The Politics of Beekeeping
“What is your opinion about colony collapse disorder, and what is Monsanto’s role in it?”
I was asked this, or something very like it, repeatedly one morning last month, as I impostered behind the stall of the Toronto District Beekeepers – around the corner from the the canola guys and next to the disturbingly-popular butter sculptures – at the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair. The Winter Fair is a great attraction for schoolchildren, or at least for their teachers, and a good few hundred had been tasked with getting answers to this, and other provocative rural conundrums, before being allowed home.
A few days later, asked whether I was involved in any political activity, I replied that “I keep bees”. I thought I was being flippant, but I’ve been beginning to wonder.
In Ontario, many of the beekeepers I’ve met have been political. There are dark mutterings about agribusiness, the intransigence of politicians and the reliability of the honey bee research lab at the University of Guelph which snuggles, along with the offices of Bayer and Syngenta (against whom a class action is being mounted on behalf of Ontarian beekeepers) close to the main buildings of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs. And politicians are responding. The Minister himself made a brief appearance at the Ontario Beekeepers’ AGM and has recently announced a plan to reduce the use of neonicotinoids in the province.
It’s not much, on the face of it, but it’s worth considering that Ontario already has some of the strictest controls in the whole of North America, with a list of 82 pest control substances forbidden for sale to homeowners (forcing some to hop across the border to the US to buy them). Golf courses are exempt, but must be accredited by an Integrated Pest Management body and host a public presentation to report their pesticide use (slightly more interesting than I expected).
Canada is, however, bigger than Ontario and Canadian agriculture is big business. So much so that 80,000 hives were used in 2009 to pollinate ‘hybrid’ canola (genetically-modified versions of oilseed rape) on behalf of seed producers (mostly Bayer and Monsanto) in Alberta alone. The Canadian Honey Council, a partial equivalent of the BBKA, is very clear on this point, proudly pointing out how honey production has risen since GM and neonicotioids have revolutionised the landscape, and tries to ensure respectful relations with the wider context in which beekeeping occurs. So much so that the Ontario Beekeepers Association recently voted at their AGM to withhold their subscription over a difference in opinion on the neonicotinoid issue.
This is more than just a case of ornery beekeepers versus big business. As the schoolchildrens’ question demonstrated, there’s a lot of public anxiety and, as everywhere, no clear answers, and this can be perceived as a threat. I did, at the Winter Fair, talk to one of the canola guys and I asked him a few questions about what they grew and how it was working out, and whether they knew about low-nectar varieties being produced (something I heard mentioned in a lecture a year or two ago). Nothing controversial. A few hours later, the same man pitched up at the beekeepers’s stall in a state of considerable irritation, saying he’d been asked nothing but questions about the negative effects of his crop. In the interests of harmony, we agreed to blame the teachers, but it underlined the growing tensions and the need to keep things peaceful.
Although individual beekeepers may differ in their opinions, simply by existing, we’re enmeshed in an uncertain political web. We’re expected to have opinions, and the issues we’re expected to have opinions on will necessarily be those which are least clear. Similar duties extend to just about any area of human activity and this is one of the main reasons why democracy, a mechanism for forming consensus out of fog, was invented. It’s easy, as many do, to use democracy as a method for outsourcing their thinking to those with more at stake, but that’s dangerous, not least because it discounts the value of our own views.
The Ontario beekeepers are doing what they individually feel is right. And they do this through associations. At their recent AGM, for example, the Ontario Beekeepers Association adopted resolutions to campaign to relax local restrictions on siting hives as well as backing the class action and opposing the Honey Council’s stance on pesticides. Although there are strong objections from individual beekeepers, an Association needs to have clear, fixed aims, and there are only two ways to do that. The first is autocratic, committee-based decision making. This is very efficient, but sometimes separates the members from the leadership and has often been the beginning of the end for an association. The second is through meetings, open to the entire membership, at which each member has an equal vote. Neither method results in a perfect reflection of the issues at stake, but the latter is as good as we’re likely ever to get. It is also, as Thomas Seeley has pointed out, the closest we get to the methods by which colonies of honeybees make decisions.
In the light of that I’ve been looking at the agenda for the BBKA’s Annual Delegates Meeting, which includes proposals for neonicotinoid restrictions, a ban on honey bee imports and the compulsory registration of beekeepers. These are important issues, and at least some will directly affect how, as individuals, keep bees. The LBKA will, I’m sure, be sending a delegate to reflect our collective views on them but that will only happen if we make those views known. Keeping bees includes a duty to keep them healthy and, in a democracy, that doesn’t just involve practical methods, it involves political methods, too.
So, if you have an opinion on any of those issues, please let the LBKA Secretary know.