Saturday, 7 March 2009

Is this why the bees are dying?

The Times this morning (Saturday) carried a letter from Dr ARW Smith, Reader in Microbial Biology at the University of Greenwich. Here's how it began:

In the early 1990s I was seconded to Hadlow College, Kent, to assist in establishing and developing research there. The college already ran a programme to breed stocks of bees derived from the indigenous Apis mellifera mellifera that were docile, hence more easily managed and more productive, which would place British honey production more competitively in the market.

He goes on to complain that his group was later starved of funds, preventing it from going on to breed bees with stronger mandibles, better able to resist the varroa mite thought to be responsible for the collapse of bee colonies worldwide. But it strikes me as a strange coincidence that the bees should have begun to die off after being bred for the qualities of docility, manageability and productivity so desired by industrialised apiculture. Earlier generations of honeybee were, one assumes, a bolshy lot, apt to sting beekeepers who let their visors down or start swarming at inconvenient moments. Tough, no-nonsense bees who knew what they were about and may have resented it when men in white suits came to take away their hard-earned honey. A sturdy, six-legged yeomanry, awkward perhaps, but more than capable of seeing off the occasional varroa mite.

See what you have done, Dr Smith, with your managerialism, your productivity targets, your messing about with nature? The bees you bred were not merely docile, they were wimpish and dependent, incapable of coping with the vagaries of life outside the temperature-controlled and constantly monitored - but secure - hive. One can imagine such bees refusing to leave home to collect nectar on account of the "wrong sort of breeze", instead expecting the beekeeper to provide a constant stream on-tap. As John Stuart Mill might have put it, were he into beekeeping, an apiculture which dwarfs its bees in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands, even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small bees no great amount of honey can really be produced.

But how to save the bees our meddling has created? As usual, the only solutions on offer are more government money, and more regulation. As the Times reported earlier in the week:

The National Audit Office said that control of the varroa parasite was being hampered by the limited inspections of colonies carried out by Defra's National Bee Unit - particularly of the 20,000 or so beekeepers who keep hives as a hobby and whose unsupervised colonies may be spreading a disease that wiped out 30 per cent of Britain's bee colonies last year. This follows a pledge in January by Hilary Benn, the Rural Affairs Secretary, to spend £4.3 million on protecting bees and researching why so many are dying. It may not be enough.

It's not just bees, of course. Some weeks ago, Chris Dillow wrote a typically perceptive post about an apparent decline in assertiveness among students. "When my generation was at university, we were right gobby bastards" he writes.

Today’s young adults, I get the impression, are much more passive; my nephews and nieces - 18-22 - couldn’t start a fight at a Celtic-Rangers game. And university teachers tell me that the big difference between students now and in the 60s, 70s and 80s is not that they have dumbed down, but that they have quietened down.

This saddens me. If people aren’t going to make noise in their 20s, they won’t do so when they get older and burdened by irony, wisdom and mortgages.

Youthful rebelliousness - and idealism - is something most people grow out of. Coming to terms with the status quo is part of the maturation process. But the normal process of developing an adult identity through self-assertion and the questioning of authority has been increasingly restricted in recent years, redefined as "antisocial behaviour" and criminalised. The process of indoctrination into the tepid norms of life as a perpetual child of the welfare state starts young - primary school children are now routinely fingerprinted or forbidden to play out of doors - and continues well into adulthood, with its proliferating codes of conduct, initiative-sapping "best-practice" rulebooks and finger-wagging concentration on "appropriate behaviour". Francis Sedgemore commented on Dillow's blog:

As someone renowned in certain circles, and in some cases reviled, for "gobbiness", it fills me with delight to read these words. The only problem is that, as a freelance journalist of advancing years and receding hairline, I find myself increasingly answerable to staff editors in their twenties and early thirties. Some of them regard my forthrightness as evidence of an "attitude problem". I cannot think what they mean.

And now we find our economies crashing about our ears, our fortunes vanishing like fairy dust. Why? Perhaps because we didn't pay sufficient attention when the bees started dying. We should have learned the lesson of the bees.


Teethgritted said...

Good stuff.

Unfortunately at the scum end of society there is plenty of self-assertion but little idealism and an attitude that pervades much widely that it's only wrong if you get caught out.

Perhaps the current grim times will create more awkward people. I hope so,

Chris said...

Intentional shades of Virgil?

"I will set out in order for your admiration, the spectacle of a tiny world, with its great-hearted leaders, its customs and pursuits, its people and battles."

Top stuff as ever Heresiarch. When's the Little Book of Heresy coming out?

The Heresiarch said...

Well spotted, Chris. I was thinking of including a quotation, but my only copy of the Georgics is entirely in Latin and I couldn't face struggling through it.

Edwin Moore said...

I echo Chris - would be great wee book for the bog.

McDuff said...

So, basically, it was so much better in the old days, right?

The meta-metaphor of this post is interesting to examine. It may be fun to write about breeding the hardy yeomanness out of bees to explain their lack of resistance to mites, but it is of course a superficial and mostly incorrect explanation - although poetic license allows us such diversions. It's not that selective breeding can't and doesn't produce vulnerabilities to parasites, but these are invariably down to the statistical inviability of an increasingly monocultured and inbred genetic strain. The angriness of the bees is immaterial to the generation-upon-generation inability to withstand the rigours of the world. And beyond that, the more angry the bees get, the more the technocratic bee managers mould them and shape them and try to make them fit exactly into the most productive category as possible, no matter how much inherent bee-ness or structural damage happens along the way. The bees, of course, have no say in the matter.

So what lessons can we apply since those heady days of the 60s, 70s and 80s when students and other young folk were happily angry and stinging with gay abandon? Well if the metaphor really holds then it would seem to apply that the youth of today never really had much choice, that the vibrant generation of student radicals grew up to become the governments of Thatcher, Major, Blair and Brown and in doing so constructed a society designed to structurally reject bolshiness. That the increasing global reach of power put it further out of touch with the basic humanity it emerged from and that activism became not only more difficult but more self-evidently hopeless. Protestors "won" in Vietnam by getting a president to back out when all was finally lost, and for their troubles the media and political establishment decided with almost swarm-like clarity of purpose that even such minor victories of popular morality over venal and corrupt nationalistic warmongering were unacceptable and should never be allowed to happen again. Thus no matter the status of the Vietnam War, be the dial on the political narrative this week set to 'misguided' or 'ultimately justified' the fact remains that the radicals were all dirty hippies who had dirty sex and that we should never listen to them because they smell and smoke drugs.

By the 2000s of course the political monoculture was stifling, the Iraq war started and the knee-jerk reaction to the tiniest, most tentative steps into a brave new world of activism were squelched with a weapon far better than bullets or tear gas, absolute indifference. Our establishment figures - those 60s and 70s radicals, remember? - realised that they had to be completely impervious to the opinions of dirty hippies because otherwise the people who called them dirty hippies back when they were young would call them dirty hippies all over again, and their feelings would be hurt. So they girded their loins against the marches in the streets and said "we're ignoring the dirty hippies and launching a misguided war, just like our forefathers did before us, and if you disagree with us you're unpatriotic and probably don't shower."

And the youth of that generation, realising that the establishment had won, decided that they might as well all collectively fiddle while Rome burned rather than try and tell the supposed firemen that their firehoses would work better if they used water rather than petrol. The flailing tentacles of the schizophrenic cthulu-monster emerging in halls more powerful than the Palace of Westminster or Capitol Hill would destroy without rhyme, reason or personal interest, impervious to placards and slogans, the centre so far removed from the front line as to make effective attack impossible. In such a state of hopelessness, resignation to the whims of fate seems rational and reasonable.

What's the big difference between them? Despite the numbers, I think the parties are mischaracterised. The establishment is the swarm, the protestors and activists the beekeepers. Because at least the human beekeepers with their individual intelligences and capacity for creative reasoning can see that there is a problem when swarms start dying. But the bees don't know, don't have that cognitive ability to comprehend their own fates, but will still blindly attack based on their genetic predisposition to do so, bred into them by the beekeepers. What we're seeing is an alternate history where the inmates took over the apiary and the beekeepers, now reduced merely to the enablers of production and mere functionaries subsumed into the ever-expansion of the swarms, discover that the monsters they have created are impervious to reason. The subcommittees and focus groups and media outlets and complex webs of financial interest that the bees have created all merge into a pervasive suffocation, and even the most aggressive beekeeper on a rampage can only kill millions, with billions filling in the gaps as soon as he is done, leaving him out of breath, exhausted, and in exactly the same place he was before, dying slowly of a thousand stings and the still greater crushing impossibility of achieving change.

So is the situation hopeless? I don't know, but I have a feeling the fate of the beekeepers in this alternate history depends on how quickly we can get the varroa mites on our side.

OurSally said...

My father is a beekeeper. For decades he has produced literally tons of honey every year.

Like all serious beekeepers, he breeds bees so vicious that even he, after thousands of stings, still wears a suit and veil. (The local police have learned never to stop a car whose driver is wearing a white hat and veil, however erratically he may be driving.)

The aggressive bees collect more honey. They also steal honey from the hives of more peaceful bees. If you are producing honey in a serious way the peaceful bees are useless.

The comparison with homo sapiens is more apt than you thought.

Anonymous said...

One reason today's students are so docile might be that the poor wee buggers are already £30K in debt, and it's worrying the ass off them.