Disappearances: Reflections on the collapse of honey bees and the Left
Platypus Review 23 | May 2010
A bustling city at dawn. Industrious workers set out from their homes, coming and going in a perfect and productive ballet. But by evening the workers vanish. No trace of foul play. No bodies left behind. Mass disappearances like this have recently occurred across the globe, not of humans, but of millions of honey bees.
The ominously titled 2007 PBS documentary Silence of the Bees begins with a montage of the streets of a major U.S. city that had grown silent because its inhabitants vanished. The empty city, we are told, is not unlike the beehives afflicted by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), a commercial honey bee syndrome that has resulted in massive apian losses. A few minutes into the documentary, however, we are informed that the metaphor should be considered more literally, as “the bees’ disappearance could have colossal repercussions for humans.” As the documentary continues, a chorus of honey bee experts proclaims the apocalyptic scale of the unfolding CCD crisis, as bees “account for about one third of the food that is produced in America.” One suggests that “unless we only want to eat corn, wheat, and rice, we need bees.” Another supposes that “without bees, life as we know it, I do not think, will exist.”
Abruptly, mysteriously, and on a massive scale, honey bee colonies collapsed across North America at the end of 2006. Similar losses have also been observed in Europe, Japan and the Middle East. Reports from the southern U.S. this spring suggest that the problem continues unabated.
Colony Collapse Disorder was relentlessly incorporated into mass culture. Within a year it was the subject of a host of network documentaries, several popular books, and an episode of The Simpsons in which bees across Springfield suddenly vanished. Even Michelle Obama found it fashionable to include a honey bee colony in her new White House vegetable garden.
Public reaction to the plight of the honey bees was notably hysterical and irrational, as evidenced by the global persistence of a news story connecting CCD to cell phone usage. Less recognized and more pernicious is the prediction, reproduced in Silence of the Bees, that the loss of honey bees could reduce food production by up to 30%, which seems to have readily taken root in the public imagination. Subsequently, public anxiety about CCD and food security has been channeled into a host of popularly organized efforts. Nationwide campaigns to raise money for CCD research quickly materialized, from community bake sales to national consumer product marketing campaigns. Public education initiatives have appeared but seem wholly lacking in direction, such as community drives to have their municipalities proclaim an annual “Day of the Honey Bee.” Community and municipal government projects to cultivate urban apiaries and bee habitats have became commonplace in large cities, in spite of the overwhelming predominance and importance of colonies in rural areas.
While there has been considerable research into the agro-ecological causes of CCD, this has not been matched by investigations into the social impulses behind the fascination and fear that has gripped such broad strata of society. An emphasis on studying “natural” causes highlights the widespread belief among researchers and agricultural professionals that keeping bees alive, as well as solving agricultural or environmental problems more broadly, is largely a technical issue. The result has been an excessive emphasis on the development of technical solutions. This reveals how study of “natural” causes today can be understood as a reified symptom of an impoverished popular consciousness, since it functions to completely obscure the social character of nature.
Popular understanding of the actual connections between society and “natural” causes are wholly inadequate. The reception of CCD in contemporary mass culture combines a borderline-apocalyptic pessimism toward the last generation of technical “solutions” (e.g., cell phones, pesticides, crop monoculture) with frenzied efforts to raise money for research to fund the next generation of technical innovation. In other words, the “leveraging” of public anxieties should negatively expose that no conscious social movement today could conceivably pull the levers themselves. The overwhelming and irrational public responses to CCD reveal the absence of the capacity to comprehend society that would come if reason could consciously determine its direction. The mania surrounding CCD exposes the fact that no broad-based political movement in the present could possibly shape even a modest agenda for agricultural policy reform today. The impossibility of reform, let alone any kind of substantive restructuring, is more worrisome than the disappearance of honey bee colonies itself. It signals the disappearance not only of the possibility of a mass conscious force that could direct society, but of the consciousness that such a thing might be desirable—or even necessary. In short, it signals the death of the Left.
Honey bees, like fertilizer or herbicide, are an important modern agricultural input. Placing high densities of colonies in fields of pollination-dependent crops increases both yield and quality, which in turn helps maximize profitability. The dependence of crops on pollination, however, varies, and many important staples (notably the cereals) do not require insect pollination. While the most recent estimates suggest that 35% of the food we eat (2.3 billion metric tons (Mt) annually) benefit from pollination—essentially one out of every three bites—this estimate includes some very large bites come from crops grown at present with a disproportionately small number of honey bees.
Perhaps the most extreme example is the case of potatoes, which constitute an enormous 300 million Mt of annual food production, just over one pollination-dependent bite in ten, but which require an insignificant number of pollinators to produce. On the other end of the scale, there is the pollination of the relatively miniscule 8 million Mt of almonds. The pollination of this crop in the U.S., the leading producer of almonds globally, requires the muscle of the entire U.S. beekeeping industry to accomplish, on account of this crop’s extraordinarily early blooming period. By contrast, other highly pollination-dependent crops that are far more deficient in the U.S. diet have not commanded the same attention. Fruit consumption in the U.S., for example, amounts to less than half the USDA recommended servings per capita, yet the number of colonies needed to pollinate almonds, which belong to a group with near-target consumption, is likely equal to the number of colonies needed to pollinate all fruit crops combined. Furthermore, recent surveys of pollination fees paid to beekeepers reveal that they receive three times the fee for almonds than for other crops. It would appear, then, that CCD is a big problem for the production of almonds, rather than a food security issue more generally.
The connection between food security and CCD becomes even less tenable when considering the overarching effect that economic and political factors have had on honey bee colony numbers and the agricultural landscape they pollinate. Massive global shifts occurred with the collapse of the Fordist state in the West and of the command economies in the East. An early indication of this shift was agricultural upheaval. Cold War trade barriers began to be breached in the early 1970s with massive exports of wheat and soybeans into the Eastern Bloc. Spurred on by inflation, itself partly precipitated by labor militancy and wage demands in the West, agriculture became one of the first areas of attempted restructuring.
This restructuring largely escaped the notice of the New Left, which failed in the 1960s and early 1970s to connect the broad social movements of their time, such as the Civil Rights, student, anti-war, and labor movements, into a coherent renewed anti-capitalist politics. This failure meant agricultural instability could only be resolved through a very limited set of mechanisms, all of which seem necessary only if this larger, prior political failure is taken for granted.
The crisis of the 1970s, as it was manifested in agriculture, resulted in a rapid increase in prices. Beekeepers trebled their colony numbers to capitalize on these new opportunities. However, the elevated output, coupled with increasing market liberalization, resulted in intense global competition. Beekeepers in the U.S., previously buffered from world honey prices by New Deal-era farm price support programs, became mired in financial hardship when the government terminated these programs and increased interest rates. North American colony numbers declined dramatically. This was followed a few years later by an even more precipitous drop in colony numbers in the wake of the economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union. These colony losses far exceed anything exacted by CCD today.
The crisis failed to reinvigorate a Left that had been in decline for decades, and so instead was addressed from the Right through neoliberal economic reforms. From the beekeeping perspective, this was manifested in the stunning increase in production of higher value pollination-dependent crops, such as almonds. Since 1990 there has been an almost 300% increase in the production of these non-staple foods, an increase in output made possible by a 45% increase in honey bee stocks. Beekeeping has become more integrated into agriculture and its ties to crop production still more rationalized. The mainstay of beekeeper incomes, which traditionally depended on the sale of honey, has shifted. In Oregon, for example, beekeepers now derive over 70% of their incomes come from pollination, and most of this (67%) is derived from almonds. Furthermore, the dependency of beekeeping on external forces such as debt financing, equipment, labor, and other inputs has deepened. In a sense, the neoliberal food system is increasingly dependent on beekeepers and beekeepers have, in turn, become dependent on the new food system.
This new integration engenders new productivity, allowing diets around the world to be transformed in previously unimagined ways. It also creates a situation whereby beekeeping is more dependent on society as a whole, since a considerable amount of the work traditionally done by beekeepers and their families has been transferred to workers in the manufacturing and agrochemical sectors. The full realization of this emerging social productivity, however, would require a break from the forces that gave birth to them. That is, full realization of the potentials of modern agro-business are beyond the capacity of neoliberal or any other form of capitalism to realize. Of course, this view stands in sharp contrast to the conservative positions adopted by many activists and intellectuals of today’s Left who often take a negative attitude toward science, technology, and indeed, productivity. To them, there is no sense of possibility latent in the more dynamic elements of agriculture, notably in biotechnology. The difficult work previously taken up by the Left of trying to identify and advance the potential of the present has been replaced by nostalgia for a preindustrial and pastoral past. This is not to say that contemporary agricultural practices are unproblematic. The non-judicious and profligate use of pesticides in hives, for example, is a formidable problem that is likely linked to CCD itself. Nonetheless, in the absence of a Left, there are severe limits to our understanding of how such a problem could be resolved. The currently fashionable approach has been to turn such problems into moral and lifestyle choices (for example, eating organically produced foods or buying brands that donate profits to CCD research), or else to relegate the problem to public and private agencies. But this strategy has already run up against its limits.
The moral dimensions of present-day agricultural populism are exemplified by a lecture delivered by Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture Acting State Apiarist Dennis van Engelsdorp titled “A Plea for Bees,” in which the solution to CCD was suggested to be in re-framing the problem as “Nature Deficit Disorder” (NDD). By romanticizing how humans have “forgotten our connection with nature,” the lecturer claims that “if we are able to reconnect to nature, we will be able to have the resources and interest to solve these problems.” The “easy cure” advanced is to convert urban lawns into meadows.
The phenomenon of CDD does not reveal our alienation from nature but our alienation from social productive forces. The “easy cure” simply reproduces the latter form of alienation by channeling it into the former, satisfying immediate impulses and, in turn, deflecting attempts to reflect or clarify what CCD actually means. While watching bees on flowers in a newly cultivated suburban meadow may seem transformative, in reality the shift would do little more than to reaffirm current modes of food production. “Easy cures” such as those offered in “A Plea for Bees” would only reinforce mass public irrationality in service of undisturbed patterns of production. This is rendered quite clear by a campaign conducted by the premium ice cream brand Häagen-Dazs, which donates money to bee research when consumers purchase products from their Bee-Built Flavors line. In the 1980s, the company licensed to produce Häagen-Dazs in North America, Nestlé S.A., was the target of a successful global campaign against its marketing practices of infant formula in Africa. Having clearly learned its lesson, the company has joined forces with activists in advocating to revoke the New York City Health Department’s ban on urban beekeeping. In effect, it successfully channeled urban anxieties about the food system into a community issue of little real consequence to the large-scale survival of bee colonies.
The opening sequence of Silence of the Bees is of various panned-out urban scenes of masses of people going to work. The footage has been sped up to eliminate any trace of human intention and to prepare for the bee hive footage to follow. The shot is reminiscent of Dziga Vertov’s experimental documentary film Man With a Movie Camera (1929), which portrays a city waking as its population goes to work in a similar way. Vertov’s city dwellers, however, have a curious relation with the technologies of labor and leisure, one that fits the description of “labor tending into play.” Vertov’s 1920s masses stand in striking contrast to the bee-like masses of the present. An active and political Left made possible the understanding of how social labor could become conscious through the politics of freedom. It is perhaps because the politicization of the labor movement has no “connection with nature”—unlike the labor of the bee hive—that it was able to push against all preconceived limits of how society might be configured. Its social imagination was not limited to merely emulating patterns observed in the natural world. The framing of human labor as somehow “natural” is precisely what the Left challenged in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is the disappearance of this challenge that draws us back to look for a “connection with nature” and prevents us from identifying the basis of agricultural problems in our alienated labor.
With the collapse of the Left, society looks to experts to provide technological solutions, even as popular mass culture insists that experts flatten their analyses. Experts, in habituating themselves and their study to a society that refuses to mature, participate in restricting the horizon of possibilities even for the “technical” solutions that society, increasingly lacking a consciousness directed toward mass social transformation, increasingly demands of them. Disappearances in such a society are met with adaptation. We will adapt to the disappearance of bees using new technologies to keep them alive. We will adapt to the disappearance of the Left by telling ourselves that the present could not be otherwise. Registering disappearances rather than passively adapting to them, however, opens the possibility of remembering the future. It restarts the unfinished project of uncoupling our labor from a blind, runaway development. It is the precondition for being able to pose clearly the question, “How could bees be managed to nourish humanity in previously unimagined ways?” |P
. Dennis van Engelsdorp, A Plea for Bees (TED Conferences, LLC, 2008), 16 min., 23 sec..