Another Silent Spring, a Spring Without Bees?

When Rachel Carson published Silent Spring in 1962, she imagined a neighborhood so quiet as to be dead. All the birds gone due to DDT’s effect on thinning their shells and killing the worms and insects they ate. Today we have recovered the sounds of spring–gulls returning north wheeling in the sky, silver against the coming dark. Beautiful reminder that winter is ebbing and we in Minnesota are returning to the land of the living, the melting, the growing.

My heart clutches. What am I going to plant this year that won’t kill the bees? For many seasons I’ve bought my container flowers for the back deck from Menards. Think Fleet Farm, or any local hardware store that caters to backyard gardeners who want a quick fix. Recently I’ve become convinced that I can’t do this anymore. It’s too deadly.

For several years I’ve been reading about bee colony collapse. It’s taken a while to finger the culprit, but scientific evidence now points to a widespread pesticide family called Neonicotinoids. Think Neon – I – cotin-oids.

Not only is this family of pesticides widely used against so-called pests, meaning insects that harm row crops (and potatoes, etc), but they are also applied to garden plantings before these seedlings make their way to our yards. Thus, we simple flower lovers are unwittingly spreading death to some of the most crucial insects on the planet–bees who pollinate many many kinds of flowering trees, many of whose flowers turn into fruit and nuts. Think apples as the most basic. But also almonds which I personally love to crunch.

Alerted to this phenomenon last year, I began paying attention to the flying insects in my summer yard. Yes, there were fewer bees. Monarch butterflies had decreased for the past six or seven years almost to invisibility. We didn’t even have wasps any more–those pesky stingers who used to live in the ground just at the edge of the house. Only an occasional honey bee, bumble bee, only an occasional white cabbage butterfly hovered around my flowers on the deck last year. I saw one Monarch butterfly all summer long.

This change has occurred incredibly fast. Was it only a few years ago that driving south from the North Shore of Lake Superior, I encountered so many Monarchs drifting across the highway that I clutched the wheel, hoping against hope not to hit them?

There is no doubt in my mind that many of our crucial foods are being threatened by agri-chemical giants like Monsanto, and by our own greedy stupidity. It may be something of a diversion but I can’t help thinking of underlying patterns. Seeing the documentary film “King Corn,” made by two “kids” with Iowa roots, teaches that raising an acre of corn today in mid-continent U.S., involves an enormous outlay of herbicide, possible because the corn plants via their seeds have been genetically modified to resist the herbicide. Note: the herbicide kills sideline “weeds” too, to the detriment of Monarchs and other flying insects who have a special bond, aka, eating, nesting, etc., with them.

Now only does the US today raise more corn by a factor of several thousand than our farmers did forty years ago, but most of that corn goes to two truly disastrous operations: the making of corn syrup and fattening feed lot cattle. Corn-fed beef, which is what is mostly sold today in the US has over 9 grams of fat/unit versus grass/fed beef’s 1.3 grams. This endangers our health, not to mention the gross environmental damage created by concentrating cattle in feed lots–their waste products rival that of medium-sized cities. All I need to say about corn syrup is that it’s in nearly every food product manufactured in the US, especially soft drinks, and in concentrations high enough to add hundreds of thousands to the ranks of diabetes sufferers every year.

We can’t all be chemists or farmers, but since we all like to eat and many of us care deeply about the beauty and viability of our natural world, it behooves us to pay strict and unflagging attention to what the Wizards of Chemistry are up to, and to raise our voices and put our bets against their sneaky promises of “a better life through Chemistry.”

I’ll be searching out organic flowers this season, and turning in ever greater numbers to foods that are not genetically engineered or chemically enhanced. I’ll also be keeping tabs on the bees, hoping against hope that my flowers sustain and do not derange them.

This is as crucial a crossroads as Rachel Carson’s outcry against DDT. We must prevail against chemical companies like Monsanto. We must follow the European Union and outlaw the production and use of neonicotinoids. It is a political and environmental battle for our own and our planet’s health. One and the same.

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