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Humanity's Garden

One hundred million years ago, during what geologists call the Cretaceous period, the face of our planet was reshaping itself, yet again. The supercontinent Pangaea had broken up into the land formations we are familiar with today. But it would take another 40 million years for the continents to make the journey to where they are currently anchored.

The land mass we now call South America was an island, slowly drifting westward. Africa was in pieces. India and Madagascar were island neighbours while much of Europe was still a series of small islands. Down under, Australia’s land mass was attached to Antarctica. And while the southern polar cap had just about settled into its current position, the temperature was a balmy 10◦C/50◦F, instead of the coldest spot on Earth.

Oceans were brimming with aquatic wildlife. Sharks and the 30 meter long mosasaur ruled the seas. With a four foot flexible jaw, these mammoth marine reptiles had few enemies. The sky was filled with birds. Some looked like the species of present-day. Others had teeth. Pterodactyls, the largest animal ever to fly, soared among the misty clouds. These giant gliders, with bat-like wings attached to their legs, walked on all fours. Throughout the world they left footprints embedded in ancient sediment; only to be discovered millions of years later fixed in fossils, evolution’s record keepers. On land, palm trees grew in Canada. Other trees, much like their contemporaries, dotted the landscape. But they were already a venerable 260 million years old. Yet not a single blade of grass could be found. And the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex, one of the largest land carnivores of all time, roamed the Earth -- right beside the humble honeybee.

The Genesis Seed
Ancient fossils tell us by this time, terrestrial plants had already stepped out of the prehistoric oceans to claim terra firma over 300 million years before Dino Rex and his pals inhabited the Earth. The transition, however, had its own unique set of challenges. As blue-green bacteria slowly turned into algae and algae gathered into colonies, they needed a secure food source. Lucky for us our clever green-skinned pals looked to the sun for the answer.

When primitive plants learned how to transform solar energy into a food source they became responsible for the most important natural chemical reaction on Earth – oxygen. Their ability to form carbohydrates from carbon dioxide and water, using light as an energy source, put all aerobes -- those of us which require oxygen to live on Earth -- forever in their debt.

When autotrophs learned to essentially eat the sun, their colonies no longer needed to constantly move around for a decent meal. With the ability to store energy the algae blooms started the long trek toward land. Ultimately they became securely anchored to the soil only to discover culinary self-sufficiency was just half of the survival equation. Procreation was the other half and unfortunately becoming rooted complicated their love life.

Apparently meeting fresh new faces once firmly affixed to soil made playing the procreation card challenging. Terrestrial plants couldn’t reproduce in the same manner as their aquatic cousins. Water plants scatter themselves as spores that just float away until they find a hospitable perch. Unfortunately, on land, spores dry out much too quickly. So vascular plants, those that collect atmospheric carbon to build their cell walls, developed one of the most dramatic innovations of the plant world, the genesis seed. This ingenious little gymnosperm carried within its casing all the genetic information it needed to propagate. But for this reproductive brilliance, all was not yet assured.

Procreation still remained an iffy proposition. Gymnosperm had a mobility issue. They couldn't spread quickly enough to ensure diversity -- a central tenet of survival for all who inhabit this planet. So plants did what they do best. They took time to figure things out. Two hundred and twenty million years later, the little gymnosperms had an ‘aha’ moment and the Earth was changed forever. Flowering angiosperms made their debut.

What sets flowering plants apart from seeds is that they don’t need a spore or a seed to reproduce. Rather, most of what they require is cradled in the blossom. Flowering AngiospermFlowering Angiosperm Unlike the seed which has only a single pollinating opportunity, flowering angiosperm have multiple opportunities to procreate and they ensure culinary self sufficiency as part of the process. A flowering plant’s pollen tube releases two sperm into the ovary. This double fertilization system ensures one sperm interacts with an egg to form the embryo and the other fuses with the embryo sac to produce the endosperm which ultimately provides nutrition to the newly formed embryo.

But even as plants could now feed their offspring, they still needed a way to deposit its fertilizing pollen into just the right spot to ensure perpetuity. For the reproductive cycle to be complete, pollen dust must come into contact with the stigma, the female part of the plant.

To handle this evolutionary dilemma meant the flowering angiosperm needed a superhero to take up the cause. And just like every good superhero, the relationship must not only solve the immediate quandary, but it must make the world a better place. So who was this relentless crusader? Up until the 21st century, the superpower behind the evolutionary spark that eventually feeds the vast majority of Earth’s inhabitants remained a mystery.

The Symbiotic Handshake
Naturalists like Charles Darwin, the father of modern biology, had grown comfortable with the theory that evolutionary biology took its own sweet time when adapting to new environments. But the rapid ascension of the angiosperm flew in the face of that logic. From their first appearance on Earth some 300 million years later than the first vascular plants and 220 million years later than the first seed plants; these earthbound blooms attained ecological dominance in a majority of habitat, over a wide geographical area, in less than 50 million years. While 50 million years may sound like a long time, in evolutionary terms it’s a drop in the primordial bucket. Try as they might, science knew of no species that existed in that time frame capable of igniting such an epoch.

100 Million Year Old Honeybee100 Million Year Old HoneybeeUltimately, the answer to one of Earth’s most sought after secrets was revealed by a very old herbivore. In 2007 two scientists, Bryan Danforth and George Poinar of Oregon State University were rummaging around deep inside a mine in Burma (Myanmar) located on the Bay of Bengal in south east Asia. There they discovered an ancient piece of amber with a honeybee embedded within the golden nugget. While a bee captured in resin was not news, once back at the lab, the scientists discovered this particular nugget dated back 100 million years.

Up until then science had hypothesized that the honeybee was only 65 million years old. But this ancient bee measuring just three millimeters long had many features of the modern honeybee, including a full-body coating of small branched hairs which give honeybees their furry appearance. This little piece of resin placed the flying sisterhood on Earth just about the same time as flowering angiosperms were trying to get settled in.

The discovery made headlines all over the world triggering the largest molecular and morphological study of a species to date. Science could finally link the evolutionary development and diversification of honeybee species to the evolution of flowering plants.

The pairing of these two entirely different species working together gave us an evolutionary legacy that is nothing less than miraculous. Over eons, brilliant blossoms transformed themselves into intoxicating nectar-producing cultivars with precise shapes to meet the specific needs of the busy honeybees. Blossoms evolved to reflect large amounts of ultraviolet light which to honeybee eyes is very bright. They adapted to the honeybee’s inability to see red, which is why red flowers are a rarity in Nature. Flowering plants even learned to nod their heads in the breeze to entice the gentle, yellow and black nectar-seekers.

For all this floral benevolence, there was modus operandi at work. Flowering plants developed specialized landing pads near the nectary where the sugar-rich liquid is produced during photosynthesis. When a honeybee lands on the welcoming blossom velvety petals encourage her to plunge deeper. As she follows the seductive scent of nectar to the heart of the bloom, the plant’s pollen softly brushes against her yellow and black jacket hitching a ride to the next receptive host. And the rest, as they say, is history.

This symbiotic relationship between flowering angiosperm and honeybee was so successful, fifty million years later all the evolutionary ties to flowers known in present time had come into being. As flowers and honeybees danced together, waltzing from Africa to central Asia and northern Europe, Earth was profoundly altered. The dynamic duo transformed our brown and barren world making it lush with diversity and rich with promise. They shaped our climate and regulated the cycling of carbon dioxide and water. They affected how the landscape absorbs or reflects sunlight. With the help of honeybees, flowering plants adapted producing species that survive in both freshwater and marine habitats. On land they became herbs, vines, shrubs, and giant trees. Some were edible; others held medicinal properties. The alliance produced nuts, fruit and grains. For 100 million years amidst all this diversity only one thing remained constant. Then, as now, pollination by the little furry flying heroines was essential to survival.

The Ecological Trinity
One hundred thousand years ago, the somewhat Utopian state of flowers and honeybees was about to be introduced to a new player. Over the eons, as the low-lying, richly vegetated savannahs filled with grasses, our ancestors began their journey out of Africa bringing honeybees with them.

Neolithic HomeNeolithic Home We come from a long line of hunter-gathers and apparently we liked the arrangement. As recently as 11,000 years ago we still lived in a band society. Nomadic by nature, our tribes consisted primarily of immediate family members. There were no written laws. Decisions were usually made by consensus and we often looked to older members of the clan for guidance and advice. We herded animals and grew strong on a diet of meat and milk. And we were always on the lookout for a place where the grass was greener.

As we spread out over the planet like peanut butter on warm toast, our then civilization came to a crossroads. It was the dawning of the Neolithic era and human ecology was about to take a sharp turn. With nothing to guide us but our instincts, humans discovered seeds held a life force so powerful that grains and grasses such as barley, wheat, rice and maize not only made food when found, but when planted would yield yet another harvest. It was 10,000 B.C. and the first agrarian revolution had arrived.

With this life lesson firmly affixed to human experience, our ancestors took a giant evolutionary step forward. Once our food source was secure, we had the opportunity to mature in thought and deed. Living individually and collectively we came to understand the universal law of abundance -- when experience brings riches, sharing benefits all. We settled into stable communities and became interconnected through family-based economies. Historian Lewis Mumford called it humanity’s golden age -- a time when agrarian villages settled into a daily rhythm of living within community before the rise of modern civilization.

Today three entirely different species are bound by a common heritage. This symbiotic handshake created an ecological trinity that became the backbone of all genetic knowledge as we know it today. As we crisscrossed the land with seed in hand, honeybees became our greatest allies in both social and ecological terms. Today flowering plants, honeybees and humans occupy every habitat on Earth with the exception of the highest mountaintops or the arctic caps. The vast majority of the world’s plant and food crops are flowering angiosperms and honeybees pollinate 90 per cent of them. Without them the natural food we appreciate today would simply not exist. Hard evidence of fine balance we all live.

There are nearly 20,000 species of bees living in peace and harmony with almost 400,000 known and yet to be discovered species of flowering plants and one Homo sapien who relies on it all. And it looks like we have just upset the applecart.

Related Posts

  • Death By Nutrition
    Both the medical and independent scientific community have declared a nutritional pandemic and the forecast for our children is not promising.
  • The Gene Gamble
    As recently as the last two decades, science has uncovered some exquisite truths about both honeybees and humans -- not the least of which is the barriers which separate us are thinner than we like to believe.

Resources

  • A comprehensive book on plant evolution.
    The Evolution of Plants, K.J. Willis and J.C. McElwain, Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • The key insight of Gaia Theory is that the entire Earth functions as a single living super-organism. But according to James Lovelock, the theory’s originator, that organism is now sick.
    The Revenge of Gaia, Earth's Climate Crisis and the Fate of Humanity, James Lovelock, Publisher: Penguin Books
  • Reveals how living our daily life creates a toxic soup inside each of us.
    Slow Death by Rubber Duck, Dr. Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie with Sarah Dopp, Publisher: Alfred A Knopf, Canada
  • Journal of Evolutionary Biology Research
  • The Emerald Planet, How Plants Changed Earth's History, David Beerling, Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Research Discovers Oldest Bee, Evolutionary Link
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2006/10/061025184944.htm

Rethinking Food

The average consumer believes they are not very powerful - but the exact opposite is true. Corporations deliver what the consumer demands. The average meal purchased from your supermarkets travels 1500 miles to arrive at your dinner table. You can change the industrial food system with every bite.

  • Vote with your purchasing dollar
  • Read the food label
  • Buy only from companies that treat workers, animals and the environment with respect.
  • Choose foods that are in season and locally grown.
  • Buy organic or naturally grown food
  • Shop at farmers' markets
  • Cooking is fun and easy. Make the time to cook a meal
  • Our government agencies are supposed to protect us. Tell them to enforce food safety standards.

Citizen's Science - Be Involved

Wildflower Initiatives
There are over 20,000 species of wildflowers in North America belonging to 300 different families. Kissing cousins to the flowering food crops that end up on our dinner table, their colour and beauty grace our landscapes. From the delightful eye candy of wildflower fields to a groaning board full of culinary delights, honeybees make it all happen. Today half of the world-wide honeybee population has vanished.

Often there appears to be a great divide between ecological problems and probable solutions. Not in this case. Without honeybees diversity rich food sources which are naturally grown are in jeopardy. But we can turn things around using practical applications that are accessible to everyone. We just have to shift perspective - abit. Please join us.