700 miles of corn

The Honey House set up to run.

The Honey House is coming together. I call it my “Cinderella Work,” like a child’s transformer toy it morphs from a candle factory and general repository of bee gear in transition from the field to somewhere else. In the winter it’s convenient to get this stuff in out of the weather in the Honey House, but now it’s time for it to find a new home. Candle making equipment is cleaned and boxed and stashed away and the extracting equipment emerges; pumps and pipes, tanks and filters. The cleanup was postponed a little so Bonnie could dip some candles, but now the season inside the Honey House shifts from candle making to the honey harvest. Thursday morning I’ll go to Denver for containers, and Miles and the bee trailer have been roped in because it looks like the order will be more than a truckload. It is going to be a small harvest once again, but at least there will be a harvest.

The last couple of weeks I’ve written about the trip to Wisconsin and back, but I’ve held off until now to write about a story that paralleled most of our journey. It’s a story I didn’t mention to the girls, and although I’ve been fairly deeply involved in it, haven’t said too much about in the column either.

What our trip was dogged by was agriculture, American agriculture, modern American agriculture, a corn and soybean monoculture that stretched to the far horizon whenever we were in country flat enough to plow, which was most of the land from western Nebraska east. What brought it to mind is what beekeepers have come to call “the windshield test.” When we were about 100 miles into Nebraska and entering corn country the number of insects splattered on the windshield dropped to near zero, a reflection on how thoroughly insect life has been subdued in farm country.

Visually it is deceptively appealing. Most of the heartland appears to have gotten ample rainfall and the landscape for mile after mile was a healthy green with nary a weed or flower to distract, neat and tended and tidy. It was a scene that couldn’t help but pluck the heartstrings of even the most hardened, a scene of apparent abundance and productivity, a thriving environment in the flush of life.

But was it? It’s a deceptive scene because the picture of health and abundance has a dark side. This apparent abundance is based upon what is increasingly proving to be some very destructive agricultural technologies: genetic modification of crops coupled with long lasting systemic pesticides.

I began paying close attention several years ago because the emerging science showed a greater and greater role of the systemic pesticides in the bee losses we were experiencing.

These new technologies have produced widespread consequences far beyond the bees, with significant declines in the web of life in farm country as well as in urban and suburban environments. Just recently imidacloprid, a member of the neonicotinoid family of systemic pesticides and the first released to the environment, was found in 89 percent of the surface water samples taken in the Central Valley of California. The American Bird Conservancy issued an extensive report this spring documenting the decline of grassland birds as a result of these new chemicals, some once common bumblebee species are approaching extinction, Monarch Butterflies are in steep decline, once rich soils have become impoverished and devoid of life, freshwater invertebrates, which are a fundamental platform of the food chain, are being killed off, the list of damages is long and frightening and this is just part of it.

Genetically modified crops seem to be playing a secondary role in bee losses. Genetically engineered herbicide resistance has lead to widespread (and increasing) use of glyphosate (Roundup) and the elimination of many flowering plants and weeds. Systemic pesticides have had an even more dramatic effect and are a complete departure from what we all had drilled into us for decades, Integrated Pest Management, or IPM. The theory here was that we use pesticides and herbicides judiciously, and only when the pest population reached certain thresholds. This extended the useful life of these chemicals and postponed the development of resistance.

Systemic pesticides are just the opposite. They have half lives of years, they accumulate with successive uses, and tiny amounts can have profound effects. This is prophylactic pest control, the chemical is always there whether it is needed or not and the pressure on the target pests to develop resistance is enormous, and indeed that is exactly what has happened, both insects and weeds have developed resistance rapidly.

The answer so far has been to just amp the system up another notch; genetic engineering to make crops resistant to more herbicides and to incorporate more pesticide genes. The systemic are beginning to fail as well and the answer is more, more, more, and each step down this chemical and technological treadmill gets deeper into the farmers’ cash flow.

I’m here to represent the bees though, not argue agricultural economics. There is a growing body of science supporting what I am saying, but rather than go on and on about the science let me just cite three examples of the consequences of this new agriculture.

Iowa is the heart of the corn belt, so I went to the National Agricultural Statistics Service, NASS, to see just what the trend was in colony numbers over time. It was quite dramatic, but not unexpected. In 1991 Iowa had 70,000 managed colonies of bees. Corn acreage was growing in part because of the demand for ethanol. In 1994 imidacloprid, the first neonicotinoid, came on line and in 1996 Bt corn. Since Bt corn had low seedling vigor, imidacloprid and later clothianidin, the second neonicotinoid, were used almost universally as seed coatings. Today over 90 million acres of corn are planted with treated seed, and seed treatments of other crops brings the total to more than 240 million acres nationally. Virtually all of the corn seed and most of the soybeans now being planted are treated, and since the chemical companies have monopolized the seed business, farmers take what is available and have little choice. From a high of 70,000 colonies in 1991 the Iowa colony count had dropped by nearly 2/3rds, 63 percent, fifteen years later.

There was other evidence of the environmental decline beyond honey bees. In the fall of 2011 University of Iowa professor Stephan Hendrix, who had been monitoring the populations of native bees in Iowa, announced with great concern that he was finding an 80 percent decline in the previous 10 years.

The lifelessness of what some call The Green Desert was shown dramatically with a simple informal experiment in an Iowa corn field. A photographer, David Liittschwager, had built a one cubic foot framework which he placed in a variety of environments around the world and then photographed the life forms he found living in or passing through his cubic foot. In most environments the species numbered in the dozens, sometimes in the hundreds.

Writer Craig Childs was curious about what the results of Liittschwagers cubic foot experiment would be in an Iowa corn field and he set out to replicate it. What he found, or didn’t find, more precisely, astounded him. In a three day period he found one ant “so small you couldn’t pin it to a specimen board,” a single spider and one red mite. Abandoning the cube and crawling though the corn he found a mushroom smaller that an apple seed and a few grasshoppers. That was it, it was a world denuded of life other than the corn.

We can’t continue on the path we are on. The beekeeping industry is on the verge of collapse, it appears more and more each day that even though we may do our best as beekeepers, do everything right, we are sending those bees out into an environment that is so hostile to life that they cannot survive.

If we are to survive, we have to see some significant changes very soon, and ironically, American farmers may be our only hope. These failings of the new technologies are going to hurt them just as much as they are the beekeepers. Farmers have liquidated their most fundamental asset, the fertility of their soil, and now if they want to continue farming they can only do so by buying proprietary seed, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides from the large corporations. It is an insane form of agriculture that is doomed to fail unless increasingly grotesque methods are employed. Beekeepers, indeed life itself, need the support of farmers to get us back to a more sustainable, sensible form of agriculture or the future looks very dark. 700 hundred miles of corn may continue to be in our future, but it cannot continue with the heavy cost it now extracts from the environment. ❖