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