Archive for the 'Art Culture Politics' Category

The Case Against Honeybees

No other exploited farm worker has gotten the attention Apis mellifera has. Our urge to “save the bees” and “save the pollinators” has concentrated on the photogenic and familiar honeybee. They are, after all, a species with the publicity machinery of industrial farming behind them, and the romance of DIY rooftop farming.

But we should have been thinking of the thousands of wild bee species, not this one domesticated species. The evidence is quite clear from around the world: honeybees are a big problem. They undermine wild pollinator species via competition and disease transmission. Perhaps most disturbingly, they also disrupt pollination itself.

And yet this news hasn’t gotten through to the general public. And it certainly hasn’t gotten through to honeybee fans. Honeybee hives dot NYC and many other cities. European cities have gone honeybee-hive mad.

People who still think they are doing good with honeybee hives are actually doing just the opposite. Most recently, I heard about community gardeners in the Bronx eager to get two hives. I know that excitement personally. I took part in the campaign to legalize hives here in the city. I was very nearly involved in setting up some hives in a community garden in Brooklyn when it was still illegal. But knowing what I know now, I look back on that effort with regret.


Here’s bibliography of journal and news articles about the hazards of the invasive honeybee. Please share.

Science journal articles:

A study in Paris finds high-density honeybee colonies negatively impact wild pollinator species: Ropars L, Dajoz I, Fontaine C, Muratet A, Geslin B (2019) Wild pollinator activity negatively related to honey bee colony densities in urban context. PLoS ONE 14(9).

Honeybees spread pathogens to wild bees: Mallinger RE, Gaines-Day HR, Gratton C (2017) Do managed bees have negative effects on wild bees?: A systematic review of the literature. PLoS ONE 12(12).

More on disease transmission from honeybees to wild bumblebees: Alger SA, Burnham PA, Boncristiani HF, Brody AK (2019) RNA virus spillover from managed honeybees (Apis mellifera) to wild bumblebees (Bombus spp.). PLoS ONE 14(6).

Disrupting plant-pollination itself: Valido, Alfredo, C. Rodríguez-Rodríguez, Maria C., Pedro Jordano: Honeybees disrupt the structure and functionality of plant-pollinator networks. Scientific Reports volume 9, Article number: 4711 (2019).

In Toronto, honeybees are the dominant pollinator of native milkweed. JMacIvor, James Scott,corresponding author, Adriano N. Roberto, Darwin S. Sodhi, Thomas M. Onuferko, and Marc W. Cadotte.Ecology and Evolutino. 2017 Oct; 7(20): 8456–8462.

News items:

Honeybees help farmers, but not the environment. (NPR)

Three more studies… (JSTOR Daily)

Keeping honeybees doesn’t save bees or the environment. (

Conserving bees doesn’t help wildlife. (Science Magazine)

Diversity of bee species vital to the blueberry industry. (NC State Extension).


And here you can learn all about “bee-washing,” in which “companies mislead consumers to buy products or subscribe to services under the pretense of helping bees. Bee-washing is also used to improve the public image of companies and has become an increasingly common marketing spin.”

Some Books

Francis Hallé’s Atlas of Poetic Botany is delightful. It’s a botanist’s record of encounters with remarkable life forms, tropical plants that walk, listen, mimic (like a chameleon, yes), among other things.

I hadn’t known that rubber trees were native to the New World. However, they can’t be grown plantation-style in the Amazon because if they’re too close together a parasitic fungus takes them out. The trees need to be separated by at least 300 meters. The great rubber plantations of Asia — Thailand is still the world’s main producer of natural rubber — don’t have this problem. Hallé says the fungus (Hemileia vastatrix) is going to reach them someday.

We don’t even know why rubber trees produce latex? It’s not an insecticide? Do we really need to go to other planets when we’ve hardly gotten to know this one?

This book would make a wonderful gift for a friend who cares nothing for plants or doesn’t bother to notice them. Yes, it is all exotica to those of us in the temperate zone, but it may very well plant some seeds of curiosity.

Or spores. For instance, in a woodland near you, there may be plants whose ancestors reach back hundreds of millions of years, who survived two mass extinctions, and almost got shut out by the shade-stealers angiosperms. Robbin C. Moran delves into A Natural History of Ferns and lycophytes, spore-bearers all. (Consider all the pollen, microbes, spores fungal and pteridophyte, you breath in through the year. Fresh air? Times Square! By the way, it’s the proteins on the surface of pollen grains that are causing your immune system to fire off. Fern spores don’t have surface proteins and don’t make you sneeze.)

Fern reproduction — which has sexual and asexual generations — was figured out late in the game, in the 1840s… I mean, we humans figured out how ferns went about it. The plants have obviously known a very long time. Moran begins with Shakespeare referring to the common belief that ferns reproduced by invisible seeds, fair enough since you need a microscope to get a good look at the spores. The invisible seeds were thought to make you invisible if you managed to get a hold of some.

A perfect pendant to Moran’s collection of essays is Lynn Levine’s Identifying Ferns the Easy Way . This slides into cargo-pants pocket with ease. And it works very nicely.

Sunday Sermon

“Terrible things are happening outside. At any time of night and day, poor helpless people are being dragged out of their homes. They’re allowed to take only a knapsack and a little cash with them, and even then, they’re robbed of these possessions on the way. Families are torn apart; men, women, and children are separated. Children come home from school to find that their parents have disappeared.” ~ Anne Frank, January 13, 1943.

And Mississippi, August 2019.

Of Whales and Melville

Herman Melvill was born on this day two hundred years ago on the narrow southern tip of Manhattan. The family added an “e” to the name later.

In the grand “Grand Armada” chapter of Moby Dick, which moves from slaughter to tranquility to frenzy, he writes “there is no folly of the beasts of the earth which is not infinitely outdone by the madness of men.” Indeed. The chapter juxtaposes ‘young Leviathan amours in the deep” with yet more killing, and the flailing escape of another trailing a sharp cutting-spade, which gouges and slices in the great pod the Pequod’s crew finds itself in. (I’m reminded of the on-rushing train at the end of Zola’s La Bête humaine of 1890). Although rich with so many things, the book is above all blood-soaked. The bloody business of whaling resulted in fine lighting from the oil, exquisite clothing and umbrellas (from whalebone, or baleen), remarkable lubricating oil in watches and other industrial uses, as well as ointments and other pharmaceuticals. (Of ambergris, HM writes “Who would think, then, that such fine ladies and gentlemen should regale themselves with an essence found in the inglorious bowels of a sick whale?”)

One thing to be said for the American whale fishery in the age of sail, although it is hardly consolation (I have much trod the blood-soaked streets of Nantucket): over decades they killed as many as were were taken in a single year of industrialized, twentieth century whaling.The Cassock?

This bust of Melville is no longer found at the site of his birthplace 6 Pearl St. The plaque and the niche it was in, behind dirty glass or plexiglass, are also gone. I wonder what happened to it?I did find this this morning, but it was wiped away by the overly efficient corporate team at 17 State St., the owners of the plaza that encompass some of 6 Pearl.

Wind At The Back

Just next month, a new edition of Lyall Watson’s Heaven’s Breath: A Natural History of the Wind.

The title is iffy and I question its dependence on the Gaia hypothesis for its overarching theme. This seems par for course of Watson, who was a prolific popularizer of science who verged into the paranormal and New Age foolishness, where he seems to have confused curiosity for credulousness.

But, the woo-woo aside, there’s much to be gleaned in this encyclopedia of fascinations. By all means take a ride in its swirling currents.

The book originally came out in 1984, which perhaps explains why, for something about the thin but all important layer between rock and space, it takes its time getting to the greenhouse effect. Watson was… optimistic about the coming climate shift: “This is bound to affect economic and political stability and to change our coastlines and our lives, but it could also be the making of a new world — one worth getting excited about all over again.” Like many a peppy prognosticator, he is no longer around to check his opinion.

What I most take away from the book are the pages on aeroplankton. The air is its own ecosystem. It’s absolutely packed with lifeforms. Insects, of course. Tons of them. What else are the swallows and swifts gobbling up overhead? And spiders, lots and lots and lots of spiders, although I’ll wager less than in Watson’s day. Ditto the other insects. (Windshields used to be covered with dead bugs after night drives, but no more, cf: Michael McCarthy’s The Moth Snowstorm.) There’s pollen, too, as your nose knows, from ten thousand species of wind-pollinated plants.

And there lots of bacteria and viruses. Also spores, of fungi, lichens, mosses, liverworts, ferns. Then there’s the dust, from plowed field, desert, volcanoes.

From more recent research: 56 million metric tons of dust per year crosses the Pacific to North America, and that’s just one pathway; “the earth’s atmosphere is like a conveyor belt for microbes”; “it is now understood that even dead cells can play a functional role in weather and climate as cloud and ice condensation nuclei.”

Don’t forget the pollution which settles on the ice of the poles, reducing its albedo, meaning less reflection and more heat in the atmosphere.

“”…the latin root anima, meaning both ‘wind’ and ‘spirit’ — which leads ultimately to animus the ‘soul,’ animare to fill with ‘breath,’ and ultimately ‘animal.’ And the root spirare to ‘breath,’ from which comes ‘spirit,’ ‘aspire,’ and , in the end, ‘inspiration.'” [Not to mention ”conspire,” to breath together.]

A dictionary of wind blows through the final pages of Watson’s book. Oe, Halny, Williwaw, Waltzing Jinn, Chinook. I remember the latter from my year in Calgary: sudden thaws would pour down from the Rockies in winter. Spring came early, for a day or two.

Hey, fun for the kids: how the world has warmed, down to the local level, and predictions on increasing warming in the place where you live.

Two Degrees

“What happens if one changes a systems’s parameters — the temperature, the weather, the climate? What will collapse and what will endure? Who will live and who will die?”

A two-degree rise in global mean temperature, which now sounds optimistically low for the results of global warming this century, may be compared with effects of the two degree drop during the Little Ice Age. Nature’s Mutiny, by Philipp Blom, details how, in the words of the subtitle, “the Little Ice Age of the long seventeenth century transformed the west and shaped the present.” The entire socio-political fabric of western civ. was ripped to pieces. Millions died of war, disease, and starvation from Spain to Russia. Irrationalism became triumphant with messiah-mountebanks running amuck. Some 50,000 people were burned or otherwise executed as witches, often blamed for crop failures, earthquakes, hail storms.

Feudalism was obliterated. Capitalism was born along with it’s eviler twin colonialism. In 1607, the first summer at Jamestown (Virginia) was the driest in nearly 800 years. The colony was reduced to cannibalism before reinforcements arrived from England.

The past is not prologue, of course, but using this model, we should think hard about massive demographic transformation, profound changes in political economy, and a radical up-rooting of everything we’ve known — in one-two-three generations. Of course, all this has already begun. The news from the Greenland, Alaska, Antarctica, the Himalayas… New Orleans, is all bad.

In these pages, I discovered William Shakespeare doing some script-doctoring for the play Sir Thomas More. He wrote this speech for More’s character. This fictional (the real More was fairly awful) More is confronting an anti-immigrant mob, asking them to put themselves in the place of strangers in a strange land — say someplace of virulent nativists, for-profit concentration camps, fascist thugs in uniform, orange pancake makeup-wearing ogres:

Why, you must needs be strangers, would you be pleas’d
To find a nation of such barbarous temper
That breaking out in hideous violence
Would not afford you an abode on earth.
Whet their detested knives against your throats,
Spurn you like dogs, and like as if that God
Owed not nor made not you, not that the elements
Were not all appropriate to your comforts,
But charter’d unto them? What would you think
To be us’d thus? This is the strangers’ case
And this your mountainish inhumanity.

“As you know, this is not a new issue.”

Recently, I cited this April 1979 report, The Long Term Impact of Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide on Climate, from the Jasons to the DOE.

That same year saw the publication of Carbon Dioxide and Climate: A Scientific Assessment, by the Ad Hoc Study Group on Carbon Dioxide and Climate. It’s conclusion: “It appears that the warming will eventually occur, and the associated regional climatic changes so important to the assessment of socioeconomic consequences may well be significant, but unfortunately the latter cannot yet be adequately projected.”

Two years earlier, Frank Press penned this letter to President Jimmy Carter. He wrote: “The potential effect on the environment of a climate fluctuation of such rapidity could be catastrophic and calls for an impact assessment of unprecedented importance and difficulty.” Press served four presidents as a science advisor; he was director of Carter’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. The title of today’s post also comes from this letter. Carter was a fairly insipid neocon abroad and a neoliberal at home. His redemptory glow stems from his post-White House career. He didn’t do diddly about Press’s letter, or the other reports (noted above) during his administration, in fact, quite the opposite, and one assumes that that is what he will be remembered for in 2100, if anything.

Decades before all this, Svante Arrhenius made the first quantitative predictions for the greenhouse effect. (As analogies go, the atmospheric greenhouse is one of my favorites.) He was, of course, preceded by others. For instance, in the 1820s, Joseph Fourier said the Earth should have been colder than it was because of its distance from the Sun; he postulated that our atmosphere was an insulator. Ding, ding! Claude Pouillet finessed Fourier’s work in the following decade. In 1856, Eunice Newton Foote’s paper at the AAAS (being female, she wasn’t allowed to read it herself) noted that the proportion of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would effect temperature.

Charles Keeling, who died in 2005, gave his name to the Keeling Curve, which charts the CO2 build up in the atmosphere. This has been measured at the base of Mauna Loa since 1958. The NSF stopped funding him in the early 1960s, although his work was cited in their 1963 report on the increasing amounts of heat-trapping gasses. In 1965, LBJ’s Science Advisory Committee produced a big report on pollution, including the hazardous increase of CO2 in the atmosphere. Some of the challenges in that report were met, even by the ghastly Richard Nixon. Before Trump, we’d done wonders to clean up our air, water, and food — but the atmosphere was left alone by the lot of them.

Today, a well-funded effort by the petroleum industry — whose own scientists were talking of all this half a century ago, — has sown doubt and confusion amidst the scientifically illiterate. (Speaking of which, did you see the news about the GOP Governor of Alaska demanding 41% evisceration of the U of Alaska’s budget: these fucks know ignorance pays off for them.) The fanaticism of true-believers in falsehood is manifest in the attempts to deny physics, and erase this science out of history. They’re doing this at Trump’s EPA, not Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.

But hiding data won’t change the facts, or the effects of those facts. Those are proceeding apace.

Next Sunday: that time a two degree change in the global average changed the world.


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