“Man,” I cried, “how ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!”
– Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein
With this year marking the 200th anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, humanity as a whole remains no wiser than Mary Shelley’s archetypal “mad scientist.” We appear doomed to learn and relearn forever that there is one consistent lesson of any attempt to “play God” by interfering with complex ecosystems – whether its Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades, or green iguanas, lionfish or feral cats right here in Cayman: It is to beware of unintended consequences.
The most recent example of our collective hubris relates to what has been presented as one of the most important environmental issues of our time … not “global warming” … but the global collapse of bee colonies. (Oh, you haven’t been paying attention?)
While nobody likes bee stings, almost everybody likes honey – not to mention flowers and food. About one-third of American crops rely (either totally or in part) on pollination by bees. The syllogism, of course, would be: no bees = no pollination = no food.
In an effort to combat the long-term “plight of the honeybees,” the European Union is expected to vote soon on banning a popular class of insecticides believed to be contributing to the disappearance of bees and other flying insects. After reviewing 1,500 studies, EU scientists determined that the collapse of colonies has been caused by neonicotinoids – a relatively new class of insecticides that previously had been thought to be safer and more effective than older formulas.
Amid mounting evidence that the neonicotinoids were not only ridding farmers’ fields of pests that damage crops, but also the bees that pollinate them, EU officials implemented a partial ban of the products in 2013. Now, they appear poised to ban them completely.
The apparent issue of the loss of bees and other pollinators cannot simply be shrugged off. About a decade ago, beekeepers in the United States began to report sudden, inexplicable losses of worker bees – a phenomenon now called “colony collapse disorder.”
According to research cited in a recent story in The Guardian newspaper about the EU’s potential pesticide ban, some 75 percent of all flying insects have disappeared in Germany.
No one knows with certainty what is causing these perceived declines in insect populations, or more narrowly the collapse of bee colonies. In truth, neonicotinoids are only one probable culprit identified by scientists. Other potential causes include invasive mites, new or emerging diseases, stress caused by bee management practices, changes in habitat, poor nutrition, or a combination of the above.
It makes intuitive sense that several factors would be contributing to bee deaths, but politicians – always eager to do something – would have a difficult time banning mites, disease or stress. Rather than admitting their limitations, they have jumped to do what little they can – in this case, to ban a certain class of chemicals.
The EU is not alone in this. Politicians in Australia (who for hundreds of years have been grappling unsuccessfully with ecological and agricultural devastation wrought by an invasive rabbit population) also appear ready to jump on the anti-neonicotinoid bandwagon, even though there have been no reports of colony collapse disorder in that country.
Recently, promising evidence has emerged in the U.S. that bees may be “recovering” from colony collapse disorder – as beekeepers have intensified efforts to grow additional colonies and improve the condition of hives.
Cayman, we know you are busy and most likely already too stressed to be too concerned over whether the world’s honeybee population, itself, is overly stressed. We do not blame you in the slightest. We are trying to make sense of all this ourselves.
The only thought that we can conjure up (so far) is that Cayman should be cautious whenever we start tinkering with complex ecosystems (hey, let’s kill our green iguanas or cull some lionfish or genetically modify our mosquitoes).
When it comes to Nature, “In God We Trust” might be a reasonable motto. No doubt, God knows what He’s doing – but it’s not at all certain that man does.