A major PLoS ONE study systematically analyzing the pollen that pollinator honeybees on agricultural crops bring back to the hive (much of it from surrounding weeds and wildflowers, not from the target crop) revealed that bees are feeding their larvae a cocktail of, on average, more than 9 and as many as 21 pesticides. The impact of these toxins, while sublethal, is synergistic, and combinations of at least 8 of the chemicals impair the bees’ immune systems as measured by their vulnerability to infection by the gut parasite Nosema ceranae. Fungicides, previously thought to be relatively harmless to honeybees and thus unrestricted, turn out to be a significant part of the problem. So, ironically, are the insecticides used to control Varroa destructor mites, which infest hives and parasitize bees and their larvae. A helpful summary of the story is here.
It is in anticipating such blowback that human intelligence is sorely lacking. If it makes money, if it feeds or transports or tranquilizes or entertains us, we’ll splash it out there with reckless abandon. When, filtered through the undissectably complex labyrinth of feedback loops by which the natural world regulates itself, whatever “it” is comes back around to bite us in the ass, we are surprised and aggrieved. The systems through which these impacts reverberate are probably too complex for us and our computers ever to analyze, and thus the consequences of any given intervention are nearly impossible to predict. Given a dim, dawning awareness of just how dumb we are in our infernal cleverness and linear thinking, it’s difficult to find a middle path between human triumphalism (in which we fantasize that our computers, if not we ourselves, will soon gain total control of this mess) and reactionary deep ecology (that green funk in which we sit in our air-conditioned homes and type furiously on our computers about how we should have no impact on nature at all).
Maybe the middle path can only be a combination of reasonable caution with an acceptance of our “wild card” role in shuffling nature’s deck and the painful consequences it is sure to have for ourselves. Amphibians missing limbs, fish with ambiguous gender, hives full of bees dropping dead, humans with autism, dementia and cancer—we’re all in this man-made soup together. We’s the bees.