This Week’s Propaganda “Simply” Brought to You by the Washington Post

I hate to say it but I think I might be turning into this guy from the XKCD comic:

duty calls xkcd

As a newb bee-haver I am obsessed with reading anything and everything about bees. And so much has been written. Bees have inspired some of our best literature (Sylvia Plath’s bee sequence in Ariel for example) and some of the best (and worst) examples of science. Bees have even inspired great works of architecture. Frank Lloyd Wright, Antoni Gaudí and others have openly expressed their admiration for the geometrical forms associated with bees. The result: I am slowly working my way through my local library’s shelves, not to mention the information chaos known as the Internet. If only I had started this several lifetimes ago …

Because our food security is threatened, the topic of honey bee deaths has found its way onto Current Events boards and into many mainstream media propaganda pieces such as Christopher Ingraham’s, “Call off the bee-pocalypse: U.S. honeybee colonies hit a 20-year high” in The Washington Post.

I know the word propaganda is loaded but I think it is the correct descriptor in this case. First clue: seeing the same cut-and-paste phrases popping up in a wide variety of copycat pieces. This repetition is important because most people only look at headlines. If enough sources say the crisis is over many people will simply accept the lie as fact. But just in case some fool might actually take the time to read the content, Ingraham loads his little article with a number of effective propaganda devices.

Transfer

The first clue that his article is more like propaganda than a source of credible information comes from the caption under the picture of bees:

The perfect capitalists: industrious, efficient, single-minded in their pursuit of success.

That sentence declares the real hero of the article: the capitalist system. This particular device is more commonly seen in advertising so it really caught my attention. The caption juxtaposes the undeniable charisma of honey bees with capitalism creating the suggestion that the economic system itself is a pretty good thing. The irony is of course that it is this very system that has placed honey bees into jeopardy. Long distance trucking to monoculture fields sprayed with pesticides creates a truly toxic work environment for those perfect little workers. Workers, not capitalists — after all, they don’t really own the means of production; they simply provide the labour.

Card Stacking

On the surface, the article’s main idea is that since the total number of commercial bee colonies/hives has been increasing since 2006, people must be overreacting to mass bee deaths. Because graph. This is an example of card stacking: selecting choice bits of information to misrepresent the complexity of a problem. While the number of bees may be increasing, bees are still dying at an incredible and unsustainable rate. Ingraham notes that beekeepers have found workarounds for mass bee deaths but he fails to report that those fixes probably can’t be maintained over the long term. Ingraham doesn’t even mention the problem of native and feral bee deaths. Since many of our food crops co-evolved with native bees, imported honey bees aren’t really a good fit for the job. Nobody is breeding extra orchard bees or squash bees or carpenters. A slight increase in the number of honey bee colonies since the crash in 2006 is simply not enough proof that the crisis has truly been resolved.

The Market Will Simply Save Us

A classic capitalist subtext in the piece is the one that goes like this: any problem big or small can be solved through shopping. Beekeepers can ‘simply’ buy a “bunch of bees to replace” the ones they lose each year. Ingraham points out that queen bees are easily ordered online & can be had for a reasonable price. He even provides a link to prove his point. The situation of course is not so simple. Can we really supply a million or more quality replacement queen bees every year through mass production? What does it mean for the bees forced to live under such circumstances?

Bees are living beings with limited powers to protect themselves from exploitation. Is Ingraham really suggesting we treat them like slaves by pushing them to exceed their normal limits? Even if one could somehow work around the moral implications of treating any life form with such disrespect, there is a practical argument against the mass production of queen bees. One price to be paid for convenience may be quality. And I have to wonder at the long term sustainability of using weak hives as the source point for the gene pool. Will mass produced queen bees make the problem worse?  This article does a better job than I can of explaining some of the problems of ‘simply’ replacing queen bees.

Disaster Capitalism

Capitalizing on disasters is a well established form of doing business and Ingraham even states that mass bee deaths may in fact be a victory for the free market. Every disaster provides an opportunity for someone to make some money.

So, beekeepers who provide pollination services can simply increase their prices. He also suggests we don’t really need to worry about our honey supply because of the global trade network. While domestic honey production is way down thanks to global trade networks we can simply import honey from overseas. Like, from China. Never mind that samples of imported honey have a tendency to be tainted with pesticides, antibiotics and heavy metals. And that a lot of jars labelled as “honey” contain almost no honey at all.

The idea that the bee crisis is actually a victory comes from The Property and Environment Research Center which is a group claiming to be “dedicated to improving environmental quality through property rights and markets.” But as Naomi Klein argues so well in This Changes Everything if business as usual can fix our environmental problems how can we explain the fact that everything seems to be getting worse instead of better? Carbon emissions are increasing. Species extinctions have reached a record high. So far, Capitalism seems to be failing miserably.

Who Speaks for the Bees?

As someone who is merely a hobbyist I realize I am treading into some murky water here but I am frankly appalled at the lack of credentials and credibility behind some of these recent reports on bees.

Let’s start with Christopher Ingraham. He is no expert on the subject of bees or even data analysis. He has a B.A. in Comparative Religion. The economists he links to are far from impartial. Their report was published by PERC, a think tank with the stated mandate of promoting the free market. The WP headline suggesting we call off the “Beepocalypse” as alarmist probably stems from Angela Logomasini’s influential report published this April. Is she a biologist? No. In fact, she is a realtor with a Ph.D in American Government granted by a college that struggles with the issues of free speech and academic freedom. Her past writings suggest she isn’t exactly environmentally friendly. She is on record for championing the use of plastic bags. She continues to speak in favour of PCBs and arsenic. When not investing in various properties, she works for the Competitive Enterprise Institute.  CEI has very old connections to the tobacco lobby. These days it promotes climate change denial policies, pharmaceutical companies and other industries that rely on the use of dangerous chemicals. I’m sure you can guess who founded this group and continues to pay the bills.

Simply put, these people are not qualified to influence our opinions or policies on this issue.

aster & bee

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39 thoughts on “This Week’s Propaganda “Simply” Brought to You by the Washington Post

  1. Superb journalism, Debra. What a lot of research you have done! May have mentioned I live in the Northeast and I have not seen a natural (as opposed to hive) honeybee in a long while. Even the bumblebees aren’t as plentiful as they used to be, so I’m always very glad to see them in my garden.

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    1. Well not. That is quite a compliment coming from you, Cynthia. (blush) It is beautiful to see so many people paying attention to bees and expressing their love for them. That is how a land ethic is built I think.

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  2. phew.. well done… having been a student of journalism I am not shocked by the ( mis) management of information – it is all to serve a moneyed agenda. interestingly your rant paralleled an article in Womankind magazine called ‘Lost words, the language wars’ that I had just finished reading. it talks about how researchers have noted that economic language has crowded out non economic language -think how government has become a business and citizens are now customers . our language our means of expression has been hijacked.
    I saw it with the forest how we were supposed to talk to forestry using their language of compartments and logs and drainage systems – dead words unconnected to the wild nature being itSelf.
    In the article Flora S. Michaels says ” We are homogenising our perception of ourselves ,our problems, and our potential resulting in a worldview that is inextricably linked to economic assumptions about the nature of reality. Our one way of seeing becomes an economic seeing.”
    and so thru loss of language we loose understanding we loose touch with reality and biodiversity suffers as we do to.
    the queen bee and the hive becomes a unit only accorded value for what it can do for us. good on you for illuminating behind the forked tongue speak because sadly it is true that many people accept the story at face value and inquire no further.

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    1. industrious. I nearly used that word to describe earthworms. You are so right that this moneyed agenda has even invaded our speech. It takes a real effort to escape this poisonous ideology.

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    2. That sounds like a fascinating article. I get frustrated at how much economics dominates discussion at the political level and also in my field of work. People seem to forget that the economy is a subset of human actions, not some godlike entity that we must serve at all costs.

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      1. Every story looks completely different if you see it from nature’s point of view. I read something the other day that -any- news story can be told from an environmental point of view and yet that almost never happens.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Caveat lector, yes? But please don’t turn into that guy.

    Any article coming from the WaPo is going to reflect a business friendly attitude. So I’m already taking anything reported there with large grains of salt, just on placement alone.

    You’ve gone to great lengths to investigate this particular piece. Do you have other recommended reading sources to offer that you feel are less biased? And yes, fabulous bee shot!

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    1. Yeah. It was really a much too easy target. Not fair. It didn’t take a lot of effort because I kept running into the same people all over the place. Sorry for the long read though. I didn’t realize until after I pressed publish just how LONG of a rant it turned out to be.

      Some links that share the other side of Ingraham’s story:

      Michele Simon, a public health lawyer, describes the tactics used by public relations companies to distort public opinion at http://libcloud.s3.amazonaws.com/93/f0/f/4656/FollowTheHoneyReport.pdf

      A meta analysis of over 1000 peer-reviewed neonicotinoid studies here:
      http://www.tfsp.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/8_ESPR_11356_2014_3229_OnlinePDF.pdf

      A Harvard U study connects bee decline directly to neonics and not other things like mites here:
      http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/study-strengthens-link-between-neonicotinoids-and-collapse-of-honey-bee-colonies/

      Insecticide exposure and Honey bees (most current Harvard honey bee study)
      http://www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/press-releases/pesticides-found-in-most-pollen-collected-from-foraging-bees-in-massachusetts/

      A centrist (I would prefer to say cautious) report on the issues was presented to Congress here:
      http://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R43191.pdf

      It led to the current action plan. Better than nothing at all but could anyone really expect much from the USDA/big-ag revolving door? =/
      http://www.ree.usda.gov/ree/news/CCD-HBH_Action_Plan_05-19-2015-Dated-FINAL.pdf

      Insider account of how the EPA ‘regulates’ toxins. Also debunks the idea that there can be a safe level of exposure to toxins:
      https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/17978105-poison-spring

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  4. I may be using irony incorrectly here, but it seems ironic that the biggest picture of all–that people will perish if we don’t have bees–is also one of the smallest pictures–the tiny bees, themselves. I mentioned my thoughts to a friend the other day, and he said he didn’t want to hear about problems anymore, just solutions. I thought that I (and the media and expert sources) had explained the solutions pretty clearly already–no more neonics and pesticides, more habitat, more native plants, etc. But it seemed he wanted easier answers that wouldn’t affect our way of life and current system of doing things. He was worried about the economy collapsing if some of these solutions were instituted. Sigh.

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    1. Any economy that is unsustainable will by definition collapse eventually. There are lots of examples from history. As you say, the solutions to fixing our problems are clear. They can even create a stronger and more equitable economy. If people want to hear us stop nagging then they can simply pitch in to clean up the mess. ;)

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  5. I amvery much a lover of bees myself, & am sickened at the short sidedness of all these people who are more interested in making money, than being concerned about the bees and their place in society. Nice post, I look forward to more.

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  6. I am glad you have dipped your toes into these murky waters to present a clearer picture of the crap that is put out as journalism. I continue to let people know that all our pollinators are in jeopardy for the same reason…our greed and disregard for our actions. My neighbors spray to kill mosquitoes and who else is collateral damage…the bees. I have more bees this year than any year I think…but my wildlife garden draws them in from the inhospitable yards around me…..but I know there are less bees around me than ever before. And the numbers of honeybees have diminished significantly in my garden….that says a lot to me.

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    1. As Mark Twain said: “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes” Thanks for continuing to talk about the issue. The media may be full of disinformation but we can all see the truth around us.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Happy to see this post, Debra. I’ve also recently dipped my toe into the murky waters of pollinators and honey bees and neonics. For every internet link that supports a ban of pesticides, you can find one that rebukes the claims.

    This is a link in support of a ban: http://www.therecord.com/opinion-story/5716562-regulating-neonicotinoids-the-right-move/ It explains the increase in colonies.

    I have cut and paste the pertinent information from this letter to the editor:

    “Beekeepers Association says winter losses were 58 per cent, which is three times the national average — much higher than the pre-neonics use of 15 per cent.

    The reason for a slight increase in bees is due to beekeepers splitting hives and moving hives away from neonicotinoids. The real indicator is the decline in honey production of 32.6 per cent, twice the national average. Ritz’s numbers conveniently do not include spring and summer losses.”

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    1. Canada’s municipalities are way ahead of the US on this issue. It has been so heartening to see one city after another declare themselves pesticide-free. A great first step. Cities are becoming places of refuge for bees. But, there is so much more to do. As the writer says in your link, the REAL bottom line should state: “profit must never supersede the health and welfare of people and the sustainability of nature.”

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  8. Excellent and intelligent post. Debra. I wish more people would dig as deeply. The old adage, “Don’t believe everything you read” now should be extended to “…especially on the internet.” Everyone serves their own God, and unfortunately, for many, that God is money. What are they thinking?
    A while back I saw a bumper sticker that read: “Go, lemmings, go!” A chilling reality as we head into the Sixth Extinction.

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  9. I think you clearly pointed out how unqualified is Ingraham. His expertise is apparently not in bee science, but in communicating selected ideas to argue a position. Nice work digging. You will need to come up for air now and then while trying to digest all of the internet on a subject. :-)

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    1. It is probably too late — I am already that stick figure. hahaha. I am so appreciative of our lawful good library system. It feels like a sanctuary in comparison to the wild west mentality of the Internet.

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  10. I don’t think there is such a thing as “honest journalism”. It seems to me that the majority of what gets reported is not so much news to inform but rather biased information and misinformation to make you believe. It has gotten to the point were one has to do in depth research on a story, such as mk has done here, to determine what to make of it. The thing is the “journalists” get away with it because: 1) the public does not have the time to do the research or the intelligence to realize it needs to be done, or 2) journalists are encouraged by management to exaggerate and hype stories to sell advertising and get the clicks, or 3) they have a point to make and so what if they are loose with the facts or withholding import supplemental information, the end justifies the means. And while I’m on journalists, journalism schools need to start requiring graduates to display a proficiency in verb tenses before that get their degree. TV journalists all seem to think the present tense is the only tense. By its nature news is past tense.

    And that is a very nice bee photo.

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    1. Wow. Great points, David. I totally agree. Newspapers are in the business of making a profit; the truth is just something that can be manipulated to that end. Seeing these guys turn into cheerleaders as our economic system kills the planet we love right before our eyes just sickens me. And thanks for liking the bee photo =)

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  11. It’s funny, I saw this same argument about there being a record number of bee hives somewhere else. It immediately struck me as specious, but I didn’t look into it in detail as you do here. It’s maddening that “responsible” news organizations print this mendacious stuff, but they have their own ideological blinders and financial interests, for that matter. If you have enough money you can buy the conventional wisdom, but reality is not for sale. It is merely invisible.

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    1. That’s probably a more mindful way of handling this garbage: see it for what it is and just move on. I used to have a dog that would always zoom off into the bush whenever she caught a whiff of something dead. She LOVED rolling in maggots. ugh. That’s probably even worse than becoming that guy in the comic. Noted.

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  12. What a great post – brilliant and you are so right. Could I reblog on a pollinator site I share with a friend of mine? (gardensforwildpollinators.wordpress.com) it’s a bit neglected but this is so worth passing around.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wow. Thanks for saying so. You are welcome to use all or part. I am looking forward to checking that site out. (Can’t believe I even missed it in my obsessive searching) ;)

      Liked by 2 people

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