Friday, November 4, 2011

The bats and the bees

In my last post, I wrote about the cave symposium Jon and I attended recently and about the importance of bats, among other things.

Guess what? We need bees, too. For many of the same reasons that we need bats. They are pollinators and are a big part of our agricultural system, i.e.-- they are the main reason we get to eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. They are another one of those big parts of the food web and are an indicator of the health of an environment. Right now, they are showing that something is not right in a big way.

I watched Vanishing of the Bees tonight on Netflix and was blown away. It discusses Colony Collapse Disorder, who first brought it to everyone's attention in America, and what is being done about it.

While I have seen the coverage in main-stream media on the bees disappearing, the underlying causes of their disappearance has been largely considered a mystery-- but it shouldn't be. Europe has it figured out. What is interesting is that in the mid-1990's, France went through a similar thing. Only guess what? They connected the dots and their government works on the side of caution, and now their bee populations are bouncing back. So what did they find out that the American government is so slow to understand? Systemic pesticides were introduced and a short time later, entire colonies of bees were collapsing-- dying out in a matter of weeks.The beekeepers figured it out, protested, and now France and many European countries have banned most of these pesticides, which do not wash off in the rain or when watered-- they become integrated into every part of the plant, including the pollen and nectar. The very reason why its touted as being so great (it lasts forever in the plant, so you need to use less of it...) is the reason why it is so terrible and so dangerous (it lasts forever in the plants, and in the soil, and gets into the water supply, and into our food and probably builds up in the organisms that eat the treated plants--organisms like us.)

So why is it that the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) considers systemic pesticides safe? Oh, because the reports of the pesticides' safety come from the chemical manufacturers themselves. Of course they are going to say that the stuff they are trying to sell is safe. They did experiments where they exposed bees to their pesticides and saw that they lived for a few days and considered it safe so the EPA gave the stuff a green flag. The EPA does not require these companies to do long-term studies that show what effect the pesticides may have a few months or a few generations down the road, and just allow the stuff to be turned loose, hoping for the best.

What France saw was this: bees went out pollinating in areas covered in systemic pesticides and they seemed okay for a few months, but then when winter came, they would turn to their pollen reserves, and then suddenly, poof, they'd disappear. The French caught on, they noted that bees pollinating organic sunflowers worked efficiently and in an orderly manner. Bees trying to pollinate sunflowers that were grown from seeds soaked in systemic pesticides acted erratically, struggled, and eventually fell off of the plant. Systemic pesticides are toxic and damage bees' ability to react, process, or navigate in the world. French researchers made the conclusion that there was a connection between the newly-introduced pesticides and their bee deaths, and disallowed the pesticides. Now things are returning to normal.

But in America, the EPA and the big money corporations that create these pesticides have decided to go ahead and release these chemicals on the public and the environment at large as some huge experiment. And now that these chemicals are out there, reacting with other pesticides, chemicals, and environmental and circumstantial factors, scientists are having a difficult time proving the direct correlation between systemic pesticides and the downfall of bees. There are other practices that have contributed to the weakening of the bees' immune systems, so now these pesticide companies can say that there is no way of knowing for sure that their chemicals have a direct link to bee deaths.

I don't understand why we don't follow Europe's example and at least get rid of this one big huge new "possible" culprit. What's the harm in it? It has been shown that the amount of crop loss has not been lessened with the introduction of these new pesticides, so clearly they aren't doing any good. And with the probability of all the harm they are causing, how can the EPA say that they pose an acceptable risk factor and allow these chemicals to continue to be used?

It is a fact that varying amounts of these pesticides (lots and lots of varieties of pesticides) are being found in the pollen in the bees' hives. If it is in the pollen, then it is in the honey, and people eat honey (as well as the plants that are systemically loaded with these pesticides, which you can't wash off). And people live longer than bees. So we have a lot more opportunity to let these chemical compounds build up in our bodies. Granted, the EPA and the pesticide companies say that people shouldn't be affected because most of the honey used for human consumption comes from hives far from pesticide-affected crops. And so far they think that it is safe to eat the pesticide-infused plants. So we should trust them, right? Because they always tell us the truth, right?

Anyway, Jon and I got to chatting during the movie, and we both concluded that there is likely also a connection between systemic pesticides and the bats suffering and dying from White Nose Syndrome (WNS). Why this wasn't brought up during the cave symposium was beyond us. Jon has learned a lot more about WNS than I have, and he has never heard of that connection being made in his circles. But if bats are pollinating plants in or near areas that have been affected by systemic pesticides, or if they are eating millions and millions of insects that have been eating up nectar and are covered in the pollen of affected plants, then it stands to reason that their immune systems have also been compromised. So is it any wonder that our bats are succumbing to a fungus that seems to coexist with the bats in Europe?

As it turns out, Jon and I are not the first to make the connection. In the movie, they show the headlines of news articles relating to amphibian, bat, and other epidemics, hinting that there is connection between what is happening in agriculture to what is happening to so many species in recent years. Then, when writing this blog post, I did a quick search and found this article published by Yale Environment 360. It says things in ways that I can't. For example, here is how Sonia Shah explains systemic pesticides:

Unlike older pesticides that evaporate or disperse shortly after application, neonicotinoids are systemic poisons. Applied to the soil or doused on seeds, neonicotinoid insecticides incorporate themselves into the plant’s tissues, turning the plant itself into a tiny poison factory emitting toxin from its roots, leaves, stems, pollen, and nectar. 
Who wants to eat poison factories? I like my fruits, grains, and veggies poison-free, thank you very much.

So what can we do? Well, as Michael Pollan has said so poetically, "Vote with your fork." Be a conscientious consumer. Choose food that is organic or grown locally through smaller farms that don't subscribe to pesticides or monocultures. Don't give your money to companies and industries that are poisoning the environment, plants, you, and your children. Try growing some of your own food. It can be really rewarding. Jon and I have been trying it out here in the desert and we're getting better each year. If we can do it in the poor soil and blinding heat of the desert, I think just about anyone can do it to some degree. More on that later.

Anyway, I'm finding that all of these things tie in together-- our food quality, our agricultural practices, our health (collectively as a society as well as individually), and the various environments that are being subjected to so many new chemicals and poor (politically-driven) farming habits. And the thing is, we don't have to stand idly by watching this happen. We can instigate change and demand a different way of doing things. I'm not saying we need to go back to an agrarian lifestyle, but we can choose to do less harm to the environment while also choosing healthier options for ourselves.

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