One Bite in Three

I wince every time I hear that bees are responsible for one out of every three bites of food we eat .  The self-focus thus displayed is destructive, penurious and  hurtful. 

 

Surely this assertion has been useful in promoting an awareness of the importance of bees to our food sources, yet I have still to find an explanation as to how that statistic was calculated.  Sometimes the critical word is pollinators, or bees,  or honey bees.  Sometimes it expressly excludes grass-based food sources that are wind pollinated, like wheat, oats and rice; other times fruit and vegetables are specified.  What are the data on which this statement is based, and who did the calculation?  Even David Suzuki wrote, in 2014, “Some experts say one of every three bites of food we eat depends on them,” (my emphasis) without clarifying who these ‘experts’ are. 

 

It is fast assuming the mythic proportions of the statement misattributed to Einstein : “If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would have only four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.” What Einstein did say is that  “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.”

 

But there is a bigger reason why that phrase causes me to shudder.  We look at the bees from our point of view only - that they exist primarily to provide us with food, and we have no obligation in return.  It  focuses on what we consume rather than the way the food the bees eat is toxic because of the way we grow ours.

 

In an essay titled Standing By Words, written in 1983, Wendell Berry describes an article in the spring 1979 issue of Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, in which the authors consider the transformation of American agriculture “from an art form into a science.” They cite the modern history of milk production, in particular the ‘entirely successful’ effort to transform the dairy cow from the original family companion ‘into an appropriate manufacturing unit of the twentieth century for the efficient transformation of unprocessed feed into food for man.’  As evidence they cite the use of ‘nutrition’ to decrease the numbers of cows while increasing the yield of milk, thus producing savings for the public.   The ultimate justification, it seems, is measured in dollars. 

 

Berry calls this ‘internal accounting,’ and suggests that there is also an ‘external accounting’ which results in a net loss.  Examples include first the small family dairies that were forced out of business and the consequent break down of community forums, secondly the industrialization of agriculture with the consequent soil compaction and erosion, chemical pollution and  obliteration of plant species, and thirdly the loss of any consideration of the cow as a fellow creature, a ‘companion,’ as she was once regarded. 

 

Considering the honey bees as ‘responsible for one in three of every bites’ is an example of internal accounting.  A more comprehensive view acknowledges our responsibly in maintaining, even regenerating, an environment in which they can operate successfully, as well as the essential part the bees play in pollinating plants that are not food sources for us, notably the  billions of trees that re-process the excess carbon products we produce.  As beekeeping assumes industrial portions in the US in particular, can we maintain our relationship with bees as ‘fellow creatures?’ 

 

In the 1980’s I would take students on three day excursions to a private game reserve which covered 6 000 acres in the north western corner of South Africa.  It was called Lapalala (Place of the Leopard) and is today a thriving wilderness school. One of the exercises was to collect aquatic species (plant and animal) in the pristine Palala river and develop a diagram to show how each  was dependent on the others for its existence.  The final step was to erase one of the inter-species links and  demonstrate how the interdependent chain quickly began to collapse. 

 

In the same way all pollinators are a critical part of a healthy, long-term global environment and we reduce their role to food providers at our peril.

 

Something else that makes me shudder is receiving a mass produced letter that begins, “Dear Jeremy.”   Am I supposed to think that the computer knows and cares for me, rather than operates on totally impersonal  algorithms that spit out my name?  If it is supposed to make me feel cared for it has the opposite effect - I feel manipulated - and such letters are quickly discarded.   This is an ethical issue, one of integrity, which I cannot relate to honey bees, and having thus vented I won’t pursue it further in this chronicle …

 

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