#814 Buzzing socialists who pollinate our food

Marla Spivak

Prof. Marla Spivak, friend of the bees; photo courtesy of MacArthur Foundation

Marla Spivak loves bees. Her professional life, as Distinguished McKnight Professor in Entomology at the University of Minnesota, centers around the Bee Lab. In 2010 she was awarded a prestigious MacArthur Foundation fellowship to support her work in trying to protect bee populations.

Spivak is passionate about the more than 20,000 species of bees but particularly passionate about honey bees. She is one of their best friends these days. She knows how to translate the jargon required by academic publications into the ordinary language that has a chance of persuading ordinary people to become bee advocates. She can speak with equal ease to academic conferences, conventional farmers or chemical engineering associations.

In June 2013 she talked about The big bee bummer on the TEDGlobal stage. In her 15-minute presentation, she starts off with two graphic images, one showing life with bees, the other without. The first shot is of a supermarket produce section, piled high with fruits and vegetables. The second is the same shot, minus the produce that depends on pollinators. The photos were taken by a Whole Foods store in Providence, Rhode Island, and they are dramatic. The only time I have seen shelves that bare was on a side trip to an East Berlin market before the wall came down.

Spivak tells the TED audience more than a third of the world’s crop production is dependent on bee pollination. She reminds her listeners the bees are not out there working for us. They are gathering protein to fill their dietary needs. And we are destroying their food supply.

So Spivak is on a mission to recruit allies to save the bees. She talks about their extraordinary social structure. They have no leaders but manage to function like a super organism. They look after their queen but follow their own inbuilt orders. They created a system of universal health care long before certain countries in the world decided that was hopelessly socialist.

Since most of the thousands of bee species lead quiet, hidden lives, Spivak calls honey bees the charismatic representatives of all the others. They have captured human imagination, largely because of the honey they produce. Spivak is fascinated by the structure of bee society, which is leaderless yet functions like a super organism.

This worked well for over 50 million years. Then we two-leggeds decided we could create a better food system than nature had. In the last century we really ramped up the massive farms and delivered the bees a diet based on monocultures, pesticides, herbicides, parasites, loss of biodiversity and a whole lot of travel, as they are trucked from crop to crop. Spivak says we had 4.5 million honey bee colonies in 1945 and have only about 2 million now.

Spivak’s talk is a kind of inverted arc. She starts with the fascinating story of honey bees, then slides down into the trough of our pretty much doing everything we can to destroy the food they need to survive. And then she heads back up the hill and gives us the task of working to make things right. Individually, we can plant bee-friendly, pesticide-free gardens. Collectively we can campaign for bee-friendly road sides, soil- and bee-nourishing cover crops, hedge rows and biodiversity, all steps to correct our dysfunctional food system. She says:

When bees have access to good nutrition, we have access to good nutrition through their pollination services. And when bees have access to good nutrition, they’re better able to engage their own natural defenses, their health care, that they have relied on for millions of years. So the beauty of helping bees this way, for me, is that every one of us needs to behave a little bit more like a bee society, an insect society, where each of our individual actions can contribute to a grand solution, an emergent property, that’s much greater than the mere sum of our individual actions. Let the small act of planting flowers and keeping them free of pesticides be the driver of large-scale change.

Marla Spivak, you give me hope.


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