To bee or not to bee: the ecosystem and me

Posted by Tom Camfield

“It's frightening but true: Our planet is now in the midst of its sixth mass extinction of plants and animals — the sixth wave of extinctions in the past half-billion years. We're currently experiencing the worst spate of species die-offs since the loss of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although extinction is a natural phenomenon, it occurs at a natural ‘background’ rate of about one to five species per year. Scientists estimate we're now losing species at 1,000 to 10,000 times the background rate, with literally dozens going extinct every day. It could be a scary future indeed, with as many as 30 to 50 percent of all species possibly heading toward extinction by mid-century.”—Center for Biological Diversity. See https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/biodiversity/elements_of_biodiversity/extinction_crisis/

The photo above shows one of three wasp nests under construction on the ceiling of my greenhouse, close above my most ambitious tomato plants this year. I’m fascinated by the dedicated teamwork and artistic perfection of these little devils’ work, so as they seem friendly enough, I’m co-existing with them. It seems stupid just to destroy their life’s work out of hand for no particular purpose other than that their efforts appear to offer no particular benefits to me.

These are more than pestiferous little immigrants; they are a symbolic part of the ecosystem that is life on our planet. I have provided them sanctuary.

One of them landed on my bare arm the other day, then flew off. I suppose it helps our relationship that I leave water all over the greenhouse these hot days of summer. These little guys are amphibious. They can land in a bowl of water, float about keeping their wings dry (note anatomy above), then take off again. A honeybee can’t do that and will drown.

“Insecticides in particular pose the most direct risk to pollinators—As their name indicates, these are chemicals designed to kill insects, and they are widely applied in the environment, mostly around cropland areas.The main reasons for global bees-decline are industrial agriculture, parasites/pathogens and climate change. The loss of biodiversity, destruction of habitat and lack of forage due to monocultures and bee-killing pesticides are particular threats for honeybees and wild pollinators. It is becoming increasingly evident that some insecticides, at concentrations applied routinely in the current chemical-intensive agriculture system, exert clear, negative effects on the health of pollinators – both individually and at the colony level. The observed, sub-lethal, low-dose effects of insecticides on bees are various and diverse.”—from a Greenpeace article on the Internet.

I’ve always loved honeybees and welcomed them as fruit tree pollinators in spring. I used go out into the back yard and listen to a full-grown cherry tree humming loudly. But those days are gone forever. As honey bees began disappearing from the scene, I began praying for little early-season wild mason bees. But even although I built those some special little homes in which for them to over-winter, they too began gradually disappearing before the onslaught of humanity.  And I see relatively few friendly old bumblebees any more. I suspect such things as the over-use of pesticides and herbicides by those seeking anal perfection of their  yards, gardens and landscapes through chemicals are playing a large role in the declines of all these bees—even in our particular relatively outlying area.

They—experts of all types, especially government sorts tied with industrial agriculture—continue to insist that various bee species are not endangered, but a couple actually have been specified as “endangered” in recent years. Some seven varieties of yellow-faced bees and the rust-patch bumblebee. 

“A bumblebee is now on the endangered species list for the first time in a ‘race against extinction,’ the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announces.

The agency placed the rusty patched bumblebee on the list because of a dramatic population decline over the past 20 years. Since the late 1990s, the population of the species has plummeted 87%.This bee was once common and abundant across 28 states from Connecticut to South Dakota. Today, it is found only in small, scattered populations in 13 states.”

This, of course, is undoubtedly due mainly to overall dusting or spraying of crops (later sold to the pubic) with chemicals in industrial agricultural areas. It’s difficult to determine exactly the various effects of global warming on bees, birds, animals, sea life, shellfish. On land, wildfires are consuming much of the nation as I write this; and they must take a considerable toll—along with more numerous and intense storms, with flooding, in season. The same temperature changes that are making much of India literally unlivable also are forcing major migrations by all manner of species world wide.

Back to wasps. Wasps only sting people they deem to be an imminent threat. New queens hibernate over the winter and start new nests each spring. Because they do not come back to their old nests, you can remove a wasp or hornet nest and keep it without worry that wasps will return to reclaim it. I suspect these nests in my greenhouse may grow to considerable size, as ones I’ve seen outdoors in the past. We’ll see how things work out.

Wasps are usually shiny or appear smooth, while bees are usually fuzzy. Yellow jackets are a ground-nesting wasp that is common. They are about the size of or a little larger than a honeybee and have bright yellow and black bands around their bodies. Hornets are simply large wasps, perhaps what I used to find nesting in my woodpile.

These little greenhouse critters are not to be confused with the “yellow jackets” with whom I’ve had serious run-ins in the past. I once stepped on a ground nest in the fringe of my back yard while wearing bathrobe and house slippers. I was lucky to get out of there with just below-the-knee injury, and the top of one foot was scarred and discolored for years. I had a similar encounter while picking wild blackberries in the woodlands, but fortunately had on pants and socks. I’m apparently not allergic to bee stings.

ALL OF WHICH, of course, brings us to Donald Trump—old Lie and Deny—who has announced plans to gut the Endangered Species Act of 1973 to facilitate (what else?) big business. At this point, I must again come to the defense of Mother Nature. She had a purpose in creating bees of various varieties as pollinating  facilitators of various types of vegetation in various climates—as a branch of overall life on this planet.  Donald and his ilk appear to have slithered into the scheme of things as descendants of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. 

Climate change has been heavily facilitated by Trump in putting the entire planet on the “endangered” list in accommodating killer pollution on the part of industry. And now in abetting rape of the environment he’s gone way beyond just rescinding the various American societal and world-wide protections put in place by Barack Obama. 

It’s all been reported in the traditional Press along with other forms of daily Real News that Trump attempts to shout down utilizing what he seems to think is some sort of golden voice, second-rate as his intelligence has been proven to be. I’ll suggest here that you glance at a brief article in The New Yorker on July 26 by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Elizabeth Kolbert. https://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-trump-administration-takes-on-the-endangered-species-act

She calls up 45-year-old history, when the Endangered Species Act was approved 390-12 in the House and 92-0 in the Senate and signed by President (not all bad) Nixon, who commented: “Nothing is more priceless and more worthy of preservation than the rich array of animal life with which our country has been blessed.”

Kolbert wrote: “Forty-five years later, there is a madman in the building. In fact, there are several. Last week, the Trump Administration proposed what the Times called ‘the most sweeping set of changes in decades’ to the regulations used to enforce the Act. The changes would weaken protections for endangered species, while making it easier for companies to build roads, pipelines, or mines in crucial habitats. Under current regulations, government agencies are supposed to make decisions about what species need safeguarding ‘without reference to possible economic or other impacts.’ The Administration wants to scratch that phrase. It also wants to scale back protections for threatened species—these are one notch down on the endangerment scale—and to make it easier to delist species that have been classified as endangered.”

“. . . the basic fact [is] that extinction rates in the United States—and, indeed, everywhere—are now hundreds, perhaps thousands of times higher than they’ve been at most other points in the history of life on Earth.”

So, as we read locally about the declining population of orcas, killer whale, off our Pacific coast, let’s not forget that they are only an exemplification of reality in general because of their popular grandiose stature. Many lower species are in similar straits

Let’s not forget my friends, the bees—especially these talented, dedicated, unselfish little wasps in my greenhouse. Another thing I’ve noticed: the different varieties of bees don’t seem to fight over food or territory. They all share a very wide variety of blossoms around here—even with hummingbirds.

A combination of the disinterested, uninspired and self-absorbed who blindly cheer forward Donald Trump will be pushing us toward the same abyss now swallowing up thousands of creatures that soon never again will be seen. 

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