Bee-ing Bee-Minded


An old meaning of the word vivid is lively and vigorous. And what can be more lively and vigorous than foraging bees? They and their produce are life-enhancing too, and in elemental ways. Their importance in the human life-cycle, for one, is marked in an old Shropshire custom of ‘telling the bees’ when someone dies. So it is my belief that we can’t think too much, or too often about bees. Not only do nearly three quarters of our food crops depend on them for pollination, but the natural environment needs them too – those plants and trees whose flowers are also pollinated by them.

Up at the allotment we are very lucky. We seem to have plenty of bees, and many varieties too, but then most of the allotment gardeners rarely use pesticides apart from the odd slug pellet. Yesterday when I was there, my raspberry patch was thrumming with bee-hum. It was mesmeric. They also love my neighbours’ phaecelia which is grown as a green manure. Pete and Kate decided to leave theirs standing just for the bees. The flowers are beautiful anyway.


My field beans are another favourite. Again these beans, a relation of the broad bean, are usually grown to dig in before flowering and fruiting. But courtesy of the bees, I leave mine to produce masses of pea pod sized pods. The beans are small, and more delicious versions of broad beans. So thank you, bees. Also the bean blossom has a blissful scent. It’s a win-win-win situation.


The debate over whether neonicotinoid pesticides are responsible for the massive bee deaths across the globe wrangles on. You can follow some of the arguments in the two BBC Science reports at the links below. One recent startling discovery by a study at Newcastle University, is that bees are attracted to the pesticides. They seem to like the nicotine in much the same way humans do. Researchers have yet to discover if bees also get hooked on the stuff.

So why do we need pesticides? The actual fact is that any large-scale, mono-crop production will attract, in huge numbers, the pests that use that crop for their food and reproductive cycle. Monoculture environments also lack the kind of predator insect diversity, that would, in a naturally diverse ecosystem, keep such crop pests under control.

So the demand for pesticides is created, and the drive for profit, and for the production of cheap food keeps us locked into pesticide dependence. It’s not hard to see why we seem stuck with this system. The economics of unpicking it look impossible to broach.

Here’s another thought though. Mono-crop systems are also vulnerable to new pests whose advent is ever more likely, either through accidental imports, or by climate-shift trans-located pests that may have no natural predators in their new-found homeland.

I have personal experience of what happens when dependence on one particular crop meets an alien pest. In the 1980s the Central American Larger Grain Borer beetle was introduced into Africa in a consignment of food aid maize, and once there, spread up the continent like wildfire, chomping the contents of village grain stores to dust. (And being faced with such a pest, who would knowingly want to put insecticide directly onto their food before eating it?).  This infestation is what took us to Africa in 1992 where Graham was working on a project to introduce a natural predator to check the LGB spread. (See Carnations, crooks and colobus at Lake Naivasha, and Letters from Lusaka part I ).

The consequences of this particular dudu’s arrival  were compounded by the fact that, since colonial times, maize had become a staple in many African countries (European settlers doled it out as rations in part payment to their African labour), so largely replacing the local cultivation of a wide range of native, more nutritious small-grain crops. Maize is also a hungry, water-demanding plant that can easily fail if there is insufficient rain. And, if repeatedly grown on the same ground, it will soon deplete fragile volcanic soils and contribute to erosion. This happened on Kenya’s native reserves during the World War 2 when Western Province farmers were encouraged to grow maize for export to Europe to support the war effort. They grew bumper harvests, but the land suffered, and probably has never recovered.

So we see in just one example the kind of vicious downward spiral of impoverishment that can result when humans think they know better, and don’t consider the consequences of tinkering with an existing system.

In fact when we left Kenya in 2000, German agricultural aid workers were advising rural farmers to go back to cottage garden farming methods, mixing different crops up together to fool the pests, and so avoid the need to buy expensive pesticides. i.e. advocating precisely what Bantu farmers had been doing for a couple of thousand years before colonial agricultural officers told them that inter-cropping was bad practice, and that they  needed to adopt European cash-crop methods in order to grow export-worthy produce.

All of which is to say, we all of us need biodiversity for our well being, if not for our survival. With climate change, we cannot afford to limit options in food production by remaining in thrall to the reductionist models perpetuated by factory farming, supermarket buying power, genetic engineering that reduces native crop diversity, and by the pesticide hegemony in general. At the very least we need the bees. Anything that threatens them, threatens to seriously limit our good food choices. The health of humanity and the planet’s ecosystems depends on them.

As consumers we have buying power. It is perhaps the one real power we do have, otherwise corporations would not spend so much money trying to persuade us to buy their goods. If we are able, we can support small local producers who do not use pesticides. We can say no to genetically modified crops that have caused their producers to give up, or lose their native crop varieties. We can grow bee-friendly plants, and if we can afford to, buy only organically cultivated produce. We can grow as much of our own food as possible. It’s amazing what can be grown in containers if garden space is in short supply, and sprouted seeds can be  grown in the kitchen all year round. So let’s keep our bees vigorous and lively, in whatever way we can.


copyright 2015 Tish Farrell


Bees get a buzz from pesticides

Widespread impacts of neonicotinoids ‘impossible to deny’

51 thoughts on “Bee-ing Bee-Minded

  1. Tish, I love the way you’ve told such an important (and scary if we don’t all take more responsibility) story around your gorgeous photos. I got to the end, nodding vigorously and wondering if I should walk down to the farmers’ market this morning to buy some veg. Then I saw your last glorious shot of the beans. It’s so gorgeous, it’s almost erotic! And now of course I’m hungry, so I’ll just go and have some breakfast before I head off ….. Hope you’re having a good weekend.

    1. Am glad to stir the senses with my beans – er-hem. Wishing you a good weekend too. And yes, I’ve been having much down and dirty fun in the allotment – dirt under the fingernails, that is 🙂

  2. One of my earliest epiphanies was that all things are one thing, that all things are connected. It’s a revelation that has stayed with me a lifetime. Whenever we change a piece of the picture, change the balance, something happens … and rarely is that something good. So far, our world has survived us, but I wonder how long we can keep messing with nature before she fights back and we lose.

    1. My thoughts exactly, Marilyn. As we were saying earlier about history, the ‘what happens’ is multi-faceted, many stranded. We are fools if we think we can predict every outcome.

  3. Definitely going to pop down to your allotment when we come for a visit. This is a smashing post and the Bee pics are great.
    Dare I say … it gave me a real buzz.

  4. Yes to all of this. It’s something I’m always conscious of – the plight of the bees, and the use of pesticides. And the evil Monsanto with it’s GMO seeds. And even Bill Gates, God help us, with his billions, thinks he can solve the third-world food shortage with GMO crops. It’s heartbreaking. But your garden is lovely as are your bees, and I see plenty like that here in Vancouver too.

    1. Absolutely, Alison. When we were in Africa one of G’s fellow consultants made the point, which he verified from visiting country after country, that it is not a shortage of food that keeps people poor, but the fact that they cannot get their excess crops to market before they spoil. Or they all take the same crop to the same place thus lowering the price and not selling. It’s about good roads and transport, canning factories and the like, and market price info, and this is often/mostly down to politics. In Kenya, communities unlikely to support the ruling party, got no infra-structure improvements. One of the real saviours has thus been the advent of the cell phone. Everyone has one, or access to one. Farmers use them to find where the best market prices are, or form cooperatives, and get their crops to places where they will sell at a decent price. They are no longer dependent on middle men, who in the past preyed on their transport difficulties and/or ignorance of the market. It is changes such as these that have a truly creative multiplier effect, not GMO crops that come with ever more controls and strictures, and still seem to need pesticides. There is anyway currently a big question mark over glyphosate and its effect on human health.

  5. Wonderful post, Tish ! – not only about glorious bees but full of other useful information, too. Complimenti, bella !

  6. Another hugely enjoyable, and thought-provoking, post Tish! I found it especially interesting, having “surveyed” our own patch of bean stalks and their unpollinated flowers just yesterday. Winter arrived with a bang, I’m afraid there isn’t a bee in sight anywhere and so it must be then end of our crop for this season…

    1. Hello, Dries. I always find thoughts of African winter very moving. I’m not sure why. The quality of the light perhaps (when it’s not raining of course). A chum in Johannesburg said you’d had a blast of what looked like very English cold, wet weather in the week. So I’m wishing de Wets Wild a fine winter’s weekend. Soon be spring 🙂

  7. What a rich post (tempts me to liken it to good soil) Tish: I am here now in Germany for a week with my mother, and she’s allowed the side of her old house to become covered in vines, which attract the bees (I first typed “attract the beers”). Anyhow, you can probably imagine that bee-hum thrumming as you put it, and what a mesmerizing sound it is, and so full of life, to your point here. We have something called a California Lilac in our yard in the states, and sometimes I’ll sit under it just to hear the bees and marvel in the pollen-husks they leave on the ground all around. Thank you for sharing your stories, this information, and your advice on what we can do, with what power we have, which is more than we oft think. Cheers to you and yours — es ist sehr heiß hier! – Bill

    1. What ho, Bill. Not so far away now in Germany. Hope all goes well with preliminary plans, and well, keep on humming. Thank you, as ever, for your kind words.

  8. What wonderful photos, all of them, and what a timely riff (if that’s an acceptable term for a such a reasoned piece) about bees. Our Polish family gave J honeycomb and a jar of honey, which of course he can’t take home. Australia’s bee populations are dwindling and the home veggie patch suffered from their lack last season. Native bees were around, but not quite adequate for fattening the ends of zucchini, amongst many other jobs we need them to do. Your account of Graham’s work in Africa was so cogent you wonder at anyone ignoring the message (except of course the money makers.) It’s the same inability to comprehend consequences that Suzanne writes about in western Victoria, where buried rubbish and sewage are emerging from their burial in the dunes years ago. “The thrumming of bee-hum” (a superb phrase) is the musical accompaniment to my memories of my grandfather’s place when I was a child.

  9. I read this with great interest. If there was ever an important issue this is certainly it….We must do everything possible to save our bees and change our life styles accordingly.
    I believe that we do need to get back to cottage gardening, growing our own foods, and being very fussy when we do shop at supermarkets…demanding foods that are produced in an environmentally agreeable way. We keep talking about these things, but each one of us must take action….otherwise the greed of large corporate entities will continue to barge ahead relentlessly.
    When I had my little cottage garden in Wales, I would sit in the middle of my lavender, surrounded by bees…..pure heaven.
    Beautiful images….thank you. Janet:)

    1. Oh yes, lavender and bees do so go together. That’s a lovely picture, Janet. But you are right. We can make a difference if we act. It is our choice after all.

  10. An exceptional piece of writing Tish, had me nodding my head all the way through – and of course I love the flowers and the bean photos. I have seen lots of bees busy in the hedgerows here in Cornwall so maybe there is hope, and I am a great fan of buying locally which is why I have been living on asparagus and strawberries recently 😀

    1. Ooh, lucky you – asparagus and strawberries. The former is struggling in my allotment, and the latter nowhere near ready. Thank you for your nice comments, Jude. Cornwall is a lovely place to be.

  11. Great post. As ecosystems are destroyed by large scale intensive farming producing food that so often is exported thousands of miles and then sits in supermarkets to be bought and sadly often ending up in a rubbish bin, you have to wonder about our existence on this planet.
    It is perhaps that many in Western cultures have a detachment from food and how it actually gets to our plates; the pesticides, the minimal waged (if their lucky) labour, the genetic modification, the air miles and carbon footprint, the animal cruelty … the list goes on.

    1. YES, to all your points, Jules. I think our ancestors would be astonished and appalled at how distanced we have become from our food sources, and how far we trust others to produce our essentials and deliver them to us. But then we have also surrendered local autonomy even over our water supplies. One has the feeling that this may not end well.

  12. Loved the pictures, Tish. And especially the bees. I’ve become a lot more sensitive to them since the mystery of their thinning population began to trouble the world. But I too have been aware of the dangers of Mono-crop systems for some time, learning both about those dangers and the advantages too. It’s a huge problem, the way populations have grown, and the need to feed ourselves, even when we’re living in dense population centers. I have the hope that our continued learning will overcome the many mistakes along the way. Thanks for a very enjoyable and educational read.

    1. I’m so glad you enjoyed reading this, Shimon. It’s easy when we live always in towns and cities to forget the source of our food. We just expect it to appear in the shops. Personally, I don’t like being wholly dependent on producers whose practices I don’t know.

  13. I like this take on the theme: vigorous and lively bees, and I absolutely agree with you. I have no resources to cultivate my own crops, but I get my crops on the green market. That last photo you show – broad beens – I am surprised at the diversity of colour. Do you grow them?

  14. I simply loved it! The colors on your first picture: the deep orange on the leaves, the details on the flower and bee, the bee, and the green leaves. I really loved this article. Lovely garden! Wonderful post!

  15. An interesting post with much food for thought. I think the comment on the bees being addicted to the neonicotinoid pesticide sounds very plausible, after all look how cigarettes have become so addictive and deadly to humans. On our travels round Australia we came across a man dedicated to the WA wild flowers he was incredibly knowledgeable. He was very sad that the introduction of European bees and wasps was killing off the Australian native bees. Many of these natives are adapted to only live and pollinate one species of wild flower. If they die the flower also dies out.

  16. Amazing post my friend. 🙂

    I do remember in the 80s when these beetles were everywhere in our maize. The situation was compounded by the fact that we have just had a coup d’etat in the country and our then leader Flt Lt. John Jerry Rawlings was opposed to America, the free market and capitalized West. We had also been a victim of massive bush fire and drought that virtually ate up all our crops. So the food aid flown in was a saviour so to speak. And we at the maize, with the beetles/weevils and all. 🙂

    1. Yes, Celestine, the food aid was surely necessary, but it came with little passengers 🙂 Also I am sorry to hear of how tough times were in Ghana for you.

  17. Humans want too much of everything or of one thing is where the imbalance starts, rather than accepting and appreciating what we can have. This is a great written post that explains how working against natural cycles doesn’t do us any favours. As a beekeeper, my mentors taught me to work with the bees and that always works much better than trying to make the bees work my way! I love your opening picture – what could be a happier sight than a honeybee enjoying a bright orange flower 🙂

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