Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

The bees are disappearing – a lesson on life

It seems that the most arrogant of creatures, erroneously titled “homo sapiens sapiens” (the doubly wise human, supposedly), who is proving daily that cleverness does not equal wisdom, may have set in motion a process (among many others) that, if it continues, may eradicate one of nature’s marvels, the honey bee (Apis Mellifera). And not only would the vast family of living species — the result of nature’s evolutionary experimentation over billions of years — be one exceptional member species poorer, but one on which humans have depended for thousands of years to play its indispensable role in the pollination of fruits and vegetables for their survival, not to mention the trees and flowers that add to the aesthetic beauty of the world in which we live.

Already the numbers of bees in the US have dropped so alarmingly that a researcher at the Bee Research Laboratory of the US Department of Agriculture, Jeff Pettis, is quoted by Bryan Walsh (in Time, August 19 2013, p. 32) as saying: “The take-home message is that we are very close to the edge; it’s a roll of the dice now”. What Pettis has in mind only sinks in when one reads the article, discovering (if you haven’t done so before; there’s a lot of information available today on the worsening prospects for the honey bee) that one of the clearest indications of the bee-crisis has come from commercial beekeepers. Since about 2006 the latter have been puzzled by the mysterious demise of their bees, which has reached the level of one-third of all honey bee colonies in the US vanishing during the last winter, a disappearing act that has involved larger numbers every year. There is a scientific name for the epidemic among bees: “colony-collapse disorder” (CCD).

Under “normal” circumstances it would be possible for beekeepers to increase the numbers of their bees, but this time they seem to be fighting a losing battle. Naturally the Time article highlights the implications of this fear-inspiring phenomenon for the US (and world) economy: In California alone, the state’s most valuable agricultural export product, almonds (worth $4-billion a year), which are virtually impossible to produce without the taken-for-granted pollination-work of honey bees, is facing possible disaster.

True, not ALL fruits and vegetables (or human food, more generally) are completely dependent on bees, as shown in the example adduced by Walsh in the Time article (p. 32): “In June, a Whole Foods store in Rhode Island, as part of a campaign to highlight the importance of honeybees, temporarily removed from its produce section all the food that depended on pollinators. Of 453 items, 237 vanished, including apples, lemons and zucchini and other squashes. ‘Honeybees are the glue that holds our agricultural system together’, wrote journalist Hannah Nordhaus in her 2011 book, The Beekeeper’s Lament.”

Not surprisingly, although there is no certainty as yet about the cause(s) of the bees’ destruction — one possible contributing cause being a parasitic mite that was “accidentally” introduced into America by humans, another being a bacterial disease called American foulbrood — the most likely culprit(s), according to the Time article, appear to be agricultural pesticides, particularly what are called “neonicotinoids”, used on more than 140 different crops. The reason why these pesticides, among many others, are suspected of being the real culprit, is because bees seem to be particularly susceptible to them, according to studies that show the bees’ nervous system as being targeted by neonicotinoids. As a result, their lethal effects are “delayed but cumulative” (p. 34).

The other bad news is that there are more than 1 200 pesticides registered in the US alone, and that wild bees are even worse off than kept bees. “Globally, up to 100 000 animal species die off each year …”, says Walsh (p.37). “This is what happens when one species — that would be us — becomes so widespread and so dominant that it crowds out almost everything else”. One might add that, judging by the fate of the bees, this process might yet prove to backfire on the dominant species — us.

Given the plight of the honey bees, something worth reminding ourselves of is that nature — not called Mother Nature for nothing — is what gave us birth as a species (whether under divine guidance, as some believe, or not). The ancient Greeks revered nature as Physis, the source of life, and the place where all life returns to in the cycle of life and death. As someone who spends a lot of time in the wilderness, I know the wisdom of this belief, because nothing replenishes one’s energy for living the way a sojourn in nature does.

Sadly, this knowledge is fast disappearing in the increasingly technologically constructed world we inhabit. Just last week I concluded teaching a third-year course in the philosophy of technology, and because I had really enjoyed the intellectual interaction with the students, I suggested that they join me on a hike along a river gorge to a beautiful picnic spot next to a waterfall this Saturday, to spend some social time together after the course. To my utter astonishment, not one of them was interested in hiking (although one had a valid excuse: he could not hike because of a knee injury). One of the others explained his lack of interest by saying that he was not really “an outdoor person”. The fact that, almost without exception, these students were always “armed” with their mobile phones/smartphones, and often stole a glance at their screens during class, was all the explanation I needed, though.

Yesterday I listened to one of the most uncritical technophiliacs I have ever encountered — someone who is an exceptionally good presenter, and all the more seductive in promoting the “advantages” of the cyberspace revolution as a result (cyberspace being one of the topics that my course in the philosophy of technology addressed critically). It was in the context of a discussion on “cyber citizenship”, and the high-powered presenter, who had been specially flown in to “enlighten” (in the narrow sense of technical rationality) the minds of those present, wasted no time in demonstrating the optimal connectivity-capacity that every gadget he had with him possessed, and relating all their properties to maximal informational efficiency in the new world of cyberspace — with the ultimate purpose, of course (what else?) of demonstrating the unheard-of possibilities opened up for “business” by the internet — and information-revolution.

What this presenter did not consider once, was the fact that, while he valorized virtual communication, he did not acknowledge a number of indispensable presuppositions, such as that, without his BODY in space and time, he would not be able to operate his gadgets as deftly as he did. Further, that without food and water, he would soon lack the energy to do so. More encompassingly, without taken-for-granted natural ecosystems, many of which are dependent on the humble honey bee for their continued existence, neither he nor his listeners would have been there in the first place. Ironically, he used the term “ecosystems” in relation to technological systems a number of times during his presentation, but not once to refer to natural ecosystems, the condition of all life.

In the Time article (p. 33) Walsh says: “The loss of honeybees would leave the planet poorer and hungrier, but what’s really scary is the fear that the bees may be a sign of what’s to come, a symbol that something is deeply wrong with the world around us. ‘If we don’t make some changes soon, we’re going to see disaster’, says Tom Theobald, a beekeeper in Colorado. ‘The bees are just the beginning’. ”

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