16 January 2011

Land of Milk and Honey?

By Charlotte Du Cann

This winter like thousands of other people in Britain I came down with flu. I’ve spent days shivering and coughing and feeling creaky and low. I walk about slowly and feel cut off from life all around me. Last year there was a big panic about this “bug” and it grabbed headlines everywhere. It was called swine flu because it originated amongst pigs in North America.

This year something else about the global immune system went viral: the fate of the world’s honeybees. Since 2003 crops sprayed with systemic pesticides have been wreaking havoc among bee populations, some commercial apiaries losing up to 70% of their hives. In spite of widespread evidence and scientific proof that have led several countries in Europe to ban them, England and America still use these toxins (known as neo-nicotinoids). This weekend the British Beekeepers Association (BBKA) is being challenged by its members to withdraw its support for the companies who make them. Without consultation, the BBKA board had endorsed the products of four pharmaceutical companies (including BayerCropScience), allowing them to be labelled “bee friendly”. They received £17, 500 p.a. for their compliance.

In the documentary, Vanishing of the Bees, a female worker bee forages for pollen on a sunflower in the diligent way she has done for millions of years. Trying to wash the toxic chemicals from her body, she loses her way along the natural spiral of the giant flower and falls. The narrator remains silent. Because in that moment none of us require rational explanation for what we can see so clearly. The pesticides attack the immune system of the brood and make the hive vulnerable to disease and parasites. The bees, one of the most highly tuned, social creatures of the planet, lose their sense of direction and cannot find their way home.

At what point do we wake up about our fate? At what point do we realise that what happens to pigs in a factory farm will happen to ourselves? When we put cows to work on a 24-hour schedule, shoot their calves at birth and never allow them to eat grass in meadows that it will affect the milk we give to our children? At what point do we wake up to the fact that the pharmaceutical companies with their billion dollar turnovers have no care for any creature, including ourselves (indeed are eager to make profit from our deteriorating immune systems). And at what point does something within us fight back?

At the London Bee Summit in December there was a moment when everything shifted.There were 13 organisations that came to speak – beekeepers, scientists, teachers, wildlife campaigners, organic gardeners and England's first community supported apiculture, Bungay Community Bees. As Lord Henley and Tim Lovett from the BBKA boasted how Britain was the most advanced in its modern methods of beekeeping, there was a great murmuring among the audience. There was a defiant mood in the room and barbed questions from the floor. We weren’t pesky individuals who were angry with the System, we were people who loved bees and flowers finding ourselves in convergence - rising up in defence of our greatest and most ancient ally on earth (90% of our crop species are pollinated by honeybees). “The bees give, give, give and we take, take, take,” said Heidi Hermann of the Natural Beekeeping Trust. “Don’t imagine science will save us, it’s our lifestyle that has to change”. Everyone stood and cheered.

In his book The Empathic Civilisation, Jeremy Rifkind suggests we are shifting our consciousness from its earlier forms (theological, ideological, psychological) towards what he calls the dramaturgical and the bio-spheric. These are ways human beings evolve their relationship with the world. The first is to do with action and the second to connecting with all lifeforms on earth.

It’s hard to connect with climate change, to see how our carbon-intensive lifestyle results in the floods of Brisbane. It’s hard to connect this cappuccino on the cafĂ© table with the milking sheds of the proposed Nocton superdairy, or the cod and chips in your hand with the thousands of dead fish being thrown back into the sea each day. But that is what is being required of us. An act of imagination, a reconnection with our fellow creatures, an awareness that every fierce, affectionate act we do in defence of our home counts. And it’s an ensemble act when we do.

Since the summit there has been a convergence of campaigns demanding the banning of the noxious neo-nicotinoids from the Co-op’s Plan Bee to Buglife's draft letter to MPs. Avaaz has collated 800,000 signatures within the space of a week. These might seem insignificant moves. But they aren’t. Because we are not just putting our names down, we're making contact with one of the greatest organisational forces on the planet. We’re tuning into the natural harmony of the earth, and deliberately breaking from the discord of an artificial, controlling power. A mindset that says nothing is valuable except the payroll of a tiny minority of dark-suited men. A mindset that rides like a varroa mite on the back of a honeybee.

Sometimes you get sick for a reason. Sometimes a whole nation has to get sick for a reason. You haven’t paid attention to something that needs changing. It’s the way your body tells you that things are out of balance and you have lost your way. And you’re going to need a medicine that no pharmaceutical company could ever manufacture.

Because it’s a sweet medicine - one that comes straight from the heart.


Further reading: Open letter to the BBKA by Barefoot Beekeeper, Phil Chandler,
Michael McCarthy's articles in The Independent, Have We Learned Nothing Since Silent Spring? and British Beekeepers Fume. . .
Nick Mole's speech at the London Bee Summit. Pesticide Action Network (PAN UK) http://www.pan-uk.org/
Charlotte Du Cann is a member of Bungay Community Bees.

Photo: Bungay Community Bees by Mike Southern; sunflower and marigold seeds by Mark Watson.

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