THURSDAY: Bees? Who Needs ‘Em? — The “Sichuan Sentence” & The Bee Apocalypse

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26 September 2013

           In a time when worldwide bee populations are rapidly declining, the possibility of a world without bees looms large in the popular consciousness.  How could agriculture, on any modern scale, survive in a beeless world?  Often, China’s Sichuan Province is presented as an example — a miniature world without bees.

The popular story of the Sichuan Province isn’t really a story.  It’s a sentence.  In the Sichuan Province, all pollination is done by hand because all the bees there were killed by pesticides in the 1980’s.  Is this the story of tomorrow’s beeless world?  A world in which human beings assume the bees’ “chore” of pollinating crops?

The history and description of Sichuan, in a single sentence, is misleading.  I found another, different story when I searched for the answer to an obvious question: If the Sichuan Province lost all of its bees in the 1980’s, why haven’t more bees been reintroduced?  Why haven’t Sichuan beekeepers restocked hives and started over?  And I was only one of many who had asked this same question.

The surprising answer is that the Sichuan Province is beeless because the Sichuan farmers don’t want or need bees.  A close look at Sichuan presents a surprising picture — one that is nothing like that single sentence suggesting a bee apocalypse.

In the 1970’s, Sichuan produced most of the pears in China.  But the pear harvests were modest and kept the residents living just above the poverty level.  Then, in the mid 1980’s, two new varieties of pear trees were introduced to the province.  With cross-pollination among these different species, both the production of pears and the farmers’ income dramatically increased.

Then, in 1983, the Chinese government introduced yet another variety, Jinhuali Pears, which sold for an even higher price.  However, Jinhuali presented a special problem because these trees flowered at a different time than the province’s other varieties of pear trees.  Again, pear trees require interspecies cross-pollination.  In simple terms, the Jinhuali tree will only bear fruit if its blossoms are pollinated with pollen from the blossoms of a different species of pear tree.  The farmers couldn’t coordinate the appearance of Jinhuali blossoms with the blossoming any other variety of pear tree.  They tried everything — everything but pollinating the Jinhuali by hand.  Bingo!  That was an idea.

When the other pear trees blossomed, the Sichuan farmers gathered and preserved the needed pollen and, then, manually pollinated the late-blooming Jinhuali as soon as its blossoms appeared.  They used sticks with chicken feathers or cigarette filters on the ends.

Not only did manual pollination work, it produced better quality fruit and larger yields than ever before.  Near poverty gave way to prosperity and, then, even more prosperity as pear trees replaced almost every other crop grown in Sichuan.  And honeybees became increasingly unnecessary to the province’s agriculture.

Manual pollination became the rule because it kept pear production strong.  However, within a few years this prosperity was threatened when, for the first time, insects attacked the pear crop.  To Sichuan’s farmers, pears were prosperity.  The farmers spared no expense in buying and applying pesticide.  Sichuan’s pear trees received, and continue to receive, more pesticide more often, than the trees of any other pear orchard on earth.

The pears were saved from insect damage, but the pesticide produced severe collateral damage to the superfluous bee population.  Of course, beekeepers complained but, from an economic standpoint, their complaints fell on deaf ears.  Bees were not part of pear cultivation and production in Sichuan, and pear production was everything.

After losing about half the bee population to pesticides, the beekeepers took their hives and left.  At least to date, the beekeepers and their hives have never returned to Sichuan — the most bee-unfriendly province in the world.

So, the story of Sichuan is not the story of an ecological or environmental disaster.  If it is, the disaster was fully intended, planned, and executed with, from the farmers’ perspective, the coldest of blood.

In fact, the farmers of Sichuan pushed the honeybees aside and rigorously engaged in hand pollination years before the use of pesticides.  Sichuan is not the story of an unexpected chemical disaster, but an engineered preservation of a cash crop at the expense of the province’s bees.  The only financial disaster came to those who were making a substantial income from beekeeping.

However, there’s another question.  Why is the real story of Sichuan so seldom told?  Even after acquiring a fair knowledge of bees, I labored for more than a year under the mistaken impression that Sichuan’s farmers were living with an environmental curse left by an unexpected disaster.  I wasn’t alone.

I’ve read several articles with references to the Huaxia Bee Museum established in Central China’s Hubei Province to commemorate the lost honeybees of Sichuan.  However, these references were inaccurate.  The Huaxia Bee Museum is about China’s bees, but includes nothing related to Sichuan.  In less than a minute, I could draw up over 100 articles that erroneously state that Sichuan’s farmers are “forced” to pollinate pear trees by hand because “pesticides wiped out the bee population” of their province.  Of course, no “force” was ever involved.  Not only were the farmers well established as better pollinators than the bees they replaced, but the rejection of the honeybee in favor of manual pollination happened years before pesticides were introduced.

Sichuan aside, the current decline in bee populations is a real and urgent problem.  Today, the named cause of North American bee disappearances and die-off’s is CCD, Colony Collapse Disorder.  Similar disappearances and die-off’s have been documented repeatedly throughout the past two centuries.  And judging from the surviving records, periodic bee die-offs go back to the dawn of recorded civilization.  The modern “European” (and American) honeybee was imported from Turkey after the disappearance of its European predecessor.

However, it’s a mistake to treat CCD as if it were “business as usual.”  There is one aspect of the modern statistics that is as unexplainable as it is ominous.  Historic bee die-off’s were local events confined to certain regions or countries or climates.  Today, however, domesticated bee populations are dramatically declining worldwide.  Even by the most conservative estimates, both the rate and absolute numbers of the decline are alarming.  A large population of healthy bees is indispensable to agriculture on a modern scale, and no group of people with feathers on sticks could replace our bees.

Still, our fear is not a world without bees.  Bee species will always be with us.  Rather, our fear is a world with too few bees — or only bees of those species that are less than efficient pollinators.  If the current population trends continue, it is possible to envision a world in which only the smallest fraction of our current agricultural yields would, or could, continue to be produced.  With a decimated honeybee population, a good portion of the world would begin to starve — quickly.

However, having taken care not to underestimate the value of the honeybee, I return to the earlier question: Why is the real story of Sichuan, the beeless province, so seldom told?  Perhaps the question can’t be answered without answering another:  What is the significance of the current die-off, not in terms of agriculture, but in terms of public perception?  Do bees play some special role in the public imagination?

Many articles about declining bee populations have a theme and tone that reminds me of those old sci-fi movies from the 1950’s.  Somehow, human technological tampering with nature is punished in some awful (and bizarre) way.  You can almost read this theme between the lines of more than a few articles — an echoed suggestion that some technological tinkering has angered Mother Nature.  (Of course, today, she has a name, Gaea.)  And we are being punished by the disappearance of our bees.  Then, domino-like, all of modern civilization will fall to ruins.

Viewed in this context, the mystery of the “Sichuan sentence” becomes more than just a misunderstanding or even a mistake.  If it’s only an error, perhaps, it’s an error of convenience.  The inaccurate impression of the Sichuan Province as the scene of a bee extinction fits almost too neatly into an increasingly pervasive, though less than articulate, mythology — the mythology of the bee apocalypse.

But why worry?  Isn’t a myth — the myth of a world without bees — a useful cautionary tale?  Isn’t a fable, so interwoven with the dangers of modern technology, a good thing?

In a word, no.

Why? Because the mythology of our current bee die-off as divine retribution from God or Gaea, heaven or earth, conceals the actual problem by confusing it with our own most personal hopes and fears about both our technology and our future.  Our bees and our agriculture — our food supply — are in real danger.  This should drive us directly toward an understanding of the problem and, then, to a solution.  And, most certainly, that solution will be technological and require more technology.

Technology is not “the enemy” . . . nor is it necessarily “the friend.”  Like any other resource, it can work for good or evil depending on how it is used.  Like everyone, I wish that we could develop a technology that would police itself by stopping all future misuses of . . . itself.  But that’s not likely to happen.  The responsibility for regulating and directing the use of technology falls to us:  All of us — every one of us.  If we leave the job to someone else, some group of “experts,” we’ll get exactly what we deserve.

No one knows if the common North American honeybee will survive, in significant numbers, into the future.  It may have to be replaced with a less efficient bee or a less agreeable bee — like its Africanized cousin.

At this date, no one is sure what role pesticides or herbicides play in the current die-off, though there is no end of press releases announcing that the “cause” has been found.  However, our only real hope of saving the honeybee rests with the same technology that is, sometimes, implicitly condemned as “evil” and, often, ignored as the most probable solution.

If we are to save our bees, we need to forget the myths and fables and remember the technology.  Yes, in some way, almost every technological advance brings with it both a blessing and a curse.  So, even if our technology is, in some measure, responsible for the problem of declining honeybee populations, that same technology will most certainly be the source of the solution.

Shakespeare wrote, “Our faults . . . are not in our stars, but in ourselves.”  Similarly, the fault is not in our technology, but in its developers, users, and regulators.  Who are these developers, users, and regulars?  Ultimately, dear reader, they are us.