Thursday, July 15, 2010

I miss getting stung

The first letter I remember writing was a postcard to my father. Written in the scrawl of a three-year-old, the message took up the entire writing space on the card. The message was “I got stung by a bee.” That was a big event and seemed worth writing to my father about. These days, I suppose a three-year-old kid with such an important message would send an SMS on her mobile telephone.

A couple of days ago, I was walking in a nearby city park and admiring the many heads of white clover growing in the grass, and my mind turned back to the painful lesson I had learned at the age of three about walking barefoot on a lawn filled with clover. The prospect of getting stung by a bee freighted the adventure with the thrill that goes with risk. But as I looked out over the clover in the city park a few days ago, I noticed something very odd. There was not a bee to be seen anywhere. Where there should have been hundreds or thousands of bees, there was not one to be seen.

Absences always get my attention, and the absence of the bees in the clover made me go looking at flowering shrubs and bushes that usually attract the critters, and I saw no bees anywhere. Their absence seemed ubiquitous.

I listen to quite a few science programs on the radio, broadcast by National Public Radio and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (a radio and television network funded by the Canadian government and based on the belief that there are people scattered around the country who would actually like to be informed and to hear intelligent discussion on important issues—think of it as the antithesis of Fox News and MSNBC). A few weeks ago on one of the several science programs I regularly listen to, there was a feature on an Australian biologist who has dedicated his life to studying all kinds of bees. He was talking about the dramatic worldwide drop in the populations of just about every species of bee. Whether one looks at North America, South America, Africa, Asia, Europe or Australia, bees are dropping like flies.

The decline of bees is very worrying, given that a large percentage of the food crops that the human race has become dependent on growing and eating are pollinated almost exclusively by bees. While it's true that pollen attaches to the hair of cats and dogs and other furry quadrupeds, nothing is as efficient as bees at delivering pollen to where it does the most good in fertilizing plants. It's not just that bees are fun to watch and add a touch of adventure to walking barefoot through the clover. Our lives depend on them. We will miss them, but not for long. Most of us will die before we have had a chance to cultivate protracted nostalgia.

So what accounts for the silence of the bees? There are numerous theories. Some say they are succumbing to pesticides. But pesticides have been around for many decades without having dramatic effects on the bee population. It could be that pesticides have cooperated with the general degradation of the environment to produce a critical mass of stress factors that have finally overwhelmed the bees. The Australian scientist I heard suspects something else: cell phones. All over the world there has been a steady rise in the use of mobile telephones, and in most parts of the most heavily populated parts of the world, transmission towers are popping up every few hundred meters. As a result, all of us are being exposed to large amounts of electromagnetic radiation and frequencies that are no doubt having some effect on our health, although we may not know how exactly the waves are affecting us until the damgae has been done.

Meanwhile studies have been done that suggest that the frequency of waves used to transmit all those terribly important text messages and telephone conversations being conducted via mobile telephones has a serious effect on the biological navigation systems of most kinds of bee. Because of impaired navigation abilities, bees are unable to find their way back to their colonies. They are not reproducing as frequently as they used to do, and they are not able to care for their young. One account of this effect is on the website of Institute of Science in Society.

There is so much to worry about these days. Will Sarah Palin attend her daughter's wedding with Levi? Who can worry about bees while such major issues as that are weighing on our minds? Still, one can't help hoping that the word will gradually get out that our addiction to cell phones is helping our addiction to oil to make our current way of life untenable.

May I request that if you do decide to help spread the word about the possibly deleterious effect of cell phones on bees, you use some medium other than an SMS?


Anonymous said...

what's an SMS?

Bees are seen here in Idaho. At the Sat. street market we can buy local Idaho honey from Emmet. Tastes nice. I wonder sometimes if the bees are using nectar from pesticided Emmet fruit trees, but don't linger on that horrible thought. Meanwhile, in my garden this year I saw the bees had finally discovered the papaverum, somniferum flowers, where they frantically climb deep into the fringed and fluffy ones looking for pollen. As for the single flowers, they go for the red color ones. The other color they favor is light pink ("double" fluffy). The single petaled purple ones are ignored.
Makes me wonder if they are making stoney honey back at the hive.

Bill Samuel said...

I've heard that in the U.S. organic honeybees are not experiencing this problem. Honeybees are not native to the USA & have been imported as more efficient pollinators. But that means they may also be more vulnerable.

The wide use of honeybees resulted in a great decrease in the number of natural pollinators. Hopefully they will increase in numbers now.

We have flowers and basil which attract a lot of bees (and butterflies). So they are certainly still around in our environment on the other side of the country from you (Maryland).