Last night I attended a screening of the new documentary “The Vanishing of the Bees” sponsored by Slow Food Seattle at the Piggott Auditorium a the Seattle University. I found it to be a deeply unsettling experience but one that I would recommend to anyone who is concerned about the future of our food supply.
The film, which was co-directed by George Longworth and Maryam Henein, delves into the mysterious disappearance of bee populations that has been observed around the world in the last 2 decades.As the film’s own synopsis puts it:
“Honeybees have been mysteriously disappearing across the planet, literally vanishing from their hives.
Known as Colony Collapse Disorder, this phenomenon has brought beekeepers to crisis in an industry responsible for producing apples, broccoli, watermelon, onions, cherries and a hundred other fruits and vegetables. Commercial honeybee operations pollinate crops that make up one out of every three bites of food on our tables.
Vanishing of the Bees follows commercial beekeepers David Hackenberg and Dave Mendes as they strive to keep their bees healthy and fulfill pollination contracts across the U.S. The film explores the struggles they face as the two friends plead their case on Capital Hill and travel across the Pacific Ocean in the quest to protect their honeybees.
Filming across the US, in Europe, Australia and Asia, this documentary examines the alarming disappearance of honeybees and the greater meaning it holds about the relationship between mankind and mother earth. As scientists puzzle over the cause, organic beekeepers indicate alternative reasons for this tragic loss. Conflicting options abound and after years of research, a definitive answer has not been found to this harrowing mystery.”
I had some awareness that this loss of honeybee population was going on, but no real idea of the extent of the problem or its causes. Although this documentary doesn’t claim to give a definitive answer to the questions of why the bees are disappearing, it does strongly suggest that the cause lies broadly in the system of industrial agriculture that has turned farms into single-crop monocultures and specifically with so-called “systemic” pesticides that have come into use since the early 1990’s.
At the risk of over simplification, a quick explanation of “systemic” pesticides might be useful. Most pesticides work by poisoning insects. Generally the mechanism involved is pretty straight forward; poison is applied to the plant, the insect eats the plant, receiving the poison and dies. With time the level of poison on the plant decreases and the pesticide becomes less effective at killing insects.
With systemic pesticides, the poison is applied to the seed or to the plant at an early stage and is internalized by the plant. Because of the strong residual characteristics of these poisons, they remain in the plant throughout its life. Therefore, insects that eat the plant or its pollen or that come in contact with the plant receive a dose of the poison. Systemic pesticides are often not directly lethal (they don’t kill the insect immediately) but work on the nervous and immune system of the pest, causing damage over time and also over generations.
One might guess that, if these systemic pesticides are messing up the nervous and immune systems of pests, other insects, like bees, that come into contact with them might be effected. One might also reasonably ask if larger animals (like humans) who eat plants that have internalized poison might be at risk as well.
To be fair, as the film points out, a definitive link between systemic pesticides and the disappearance of the bee population has not been scientifically established. Science has not established any mechanism by which systemic pesticides might be killing bees. But this might be because the manufacturers of these pesticides have not tried to establish it. They only do the research required by the USFDA for approval of their pesticides. Unfortunately, the US government has not required research on the long term effects of these pesticides.
On the other hand, enough circumstantial evidence exists for the government of France to have banned the use of at least certain systemic pesticides. The resulting resurgence of the bee population in France in the years following this ban should give doubters reason for serious reflection.
Anyway, see the film. I am not aware of any further screenings in Seattle but you can find out how to get the film at their website. If you are still need a reason to pay the higher price of organic fruits and vegetables, this film will provide it.