All They Are Saying, Is Give Bees a Chance

Alex Kogan August 18, 2014

At a 'die-in' outside a Chicago Home Depot on August 16, activists protest the pesticides thought to be causing mass bee deaths. (Alex Kogan)

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.”Not-so-bee-friend­lyNeon­i­coti­noids, 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 hiveThe 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.”
Alex Kogan is a Spring 2014 edi­to­r­i­al intern.
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