On Saturday, activists in cities from Dallas to Melbourne, Australia, “swarmed the globe” in an international rally to save the world’s bees.
In an action timed to coincide with National Honey Bee Day in the United States, Bee Against Monsanto—a Tampa-based collective that campaigns to protect honey bees and other pollinators—called on organizers worldwide to hold “Swarm the Globe” rallies. Their goal: to raise awareness of the dangers of neonicotinoids, a family of insecticides that kill bees.
Neonicotinoids are the leading suspect in Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon in which entire populations of worker bees disappear, leaving queens and larvae to die in their hives. On average, 30 percent of bee colonies in the United States have died each year since 2006, with similarly high death rates in many parts of Europe.
In Chicago, Swarm the Globe activists marched to the Lincoln Park Home Depot for a “die-in”: A “colony” of activists in bee costumes swarmed around a neonicotinoid-treated plant purchased from the store, then sprawled across the pavement outside the entrance. Afterward, the demonstrators returned the plant for a full refund.
Kristin Garcia, one of the participating “bees,” explained to In These Times why she’d joined the action, “[If] we don’t have bees, we don’t have pollination. We don’t have pollination, we don’t have food.”
Neonicotinoids, the most popular family of insecticides, were developed in the mid-90s when researchers set out to create compounds that were highly lethal to insects but had little effect on mammals. Commonly used to repel insects such as aphids, Japanese beetles and whiteflies, neocotinoids are systemic pesticides that spread to all parts of the plant, including the flowers—which means bees come into contact with the chemicals.
The effects are devastating. A report released in June by Friends of the Earth (FoE), a federation of grassroots environmental groups, describes a July 2013 die-off in which “37 million bees were reported dead across a single farm in Ontario.” In another example, that June, more than 50,000 dead and dying bees littered a Target parking lot in Oregon after the neonicotinoid dinotefuran was sprayed into the trees to prevent aphids from secreting honeydew onto the cars below. Several studies have tied the widespread use of neonics in farming to the staggering rate of bee deaths over the last eight years. Since Italy banned neonicotinoid seed treatments in corn in 2008, the FoE notes, the annual loss rate has dropped from more than 30 percent to a mere 5.3 percent.
Neonics are not always immediately lethal to bees, but can cause a variety of health problems. According to FoE, “low levels of exposure can impair foraging abilities and navigation; disrupt learning, communication and memory; reduce fecundity and queen production; and suppress the immune systems of bees, making them more vulnerable to disease and pests.” And since foraging bees often pick up food contaminated with neonic residues and then bring it home, exposure by a select few bees can poison the whole hive.
The FoE reports that “virtually all corn and a majority of soy, wheat, cotton, canola and sunflower seeds planted in the U.S. [are] pretreated with neonicotinoids, despite research finding that this application does not necessarily increase crop yields or benefit farmers.”
As awareness about the importance of bees has spread in recent years, communities across the United States have begun encouraging backyard beekeeping to offset bee losses, as well as bee-friendly home gardening to provide bees with pesticide-free places to forage. In response to the increased demand, Home Depot, Lowes and other home garden stores have begun to offer plants marketed as “bee-friendly,” meaning attractive and non-harmful to bees.
But in June, Friends of the Earth and the Pesticide Research Institute released a report that found that 51 percent of “bee-friendly” plants in garden centers across the U.S. and Canada have been treated with neonics. And while crops treated with neonics fill many more acres of the United States than do home garden plants, the recommended concentrations of pesticides for garden plants are as much as 220 times higher than those used on crops.
Combined with the presence of neonicotinoids in many of the most popular pesticides sold for home gardening, including the Ortho and Bayer Advanced product lines, this means that bees are almost guaranteed to come into contact with neonics when visiting supposed backyard sanctuaries.
The implications of bee depopulation for humans are alarming, to say the least. Because 85 percent of all flowering plants require pollinators for reproduction, bees and other pollinators are necessary for producing an estimated one out of every three bites of the food we eat. Bee shortages have increased the cost of pollination services for farmers by 20 percent in some areas, and shrinking bee populations could eventually mean dwindling crop yields. As such, many activists, including Saturday’s protesters, frame the issue as a threat to the affordability and sustainability of the global food supply.
The wisdom of the hive
The group leading the call to action, Bee Against Monsanto (BAM), grew out of March Against Monsanto, a Tampa-based group that calls for permanent boycotts of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. Monsanto, which dominates the GMO market, also manufactures neonicotinoid treatments such as Acceleron and promotes them for use on its genetically modified products.
Many of BAM’s members have been working together since Occupy, and their strategy reflects the experience they’ve built up during their involvement in those movements.
“It’s the same kind of decentralized bottom-up organizing. We use a lot of the same tactics,” says Nathan Schwartz, a founding member of BAM. The group prefers individual action and street theater over large, centralized campaigns.
This grassroots philosophy is also evident in the hands-off approach BAM took to directing the local organizers. BAM mailed out organizer packs containing flags, buttons, bumper stickers, and patches, then hosted a conference call with activists nationwide to brainstorm possible actions, as well as suggestions for DIY props, from stencils for spraypainting to wearable bee wings. The details were left open, and this autonomy produced a wide variety of approaches from city to city.
“The idea is that if you’re comfortable passing out a flier and that’s what you want to do, that’s great,” says Schwartz. “If you’re comfortable going into a store and moving all the Roundup around and putting stickers on all the stuff and yelling and being loud—if that’s how you want to do it then that’s how you want to do it. We want people to do whatever they’re comfortable doing.”
Supporters everywhere signed online petitions urging Congress to pass the Saving America’s Pollinators Act (HR 2692), which would require the Secretary of the Interior to submit annual reports on pollinator health and would suspend the use of neonics until the EPA conducts a scientific review and finds them to be safe. Activists in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Sequim, Washington, succeeded in getting their mayors to pass Honey Bee Day proclamations. Others took up the campaign sponsored by the Living Systems Institute and Honeybee Keep, which urges communities to create “bee safe neighborhoods,” where 75 contiguous households commit to not using pesticides. BAM members in Tampa set up an observational hive so beekeepers could educate passersby. Meanwhile, a group of New Yorkers occupied the produce section of a Food Emporium and read a statement urging shoppers to avoid pesticides and GMOs.
Home Depot first became a target of the campaign when Friends of the Earth, the Organic Consumer Association, and a coalition of other environmental groups gathered more than half a million signatures in February on a petition to the CEOs of Home Depot and Lowe’s. The petition called on the two companies to stop selling neonicotinoids, but neither has relented. Mike Durschmid, a head organizer of the Chicago event, says that Home Depot was quick to acknowledge the problem and offered to label the products containing neonicotinoids by this fall—but that wasn’t what the activists were demanding.
“What we want isn’t labeling, it’s removal. If you put a small label on there, nobody is going to see or read it and it won’t change anything,” said Durschmid. “I give them credit but it’s not enough. It’s great for the small number of us looking for the labels because then we can choose, but I’m thinking of the 95 percent of people who don’t know to look for it. So we need removal.”
Durschmid also explained why he felt it was most effective to target the stores, rather than appealing to politicians, pesticide producers such as Bayer and Syngenta, or growers of neonic-treated plants such as Monsanto.
“We chose to go to Home Depot because the consumer is there, and the consumer has the power to choose. The consumer can do something about it. We do want a legal response, with the Saving America’s Pollinators Act, but we also want an industry response.”
Schwartz affirmed the effectiveness of attacking on all fronts rather than massing one big push to pass a particular bill.
“People get detached from the political spectrum in everything,” he said. “A lot of people don’t get engaged on that level so you need to find a level to engage them on. That’s why you do everything you could possibly think of… Whatever people are comfortable with, and whatever people are good at.”
The next step, says Schwartz, is to join in the month of action for “Seed, Food, and Earth Democracy” from September 20 to October 20, led by the Food Freedom Movement, a MAM offshoot. And in an act of crowdsourcing that might be called “consulting the hive mind,” he adds, “After that, we’ll ask our supporters what to do.”