughout the Roaring Fork Valley. On Monday of this week I had cause to visit the town of Carbondale, some 25 miles north of Woody Creek, where to my horror I saw not a bee. I even visited a large garden center and it was bee-less too. I did however, as I turned out of the driveway and onto the highway, notice a large truck straddled across the Rio Grande bike path. On the truck’s rear stood a giant plastic tank. Connected to this tank by a hose stood another Ghostbuster busily spraying a hit list of plants he and his sort deem unfit to share the valley. It was a big list, believe me. It seemed as though he was spraying everything. Here and there little critters, animals and birds were scurrying out of the way… scrambling for their very lives if they only knew it.
Just who justifies, sanctions, and ultimately pays for this sort of species genocide is often quite difficult to ascertain: the highways department? Open Space? Pitkin County? Public Trails? The Forest Service? But all I know is that for the love of everything we hold dear it simply must stop, and stop right now. It won’t of course, not now… but hearing the chemical companies deliberately bury the truth about their deathly products puts me in mind of similar executives arguing a similarly dubious line back when the tobacco companies were still clinging to the insane notion that there existed no connection between cigarettes and lung cancer. The truth will emerge, and in time these odious chemicals will be banned. What we, the people, have to do now is utilize our massive numerical advantage to instigate permanent change.
Just say no to pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, and set aside a little room for nature. I’ll be delving into this final point in some detail in the coming weeks, but unless there is a major see change in land management, and the tide is turned against the use of toxic chemicals, I fear the results.
If the common bee, domestic or wild, is to act as our planet’s ‘canary in the coal mine’ we really need them to be alive.
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