Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Plight of the Bumblebee

Flight of the Bumblebee” is an orchestral interlude written by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov for an opera composed in 1899–1900. It is a delightful piece that I have enjoyed listening to from time to time for more than sixty years.
This article, though, is about the plight of bumblebees, honey bees, monarch butterflies and other important pollinators that are now dying out at present.
You probably have been hearing about this serious problem, deserving our attention, although it doesn’t make the nightly news very often. But here are some things I have recently found and read/watched:
On April 19, 2013, Bill Moyers presented and introduced a short documentary “Dance of the Honey Bee,” narrated by environmental activist Bill McKibben. Here is the link to this significant video.
Some of you may remember that McKibben, whom I mentioned in my May 15 blog article, is a major opponent of the Keystone Pipeline. He is also a strong proponent of bees: his 2013 book is titled Oil and Honey.
Last month HuffPost posted an article with some interesting interactive photos that you might want to take a look at. The title is “This Is What Your Grocery Store Looks Like Without Bees.”
Just a month ago, on June 20, the White House issued a Presidential memorandum titled “Creating a Federal Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators.” That document begins with these words:
Pollinators contribute substantially to the economy of the United States and are vital to keeping fruits, nuts, and vegetables in our diets. Honey bee pollination alone adds more than $15 billion in value to agricultural crops each year in the United States.
(To see the whole document, click here.)
A few days later, journalist Gregory Barber of NPR posted an article titled “White House Task Force To Save Bees Stirs Hornet’s Nest.” As this article points out,
At the center of the controversy is the bee initiative’s language asking the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the role of neonicotinoids, a class of insecticides that researchers have implicated in the disintegration of bee colonies.
And as you might guess, it is the companies that make and sell neonicotinoids who are most upset. Others, though, fear that discontinued use of insecticides would also reduce the production of corn and other crops used for human and animal food.
It is reported that in the U.S., neonicotinoids shield over 90% of the corn crop from pests.
The new government action is causing a big headache especially for the Bayer company, the pharmaceutical company founded in Germany in 1863 and the first to use the name Aspirin (even having that name trademarked until the end of WWI). It is the major producer of neonicotinoids.
Just as the tobacco companies used to do, Bayer is claiming that their pesticide product is safe for use. On their current website, they proclaim, “Bayer has proudly dedicated 25 years to ensuring the protection of bees through its Bee Care Program.”
Monsanto is another major producer of pesticides that are suspected of killing bees. And like Bayer, Monsanto is trying to debunk that charge. Last year they held the Honey Bee Health Summit (info. here).
In his Memorandum, though, the President said,
The problem is serious and requires immediate attention to ensure the sustainability of our food production systems, avoid additional economic impact on the agricultural sector, and protect the health of the environment.
I wish the Task Force well in their efforts to alleviate the plight of bumblebees and other pollinators. After all, our food supply depends on it!


  1. Not many comments were made yesterday about this article, but I did receive this from my faithful blog reader and commenter, Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson:

    "I join you in that wish, Leroy. I once kept honey bees and am conscious of the contribution they make that extends far beyond production of honey. We endanger the natural order by over reliance on pesticides."

  2. Local Thinking Friend Buzz Taylor wrote this morning, introducing "A Sting in the Tail" (2013) by Dave Goulson.

    Here is an editorial review of that book:

    "Although the disturbing recent spread of bee colony collapse disorder has prompted media outlets to take a closer look at these humble, honey-gathering insects, for Goulson, the study of bees has been a lifelong passion.

    "As he recounts in this absorbing and informative hybrid between guidebook and memoir, Goulson fell in love with the buzzing creatures as a young nature buff growing up in rural Shropshire, England.

    "However, one variety of bee, the short-haired bumblebee, which Goulson observed as a boy, is now gone, a fact that spurred him to found the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and lead efforts to bring this particular species back to the UK from New Zealand.

    "In between describing the ordeal that ensued when Goulson and a fellow entomologist traveled to New Zealand to solve the puzzle of shipping bumblebee queens back to England, the author gives readers a solid grounding in bee gestation, anatomy, culture, and the many environmental threats bees are currently facing.

    "An outstanding piece of nature writing that also celebrates one of humankind’s most cherished insects."

  3. Dwight Bolick, a student of mine at William Jewell College in 1976-77 , sent the following comments:

    "I just read with complete agreement your commentary on the crisis for bees. I have been doing beekeeping for nine years as part of our work as American Baptist missionaries in Chile. . . . . Thanks for commenting on the problem, which is a grave one, and the Monsanto's of the world have so much power to harm with impunity."

    1. Here is the link to an article Dwight sent about his beekeeping activity in Chile:

  4. One other accomplishment of bumblebees was keeping aviation engineers humble for decades. As aviation engineering developed in the 20th century, the equations used to model the flight of airplanes were tried on various natural fliers. When they got to the bumblebees, they discovered they could not fly! This created something of an embarrassment for the engineers, since they were using the same equations on the bumblebees that were used on the airplanes.

    Well, bumblebees are not the most graceful of fliers, so they obviously were just barely doing it. Sort of like the way many of us just get through our lives. It turned out that the bumblebees had a secret weapon that was keeping them afloat. Their fuzz was not just for decoration. High speed photography showed that the fuzz was actually rhythmically used to assist the wings, and that little bit of extra lift was what was needed to explain their very obvious ability to fly. There might be a metaphor in there somewhere!

    It is tragic that such a beautiful piece of creation is threatened by human greed. That it and other pollinators are threatened by human actions speaks not just to greed, but also to downright stupidity. In Aesop's Fables there is the story of the killing of the goose that laid the golden eggs. Well, here we go again!

  5. I am regularly amazed at Craig Dempsey's insights. For a number of years my grandfather raised several colonies of honeybees within the city limits of his town. I was never fond of them as I was stung several times. (He didn't seem to mind the stings.) As Dave Goulson points out, bees can be reintroduced once the underlying issue is resolved. (The European honey bee was not indigenous to the Americas.) Despite the good the major ag support corporations have made to feeding the world, their underlying laissez faire model of profits has not been very altruist for the big picture of agriculture, or of their neighbors. The high court and DC politicians are just as guilty of these outcomes.