Bees and the Great Economy

beesBy Dave Pritchet. Second post in a series on bees from the Wilderness Way, Portland, OR

For millenia, people around the world have noticed the economy of bees.  The Roman writers Virgil and Varro lauded bees for their thrifty behavior, and the Greek philosopher of economics Xenophon used them as an example of economic well-being.

For over 100 million years, bees have been evolving with plants, providing the service of pollination in return for nectar.  As the agents of genetic exchange for a host of plants, bees are at the heart of what Wendell Berry called the Great Economy.  Berry notes that if the biblical Kingdom of God includes all and that humans by default, whether they are aware or not, live within it, a modern rendering of the phrase would allude to the economy of nature. Thus, the “Great Economy” becomes shorthand for that which humans both live within and live by.

If the problem with the industrial economy is that it “tends to destroy what it does not comprehend, and that it is dependent upon much that it does not comprehend,” the Great Economy encompasses all and imposes restrictions upon all who would abide in it. Living within the Great Economy, Berry reminds us, means adhering to the patterns and principles of it. As humans are experiencing now, ignorance of the patterns of climate and its dependence upon carbon dioxide ratios and degrees of heat can spell disaster for many ecosystems. Part of living within the Great Economy, then, means embracing a certain amount of ignorance. We depend upon that which we do not comprehend.

No doubt, in our ignorance, there are many ecosystem functions that bees serve. What we do know, however, is that bees are responsible for about 70% of the pollination of all flowering plants. From among these bee-pollinated plants humans get 1/3 of their food.

In the past decade, beekeepers have noticed a spike in losses of bee colonies. This phenomenon, called Colony Collapse Disorder, has a host of possible causes, but all circle back to human behavior. Pesticides, agrochemicals, biodiversity loss and climate change all have been implicated in the loss of honeybees. In the wake of this human havoc upon ecosystems, native bee populations dwindle as well. The Xerces Society, an organization that works toward insect conservation, continues to document this decline of native bumblebees across North America.

The decline of bees has taken on an apocalyptic turn in China’s Sichuan Province. Apocalypse, from the Greek term which means “unveiling,” is also translated “revelation,” such as in the final book of the New Testament cannon. And just as John’s Apocalypse unveils that empire ultimately answers to the Kingdom of God, the loss of native bees in Sichuan has revealed the utter dependence humans have upon the Great Economy, to which we must answer or suffer the consequences.

Apples are the primary crop of the mountainous Sichuan region, where the flowering trees must be pollinated within five days for the trees to fruit.   By 1990, a 50% decline in the production of the orchards was noticed, a trend corresponding to the rise of pesticide use beginning in the 1970’s and the loss of natural habitat.   Even commercial bees introduced later to the orchards died as a result of the pesticides. Now, every year during orchard bloom, people are hired by the thousands to hand pollinate around 200,000 trees within the 5 day window.

Too often, we learn our interdependence with bees and all creation at great cost.

Wilderness Way Community in Portland, Oregon, has committed to devoting ourselves to learning more about bees this year, and what they teach us about the Great Economy. The following are some ways you, too, can help these pollinators:

-Plant wildflowers for pollinators. This list describes wildflowers of value to native bumblebees.

-Create habitat for native bees; mason bee homes can be easily made or purchased.

-Work to make your city pesticide free. In the spring of 2015, Portland banned the use of neonicotinoid pesticides due to their link to bee deaths.

-Partner with a local beekeeper, or learn to keep honeybees yourself.

So friends and followers of the Wild Way, seek first the Great Economy and all these fruits will be added to the cornucopia of your local ecosystem at no cost to you.

Every time you eat an apple, pear, cherry, or peach, remember the bee that pollinated that flower.

Or, mourn the loss of pollinators that contributes to wage slavery of day laborers in the orchards of Sichuan.

Listen to the bees, for in their bumbling and humming, they just might be unveiling something.

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