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.