Vanishing of the Bees
When was the last time you talked to the bees? Perhaps when you were a little child singing, “I’m Bringing Home a Baby Bumble Bee”? I only remember myself playing the “Two Little Bees” game with my little playmates while I dodged the real bees that inadvertently flew into the classroom and caused some chaos. To be honest, the aforementioned situations barely qualify for “talking about the bees.” I guess not many people talk to the bees as often as Dave Mendes, an American commercial beekeeper, does. He has so many burning questions for his dying honeybees that he openly grieved in front of the camera in the documentary, “Vanishing of the Bees.”
After watching this 2009 award-winning documentary at last month’s GLN EcoSalon, however, I realized that if we started talking to the bees 15 years ago, or 20 years ago, the beekeepers in the United States might not have suffered as much from the colony-collapse disorder (CCD) which lasts until today. According to “The Plight of the Honeybee” in Time magazine’s August 19th issue, one-third of U.S. honey bee colonies died or disappeared during the past winter, a 42% increase over the year before.
In “Vanishing of the Bees,” filmmakers George Langworthy and Maryam Henein engaged more than the emotionally and financially devastated American beekeepers in the dialogue with honeybees. Beekeepers in Europe, entomologists, toxicologists, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, pesticide manufacturers, sugar syrup manufacturers, organic beekeepers, mothers and children, all played a part in the intricate mystery around honeybees.
Beekeepers like Dave Mendes and David Hackenberg believed that if they took the issue of systemic pesticide to the street, as European beekeepers did in the late 1990’s, and urged the U.S. government to restrict the use of some pesticide, their bees would not vanish from the hives. When they visited France seeking advice from their fellow beekeepers there, they complained that the reliance on scientific proof caused the U.S. government to procrastinate pesticide restriction. They also doubted that the scientists influenced by chemical companies would do any serious research about the impact of pesticide on honeybees.
Some scientists responded that it is hard to measure the impact of pesticides on honeybees. A wide range of questions need to be asked before jumping to a conclusion. Studies show that pesticides hamper honeybees’ immune systems, flying and navigation skills, as well as learning ability, but how does that happen? Which kinds of pesticides are doing the harm? Is the harm immediately done when we spray the pesticides, or is the harm slowly accumulated due to the lasting residues of pesticides in the bees? If the latter is the situation, how long does it take them to kill the bees?
Pesticide manufacturers would probably welcome the assumption that the answers to the above questions might not emerge in a near future. Plus, if this documentary were made this month, chemical companies might cite Time magazine’s “The Plight of the Honeybee” to further back up their claims: Beekeepers in Australia have been largely spared from CCD even though neonicotinoids are used there, while France has continued to suffer bee losses despite restricting the use of the pesticides since 1999.
Besides the pesticide controversy, other people are worrying about the sub-lethal impacts of another factor on honeybees—what they eat. The film pointed out that feeding bees sugar syrup is like feeding your children junk food—then how healthy shall we expect our grandchildren to be? Organic beekeeping groups reasonably oppose cheap sugar syrups. According to them, beekeeping is a way to contribute to pollination. As monoculture is killing the environment for pollination, what they are doing is bringing back the old-school beekeeping methods—planting bee-friendly flowers and keeping them free of pesticides.
Organic beekeepers’ voices resonate among eco-conscious families which are growing foods for the bees in big cities. When a little girl happily helped her mother plant flowers around the house in the film, it struck me how organic gardening is not only a way for us to have fun and live more sustainably, but also a way to help the honeybees survive the mystery malady, CCD.
Dave Mendes said in “Vanishing of the Bees” that he did not talk to the bees verbally, but he communicated with the bees regularly to better satisfy their needs. As a commercial beekeeper, meeting the bees’ needs is crucial to Dave Mendes’ financial and emotional well-being. However, as a long list of crop plants in our diet are pollinated in whole or in part by bees, we cannot afford to lose the bees either.
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