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What Honeybees Are Telling Us

It’s not the strongest of us that survive. It’s the one that’s willing to evolve and adapt.
Charles Darwin, Naturalist, 1809-1885

I have a fascination with the work of cartoonist Gary Larsen. I probably relate to his humor because as a kid, I believed that all beings -- from whales to guppies, worms or wolves, even the birds and the bees -- at the end of their ‘working’ day would swim, crawl, run or fly home. Once there, they would communicate with their partners, offspring, even neighbours, living much like humans experiencing the good and the bad of it all.

Larsen captures this idiosyncratic co-existence in a wonderful whimsical way. Whether waxing philosophic at all Earth’s species escaping from the same open jar or challenging perspective when cows call ‘car’-- one gets a clear sense that when living within Nature’s brilliant eccentricities, we’re all riding out our particular destinies in the same boat interconnected by the common hope of life.

Honeybees have been part of my lifeboat for as long as I can remember. As a young girl, and well into adulthood, I worked with my Mom in her garden. As a new immigrant, she relied on the nutritional supplement of what she grew in her veggie garden to feed her five children. Every Saturday and Sunday morning before anyone else was up, Mom and I would ‘work’ the garden over a cup of what we called coffee-milk -- warmed milk mixed with strong coffee. If we were feeling particularly wicked we’d topped it off with a dollop of whipping cream in the winter or ice cream in the summer.

In the fall and winter, we’d plan next year’s garden. Pouring over plant catalogs, we’d reference her well-worn gardening notebook to determine what worked and what didn’t. As spring approached, we’d sit at the kitchen table taking inventory of the seeds we harvested from previous years selecting those seeds which needed ‘sprouting’ in her makeshift greenhouse in the basement. In the summer, before the physical work began, we’d walk the garden together. Bare foot and still in our nightgowns, we’d stroll on a cool bed of newly formed dew sipping coffee-milk planning the next task at hand.

Mom believed a garden must appease not only the aesthetic, but the practical. A mix of carefully cultivated plants blossomed throughout the spring and summer. Lilacs painted the garden with white and soft purples. Roses splashed colours of red, yellow and coral. Daisies by the hundreds and day lilies by the score tarted up the corners. And, at every post, well away from delicate plants that could easily be smothered, morning glories twined.

It was the selection that grew on the perimeter of her veggie and berry patch that prompted the most discussion. Foods that flower are not always the brightest in the garden patch. So she’d select plants that helped Mother Nature do what she does best. Some flowers discouraged slugs. Others attracted beneficial insects to help ward off attacks from leaf munching marauders. Others specifically attracted pollinators.

When I was working in her edible garden, in rows that were complemented by cosmos, sweet peas, larkspur or sunflowers, honeybees were my constant companions. Mom called them the ‘ladies of the garden’. She encouraged me to watch and learn as the honeybees collected nectar or pollen to feed their young. She explained how honeybees provided a pollination service that helped grow the food we put on our table. She also gave strict instruction on how to work when they surrounded me.
"Don't fuss." she'd say. "Respect their place in our garden and they'll respect yours."

The Ladies of the Garden

Honeybees are one of the oldest life forms on Earth. Their venerable history dates back one hundred million years. While our chemical soup was still stewing, what was to become the honeybee had already separated from its primordial pack and took flight. Working for millions of years before humankind ever walked on the Earth, these gentle creatures took the evolutionary path of need, seeking out only that which would sustain them. Living in peace and harmony with their neighbours for eons, honeybees evolved into one of the Earth’s most sophisticated and helpful inhabitants. It wasn’t until their evolutionary path ran parallel to humankind did they get into trouble.

During our journey down the evolutionary block, it seems we choose the path of want evolving with a dangerous sense of entitlement. Like teenagers, enjoying a wild weekend when parents are away, we party it up, look the other way when we break something and continually rationalize ourselves out of trouble betting the odds that no one is really listening.

Humans are one of 1.4 million known species on our planet and we’ve grown to become the largest in number to walk the Earth. Evidence suggests that under normal circumstances species could survive on Earth anywhere from one to millions of years. Modern day humans are believed to be in the vicinity of 200,000 years old. So it would be fair to assume that we have a way to go yet. Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth. Even now, as time no longer favors us, it becomes clear that as a species, while we grow steadfast in size, it’s not always with maturity.

What's Eating Us
From the Hanging Gardens of Babylon to every state or family dinner, in any country you can think of, food is front and centre. It's at the heart and soul of us all. There is nothing more personal. Not relationships, or careers, or even sex.

In exceedingly unique ways, food governs everything we do and everything we think. That gives agriculture an important role in the saga of human development. In exceedingly unique ways food governs how we move, how we think and how we behave. Some argue it even contributes to our spiritual development. Billionaires have made unbelievable fortunes because of it. Wars have been fought because of it. Children die in their mother’s lap because of a lack of it. Food is responsible for changing the entire human culture -- twice. It influences our genetic knowledge and our evolutionary well being. But now, something mysterious is happening because of it.

Within the last three decades, the same short time span in which industrial agriculture burrowed transgenic plant material into the vast majority of our farmlands, honeybees have been disappearing. Today, the world’s population of honeybees has been cut in half. As scientists scramble to find the answer, evidence is pointing to what honeybees have been eating over those same three decades. Research shows their immune system which is located in their digestive track has been compromised. They are no longer able to fight off the diseases that they once thwarted.

Unfortunately it doesn’t stop there. The biochemicals used to nurture these alien food crops end up as run-off snaking through our fresh waterways. Now, throughout the once pristine river system of Central North America, fresh water fish have developed hormonal intersex deformities. The bioaccumulation of these agri-chemicals have built up and settled on the river floors. Those same riverbeds feed once prized fresh water trout. Today the vast majority of the fish have mutated. Their endocrine system is under attack resulting in a serious hormonal abnormality.

And now, human children are weakening. Our kids are developing dietary diseases that are characteristic of a much older generation. For the first time in human history the likelihood exists that parents will outlive their children. Within three short decades, we have gone from a viable species to a dying one; the direct result of short term political ambition and long term business goals. If this were a Larsen cartoon, we’d all be on Noah’s Ark, but it would be named the Titanic.

The environmental and social costs of chemical-intensive genetically modified industrial agriculture has placed humanity directly in harm's way. As hard as these Gucci farmers try to suppress this vast amount of evidence, current research indicates that the science behind GE agri-technology is not only faulty, it’s deadly.