Troubled Relationship with Pollinators

I have not seen a single wild honey bee this year.  For several years they have been scarce, but it is shocking and disappointing for them to be gone.  [Edit 13 July 2015:  I have found two live honey bees and two dead ones since the article was written.]

It is no secret that bee populations have been declining.  All the smoking guns point back to human activity.  I’m reminded of Wendell Berry’s words that our solidarity with larger society prohibits us from taking the easy option of decrying the bad guys.  He was talking about farmland in general, but the destruction of bees is part of our shared agricultural and industrial self mutilation.  We all participate in activities that have contributed to the collapse of bee populations.  :

“That we live now in an economy that is not sustainable is not the fault only of a few mongers of power and heavy equipment. We all are implicated. We all, in the course of our daily economic life, consent to it, whether or not we approve of it.” Wendell Berry, It All Turns on Affection

In the absence of bees other pollinators have stepped up.  Despite the dire predictions of a “future without fruit,” the disappearance of bees hasn’t resulted in total flower failure.  More attention is being paid to attracting and sustaining native pollinator populations.  Pollination is still happening, albeit with species that may not have all the pleasant connotations we associate with bees and pots of golden honey.

Welcome Pollinator

Tabanus nigrovittatus, greenhead horse fly on hairy vetch flowers.  The fly was busy working on the flowers until I bent the stalk trying to get this picture, at which point it climbed on top to the stem.  It didn’t want to be caught in the act, I guess.

One native pollinator extraordinaire is the greenhead fly.  If you live in the Northeast United States, you know this bug.  This is no bumbling housefly.  This is a dogged foe with a single minded goal:  to tear a jagged patch of skin to drink your blood.  On our farm they feast on cattle, pigs, and humans.  But the greenhead fly has a Dr Jekyll side to counterbalance its Mr Hyde reputation:  only the reproductive females drink blood.  Like mosquitoes (another pollinator with whom I have a fraught relationship), the males are vegetarians.  They hang out in the flowers all day feeding on nectar and pollen.

Of course there is a knee jerk solution for the biting greenhead fly problem:  permethrin.  This chemical is marketed under evocative names like Ambush, Dragnet, and Pounce.  It can be applied as dust or liquid on livestock.  It works.  It kills biting flies and many other “pest” insects.  But it also kills bees.  So not only will it kill the “undesirable” pollinators, but it will also kill the “desirable” pollinators.  Despite the growing awareness of the collateral damage caused by pyrethroids like permethrin, they remain a cheap and easy quick fix.

The hard reality is that a lot of pollinating insects have body parts for stinging, biting, and blood-sucking.  As much as they pester us all, we need them to do their jobs.  I’m not ready to pursue the Jainist ideal ahimsa, so I’ll still swat greenheads when they land on me.  But I won’t destroy them using non-targeted, broad-spectrum methods, such as poisoning with permethrin.  The potential for destructive unintended consequences is too great.  Perhaps my little actions here are largely symbolic when this chemical is being dosed on crops and livestock all over the place.

I’d like to aspire to Wendell Berry’s conception of affection and let that motivate my decisions on this farm.  I’ll never have affection for biting flies on their own, but I have affection for the land, for the total ecology of that land, and for my family’s work in this place.  Thus my affection encompasses the greenheads without particularly liking them.  This is similar to how my affection includes exhausting work without liking the exhaustion itself.  I hope that there can be a difference in that distinction.  I’ll finish by turning back to Wendell’s previously quoted discussion about farming, since he always says it better than I do:

“The primary motive for good care and good use is always going to be affection, because affection involves us entirely.” Wendell Berry, It All Turns on Affection

2 Comments on “Troubled Relationship with Pollinators

  1. So true the use of broad spectrum pesticides is so damaging. While you worry about not seeing any wild honey bees we on the other hand just had a hive removed by a local beekeeper. Our not using pesticides and encouraging natural controls like bats and birds has provided evidence to a some what balanced ecosystem on our little farm. I hope you will in turn see a return of the honey bees but am grateful for the “natives” stepping up to the plate doing their part! Most people may not realize that honey bees are an imported pollinator and we have “natives” like bumble bees that have been doing their job on this continent for a very long time and doing so very well.

    • Viki, do you use bat houses and birdhouses? We built some birdhouses a few years ago and they are in use each summer. We need to build some more this winter. We haven’t built anything for bats, so I’m interested in learning from anyone who has a good design.

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