Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Bee's Knees.

We shut off the lights when we leave a room. We recycle every can, plastic bottle, and cardboard box that crosses our paths. We (hopefully) compost our fruit and vegetable scraps. We remember to bring our reusable bags to the grocery store.

With the world's ever-increasing awareness of the condition of the environment, more and more individuals are taking responsibility for themselves and their daily actions in order to preserve their future and that of the generations to come.

However, how many times a day do you think about...bees? Sure, we all have that cute, little teddy bear filled with golden nectar sitting in our cupboard that, albeit most likely crystallized, you reach for every time we need to sweeten our cup of tea or yogurt. But other than that, bees are probably not at the forefront of our minds.

However, according to "Vanishing of the Bees," bees provide us with a lot more than an unrefined sweetener.

On Sunday, February 27th, Slow Food Boston graciously hosted a screening of the documentary "Vanishing of the Bees" and subsequent panel discussion at Boston University. Given the turnout for the event, apparently a great deal of people are concerned with the well-being of the bees.

The focus of the documentary was the increasing prevalence of a condition known as "Colony Collapse Disorder," a phenomenon in which bees mysteriously disappear from their hives.

FASCINATING. And your point is...?

Well, according to the film's synopsis, "commercial honeybee operations pollinate crops that make up one out of every three bites of food on our tables." In other words, if bees are disappearing, beekeepers cannot stay in business, and thus are unable to raise the lovely little bees that pollinate our plants. Therefore, this problem has both economic and personal consequences.

While there are several theories as to why this bee epidemic is on the rise, there are two major hypotheses that resounded:

1. The increase in the use of pesticides, and in particular systemic pesticides

When we typically think of pesticides, the image of a plane flying over fields of crops, dousing our food with a disparaging amount of pesticides comes to mind. While spray pesticides still flow like water, one of the primary culprits of the bee epidemic is the rise of systemic pesticides. Essentially, the seeds of our favorite fruits and vegetables are manufactured to absorb the pesticide as they grow and thus incorporate it into the plants' tissues. BRILLIANT, RIGHT?! Ehh... not so much.

This is disturbing because no matter how much we wash our beloved apples and romaine lettuce in an attempt to "remove" the pesticides, it is impossible to do so when the pesticide is an actual component of that fruit or vegetable. And although pesticides are helpful for farmers because they poison the pests that eat their crops, the cost is the lives of bees. Without bees, our crops will not be pollinated. Without pollination our crops will not grow. Without crops the United States' infamously endless supply of food will diminish.

2. The ubiquity of "monocultures"

A monoculture refers to a large area of land that is devoted solely to one crop. Want to guess the most prevalent monocultures in the United States? Corn and Soy. Yup, that's right-- the usual suspects. According to the film, nature is not meant to exist as a monoculture. Mother Nature has no uniformity. While the pervasiveness and subsequent implications of corn and soy crops in America is a whole other blog post, it goes without saying that the United States' food production is working against the natural diversity and as a result, the bees are not tolerating it. In order to eat pollen, bees must ferment it. And without a diverse diet, that nature typically provides, the bees cannot ferment the pollen and consequently cannot survive.

The condition of the bee population is directly related to the condition of our environment. Why? Well, since bees are the entities that pollinate our fruits and vegetables and thus determine whether or not we will have those strawberries in June or those apples in September. If something were to happen to those furry little buggers, what would happen to our beloved produce?

What shocked me the most was that both the film and the panel discussion mentioned the dishonest sale of "pure" honey. In fact, the majority of the honey on supermarket shelves is not 100% honey even if the label claims to be. The most common additives used are water and syrup made from beet juice or palm sugar. Sure it reduces the cost of production for the manufacturers but all we receive is another dishonest product that we need to be wary of.

How do you ensure that you are spending your precious dollars on a genuine product? Buy local. According to the panel of beekeepers, the only way to know the contents of your honey is to form a relationship with a beekeeper. If you are unsure of the authenticity of a beekeeper's honey, simply ask "What do you feed your bees?" Their answer will let you know.

The three beekeepers in attendance were Wendy Mainardi of Allandale Farm in Brookline, Laurie and Dean of Golden Rule Honey in Leominster, and Mike Graney of All three offer pure, authentic, and most importantly, local, honey. After taste-testing all of the honey and honey-based products, I don't see why you would trust your honey purchases to anyone else.

So. What can we do to help?

1. Reduce the use of toxic chemicals in our homes.

  • So rather than using that bottle of neon yellow Clorox to mop your floors, try to find a natural cleaning alternative. This website is particularly helpful.

2. Choose organic produce.

  • After all the talk of the ubiquity of pesticide use, this should be pretty self-explanatory. And while organic produce IS more expensive than conventional, wouldn't you rather pay the few extra dollars now rather than pay a much heftier "price" in the future?

3. Go to the Farmers' Market.

  • While this is not the easiest feat to accomplish in the dead of winter in Boston, there are alternatives out there. The Somerville Winter Farmers Market is an amazing initiative in which every Saturday, local farmers to bring their seasonal, delicious, produce, meats, dairy, etc. to those of us who are fed up with the unnaturally shiny Granny Smith apples that you can practically see your reflection in and the wrinkly, lackluster greenhouse tomatoes that we encounter in our neighborhood grocery store in the winter. The Winter Market is an awesome alternative when our beloved summer produce is not available. But when summer does finally come around (it's already spring!) you can bet your bottom dollar that I will be at the Copley or Newton farmers markets wandering around the stands, oogling the breath-taking bounties, utterly intoxicated by the deep, sweet scent of strawberries in June and the aroma of blood-red Heirloom tomatoes and just-picked peaches in August. In other words, there is no (good) excuse not to check out your local Farmer's Market.

These sustainable acts are often done in hopes of helping the environment but with little direct and tangible benefit. However, after learning about the condition of the bee population and how little acts can make a big difference, the decision between the organic and the conventional head of broccoli should be an easy one.

Save the whales bees!

-Julia Sementelli

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