by J.D. Tarleton
Walking to the crepe restaurant the other day I noticed, in the middle of the sidewalk, a swarm of black ants: hundreds of them busy getting their share of something sweet spilt on the concrete. But there was a problem: a size 8, 10, and 12 problem—a flip-flop and tennis shoe problem. I stood for a moment and watched this interaction—honestly, less an interaction and more a death march—play out between the Homo sapiens and Monomorium minimum.
Ants are eusocial: insects with the highest level of advanced social organization. In these few passing moments when I stood watching, several ants abandoned their task of gathering food to conduct a search and rescue mission, an effort to pull their crushed brothers and sisters out of harm’s way. It was hard not to feel sympathy for these tiny creatures. In our everyday travels there is no telling how many hundreds of thousands of “bugs” we kill with our feet and our windshields. “But they are just bugs,” we tell ourselves, so low on the evolutionary chart that we don’t give their death—or even their existence—a second thought. We should; we all should.
If you haven’t heard, for more than a decade the world’s population of honeybees, another eusocial insect, has steadily declined. Scientists have determined that this dramatic drop is due to a lethal combination of factors that include disease, parasites, a poor diet and pesticides. Most of us simply take the job and purpose of the common honey bee for granted. We assume they are prolific, resilient, and adaptable, that they can and will work around our destructive nature. Sadly, what scientist and food producers are discovering is that they can’t. Unlike diseases that develop strains to combat the drugs we use to treat them, or even some other insects, bees are defenseless against the chemicals we spray and the habitats we destroy. They don’t morph into Super Bees able to withstand all that we throw at them; they simply disappear.
Greenpeace notes bees:
…perform about 80 percent of all pollination worldwide. A single bee colony can pollinate 300 million flowers each day. Grains are primarily pollinated by the wind, but fruits, nuts and vegetables are pollinated by bees. Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops, which supply about 90 percent of the world’s nutrition, are pollinated by bees.— Greenpeace, “Save the Bees”
Think about that statistic for a moment: 90 percent of the world’s nutrition. Imagine if your food choices were limited to just 10 items to choose from. Boring, yes, but I suspect “bland” would be the least of our concerns at that particular juncture.
Although it may not be at the forefront of our minds as we eat food each day, we depend on bees and other pollinating insects to help produce the vast majority of our food. However, so many of us have lost our connection to the earth that we tend to forget the significant contribution bees make to our health and well-being. Those of us in the United States accept and live in a world where fresh fruits and vegetables magically appear in the grocery aisles. But it wasn’t magic, it was harmony: a cooperative effort between the farmer and the bee for those fresh, red tomatoes we enjoy on a sandwich. But like so many agreements humans enter into, we prioritize our needs, our wants, and our conveniences over the health and survival of creatures like the bee.
Humans have created barriers separating us from the most basic inner workings of the biosphere. Our selflessness and greed has blocked our view and understanding of the balance and collaborative effort it takes to create a cucumber for our salad. Our attitude about the world is that nature should adapt to our needs rather than the other way around. This arrogance is why we continue to overpopulate cities in the path of hurricanes and build million-dollar homes in flood prone areas and then wring our hands when natural disasters occur, asking, “How did this happen?”
The “how” is simple. Rather than accepting a supporting role as part of a complex ecosystem, humans attempt to dominate it, control and bend its will to fit our needs and wants. Instead of being good stewards, we take—and worse, abuse and overuse—the resources we have been gifted to share and take care of. To compound the problem, we are a raising a generation of users, children brought up in a disposable society. Many American children have no clue where food comes from, children who have never picked and eaten a fresh strawberry, let alone watched a busy bee gather and distribute pollen from one bloom to another. Today we commonly teach our kids that bees are bugs that will sting you and are to be feared rather than the creature responsible for the apple or orange in their lunch box.
I count myself fortunate to have had parents and grandparents who placed seeds in the ground and shared the wonder and the joy of a ripe, juicy tomato with a boy. The process of how I got it was demonstrated rather than assumed I would understand how it magical appeared on my plate. It still strikes me as a miracle today as I watch squash grow plump in my garden. I understand the phenomenon for what it is: a collective effort of the soil, the sun, the rain and the bee. The miracle is in the collaboration between species and landscape to bring forth nourishing food from the ground. Remove one of those elements from the equation and we will all need a miracle to survive.
Greenpeace list three actions we can undertake to restore and protect the world’s bees:
- Ban the seven most dangerous pesticides.
- Protect pollinator health by preserving wild habitat.
- Restore ecological agriculture.
I would like to add a fourth action: education. We need to teach our children how and where we get our food and explain the process and the participants involved from the farmer to the bee. Children need to understand the value of not just bees but of all insects. Rather than portraying bugs as unwanted pests, we need to share the wonders of the insect world with them and create a reverence for all things that creep, crawl, and fly, from the ladybug to the bee.
Whether we and our politicians know it or not, Nature is party to all our deals and decisions, and she has more votes, a longer memory, and a sterner sense of justice than we do.— Wendell Berry, in an endorsement statement for The Dying of the Trees by Charles E. Little, 1997
Bio: J.D. Tarleton is a son, a brother, a husband, and a father whose goal in life is to leave an imprint on the lives of the people he loves, not a footprint on the earth.