Sunday, October 7, 2012

A world without milk or honey

*This piece was published in Etz Hayim's October Chronicle Issue.

As I write this article, Rosh Hashanah is only a couple of days away. I am looking forward to gathering with friends and family for prayer and festivities. For me, Rosh Hashanah cues the arrival of fall with its sweet, delicious scents. While we cannot be with everyone we love during the holidays, in my mind, we will all share the same tables bearing the staples of round challah, apples, and honey.

Honey has been a part of the Jewish culture since biblical times; the Torah refers to Israel as the "land of milk and honey" to signify its agricultural richness. Unfortunately, over the recent years, there has been a looming fear of honeybees going extinct.  The population of many different species of bees has declined and, with strong correlation, so have the number of wildflowers that depend on them for pollination. Soon to follow, I’m afraid, will be the crops that these bees support such as the alfalfa hay that feeds the cow that produces our milk and meat, as our vegetables and nut crops. In the US alone, the honeybees pollinate $15B worth of crops, including Pennsylvania apples, Florida oranges, and New Jersey blueberries. Agronomists have even gone to say that Americans owe 1 in 3 bites of their food to bees! In a symbiotic relationship in our ecosystem, it is easy to see how the disappearance of bees would translate to famine in a big chunk of the world.

It is generally believed that bees have been around for about 120 million years.  So, bees have done quite well for themselves for millions of years! But over the last two decades, populations of four key bee species have declined by 96% and their geographic ranges have become smaller. Why? How?  Researchers have coined the term Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) to refer to the disappearance of bees by abandoning their hives en mass. If that name doesn't scare you, I don't know what will. There are no dead bees littering the bottom of a hive; they simply vanish! Thousands of individual worker bees fly off to die. It's almost a traceless mass suicide! But if there is anything we know about bees, it is that they are among the planet’s most loyal creatures; a typical colony would do anything to protect its queen. So, what gives? The cause for CCD has been attributed by some scientists to a virus-fungus combination, and by others to the effect of pesticide. Most likely, there are multiple factors: parasites, fertilizers, pesticides, climate change, urbanization and even economic causes such as professional beekeepers closing shops.

The weird weather we've been having certainly has a major impact on these foragers.  The summer has been too wet or too hot. There are not enough blooming flowers during the growing season. And the expanding urban landscape does not provide the hive with enough honey to survive the winter.  Adding insult to injury, natural disasters affect the bee population too. For instance, a series of hurricanes in 2004 decimated the Gulf Coast bee industry. When bees are at their weakest, parasites are at their strongest, attacking the bees’ immune system. Mites transmit viruses from bee to bee and between adult and larvae. So if the mites do not kill the bees, the viruses surely do. If the bee survives the virus, a fungal gut parasite delivers the final blow. And with pesticides, the bottom line is that the bees get disoriented and unable to locate their hives - a sure death sentence for these hardworking insects.  

But, there is hope. The 2008 Farm bill approved USDA grant programs to include pollinators such as bees to become research priorities. Outside of farms, homeowners and policy-makers alike are being educated and encouraged to incorporate floral diversity in urban landscapes and roadsides. 

Why do I write about this now? In this season of football and politics, where tensions are running high, there are still some issues that touch the memories of our childhood.  For me, Rosh Hashanah brought just that.  I cannot enjoy honey without thinking of my encounters with bees when I was a child. I remember how one day I collided with a bee while running full-speed. It bounced off my cheek, and I spent an entire hour brushing an imaginary sting away. But now that I'm an adult, there just don’t seem to be a lot of bees around. I hope that writing about the plight of bees will strike a common chord in our community. Whether you live in a house with a nice backyard or can only plant in flower boxes, it is possible to mitigate the plight of bees, restore some balance and harmony in our ecology, and ensure far sweeter future years to come. Here’s to hoping for a buzz-worthy year ahead! L’shanah tovah!

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