Bees are Dying, Famine is Looming, But The Press is Obsessed With Oil

” If honey bees become extinct, human society will follow in four years.” -Albert Einstein

He was speaking about the symbiotic relationship of all life on the planet-all part of a huge interconnected ecosystem, each element playing a role dependent on many other elements, working in concert as a symphony. Should any part of the global body suffer, so does the whole body.

Many people would be surprised to know that ninety percent of the feral (wild) bee population in the United States has died out. Recent studies in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands have shown that bee diversity is down eighty percent in the sites researched, and that “bee species are declining or have become extinct in Britain.”


The studies also revealed that the numbers of wildflowers that depend on pollination have dropped by seventy percent. Which came first, the decline in wildflowers or the decline in pollinators, has yet to be determined. If bees continue to die off so will the crops they support and that would cause major economic disruption and possibly famine. But we are more focused on oil because its immediate profits are staggering. Indeed so obsessed are we with oil that the press isn’t even inquiring into the possibility of disguising price gouging behind a scarcity scare.

How much time and space have the media devoted to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill?

Compare that to how much time and space they have devoted to the worldwide collapse of honey bee communities. They treat the story as they might a feature about archaeology when in fact it is a life-and-death matter.

The Deepwater Horizon disaster offers up a villain, BP. It’s about the appearance of something, in this case oil, not the disappearance of something. We pay bills for oil, but our deeper dependence on honey bees is not as apparent.

The gulf spill threatens widespread unemployment, the destruction of fisheries and wetlands, and other disasters. But the loss of the honey bee threatens worldwide famine. Which is the bigger story? How to account for this disconnect? Beekeepers pay the press no advertising money, but oil companies do. Money shapes the news. This in itself is a much bigger story than the breaking news, but don’t expect the press to cover it, and do expect the press to cover it up.

BP is responsible for the gulf catastrophe, but the cultures of all the developed countries of the world are responsible for the collapse of honey bee communities. The collapse is a much bigger story than the spill-and much harder to fathom. In some ways our attitude is analogous to the way we view Somali pirates. They must be stopped, we say, they must be punished, but what about the European corporations that poisoned Somalia’s fisheries with toxic wastes and impoverished the Somalians? Those corporations apparently will no more be punished than will our own predatory lenders.

Media unwillingness and incompetence points up a much larger issue, the nature of news itself. We have by and large allowed the state to define news. Capitalist societies would dispute this, but I would argue that capitalism is the state, for better or worse. And capitalist exploitation requires, demands that we turn a blind eye to the butterfly effect, to the scientific fact that a small local event may have catastrophic global implications.

News is defined by commercial and state elites that have a vested interest in what we know and what we do not know, what we understand and what we do not understand. This situation poses a threat almost as great as the demise of the honey bee, because it means we are again and again preoccupied with superficial issues while issues of our survival are neglected. As long as the media themselves frame the questions the answers will be inadequate.

A parallel situation plagues the book publishing industry. So little foreign literature is translated for American readers that we are incapable of seeing the world through any eyes but our own. We are unable to see ourselves as foreigners do and consequently we don’t give a damn. But giving a damn is precisely what all of us-the whole of humankind-must do in order to survive and prosper.

We were in trouble during the housing bubble, not just after it. But we didn’t know it because the media had a very special reason for not instilling in us a recognition that predatory lenders were screwing us-the media were deriving massive advertising revenue from lenders and developers. Our ignorance was their bliss. Our ignorance is always the bliss of politicians and their corporate bosses. If it weren’t so, our schools would be succeeding and our news would enlighten us.

When the housing bubble burst the media feigned surprise. How could it have been a surprise when every small-town banker knew people were buying homes they couldn’t afford? How could all those sleazy loan officers not have seen their customers couldn’t afford the houses they were buying? Insurance companies, after all, are quick to deny policies to the sick, so how could the lenders have been so stupid? They weren’t stupid, they were amoral.

In the United States, beekeepers are experiencing unprecedented die-offs of bees, some losing as much as eighty percent of their colonies. Commercial beekeepers in twenty-two states have reported deaths of tens of thousands of honeybee colonies. So far the cause remains unexplained and somewhat mysterious. It is being called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) and is causing agricultural honeybees nationwide to abandon their hives and disappear, raising worries about crops that need bees for pollination. A British researcher writes in Science that there are probably many causes, from loss of foraging grounds to viruses, parasites, chemical pollution, and other pathogens that spread quickly from continent to continent. It’s a kind of mass suicide in the bee world. “There have been cases where there have been these die-offs of bees before, but we have never seen it to this level,” said Maryann Frazier, a Pennsylvania State University entomologist. “One operation after another is collapsing.”

Bees have done quite well for millions of years, but in the last sixty years that began to change. In recent years, beekeepers have been losing thirty percent of their hives each winter. Thirty years ago, the rate was five percent to ten percent, said Keith Tignor, the state apiarist for Virginia. The unusual phenomenon was first noticed by eastern beekeepers. Researchers, including some connected with the Penn State University College of Agricultural Sciences, have identified some of the possible contributors, but have not yet found a single cause. Initial studies on bee colonies experiencing the die-offs have revealed a large number of disease organisms, with most being “stress-related” diseases but without any one agent as the culprit. Climate chaos and extreme weather seem to be a major factor. That being the case, this winter may well accelerate CCD.

It’s hard to tell if wild honey bee populations have been affected by the CCD disorder because Varroa mites have “pretty much decimated the wild honey bee population over the past years,” said Maryann Frazier of The Pennsylvania State University Department of Entomology. “This has become a highly significant, yet poorly understood problem that threatens the pollination industry and the production of commercial honey in the United States… Because the number of managed honeybee colonies is less than half of what it was 25 years ago, states such as Pennsylvania can ill afford these heavy losses.” Dennis van Engelsdorp, an apiarist with the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, said, “Every day, you hear of another operator, It’s just causing so much death so quickly that it’s startling.”

Media insistence on isolating events and failing to connect the dots to present the big picture dogs contemporary society. Take, for example, coverage of the unrest sweeping over the Middle East and North Africa. Reporter and pundit alike raise the same question again and again, as if it were paramount: How does it affect Israel? But Israel is part of the Middle East and the world, and surely the aspirations of its Arab neighbors are as important as the Israeli security which we have guaranteed with billions of tax dollars and pledges of blood. Why then do the media insist on reducing the hopes of many millions to the safety of a few million?

By any standard the bees are a bigger story than Deepwater Horizon. But it didn’t have the kind of smart-ass Briton Americans love to hate who made BP look like an even bigger villain than it is. And a collapsed bee colony hardly offer the sound bite and visual possibilities a scuzzy gulf offers. In other words, because our media, unable to get their minds around the butterfly effect, licenses us not to give a damn. And yet large segments of our culture are smarter and better informed than the media. While George W. Bush and his pals were lying our way into Iraq, a project costing thousands of lives and billions of dollars, there were scholars in nearby Georgetown and Baltimore who knew perfectly well the foolhardiness of invading Iraq, but the press treated them as quaint exotics. After all, the bullshitters in high office were more important, just as advertising revenue is more important than newsroom integrity.

And while all this is going on some politicians kept on yakking about family values and integrity and American grit. Where was the integrity and grit? Certainly not in the White House or the newsroom.

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