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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Apocalypse of the Honeybees

How poetically appropriate that the End of Humanity should come from such a tiny, sweet source

by Mark Morford, SF Gate Columnist (May 09 2007)

From outta nowhere the tiny ones came, while humanity was busy trembling and sweating in the face of major global cataclysm, of global warming and nuclear war and rainforest devastation and melting ice caps and E. coli outbreaks and Ashlee Simpson and lethal hurricanes and the Apocalypse-hungry Christian right and a simply stupendously vile Bush juggernaut that has threatened all intelligent life everywhere. Onward they came, buzzy and calm and happy to be our very own adorable, unexpected harbinger of doom.

Yes, now we can see it clearly. Now we can be appropriately alarmed and now maybe we can even say, Oh holy hell, maybe we should have seen it coming all along: Of course the end of mankind should come from something as sweet and commonplace and unforeseen as the honeybees.

Have you not heard? Have you not read of the dire honeybee apocalypse and what it might mean for the majority of the delectable food crops in America, how we might soon face a very serious food crisis and might be eating little more than bread and pine cones in the near future, thus inducing widespread panic as we engage in violent bloody wars not for oil or land or God but over asparagus and avocados and those incredible Buddha's Hand fruits they use to infuse Hangar One Citron?

It's true. It's all because of the honeybees, those minuscule, absolutely essential, beautifully pollinating creatures that play such a vital role in our food supply, help nearly all flowering crops grow and therefore provide a simply enormous portion of the global diet including all citrus and many vegetables but excluding that goopy liquefied toxic meat crap they inject into McNuggets, these incredibly designed workhorse creatures that also make the world's sweetest stickiest natural substance next to Jessica Alba and maybe Shiva's own bubble bath, these lovely honeybees might, just might be a sign of our ultimate downfall.

It makes perfect poetic sense, don't you think? After all, are we not long overdue for such a fatal environmental karmic bitch-slap? Has Mother Nature not had just about enough of our arrogant invasiveness? Don't you already know the answer?

These are (some) of the facts: It appears the honeybee hives are collapsing. And the wild honeybee population is down a staggering ninety percent. In the past few months alone, US beekeepers have lost one quarter of their 2.4 million colonies (five times the normal rate) to what's been deemed Colony Collapse Disorder (also the perfect nickname for Bush's America, n'est-ce pas?), and this very serious, inexplicable problem has already spread to 27 states and parts of Brazil, Canada and Europe.

The stories are as alarming and mysterious as they are easy to brush aside as Just Another Essential Natural System We Screwed Up and Now Have to Scramble to Fix. But it might not be so easy. And if the trend continues, if more hives collapse at such a shocking and unprecedented rate and if science can't figure out a solution rather quickly, well, get used to your wheat toast and clams.

What's killing all the bees? Is it some sort of new, ultra-resilient parasite? Is it pesticides? Overbreeding? Stress? Pollution and genetic diddering and cell phone towers? Is it Ashlee Simpson? No one has a clue. Check that: A few smart people have a clue or two (it's a newfangled parasite! says the guy who helped find the cause of SARS), but at this point they're basically just guessing. Most say it's likely some complicated tangle of causes, some mishmash problem that won't be so easy to decipher.

I know what you're thinking. And yes, chances are very good we'll figure it all out before the Great Pomegranate Wars of 2010. Surely we'll manage to finagle and wend and sneak our way out of yet another calamitous man-made (or at the very least, man-assisted) natural catastrophe because, well, this is what we do. We're a scrappy species. We have science and money and brains that deduce. Surely we'll find a way to seduce the bees back to life and it's entirely possible you've already read about and then forgotten this disturbing story entirely because, well, what the hell can you really do about it?

I know the feeling. This is, after all, one of those slightly disquieting science tales that you read about and then feel utterly powerless to respond to, and hence all you can really do is hope the Powers That Be are savvy enough to find a solution and essentially save the world and then you take one look at the Bush administration and you get that sickly sinking feeling that surely we are doomed doomed doomed.

No matter. Because here's the bottom line: Regardless of whether or not we figure it out, Colony Collapse Disorder is merely one more of those charming warning signs, one of those increasingly frequent messages from the gods writ large across the sky of humanity's arrogance and merciless abuse of nature's integrity. Hell, it's an abuse we've engaged in for so long we don't even really think about it anymore. And therein lies our likely demise.

It won't be from global warming. It won't be from nuclear war or massive earthquakes or giant angry robots from outer space or an enormous asteroid striking Australia and wreaking atmospheric chaos and it probably won't be from Jesus returning to this bloody little sandbox and looking around at all the pseudo-Christian hate and proselytizing and warmongering and saying, Oh holy hell, that's not what I meant at all, and wiping the slate clean.

No, odds are just incredibly good that our ultimate downfall will come from a much more innocuous, unspectacular source, some from seemingly tiny but absolutely critical natural system that we finally manipulated one too many times and nature just went, OK, enough of this, I'm done with you gawky, ridiculous bipeds.

Maybe it will be from the disappearance of, say, some sort of rare, beautiful tree bark that contained an enzyme that was more vital to our genetic health than we ever imagined. Maybe it will be from the mushrooms, those crazy massive underground organisms that serve the life cycle in ways we don't even fully understand. Or maybe we will find out, just a tad too late, that some odd species of sea grass that our pollution just wiped out actually held the cure to a new, globally lethal disease. Whoops.

See, the sweet, sticky ontological truth is nature doesn't really give a damn whether our species lives or dies. It is very possible that we are not nearly as essential or significant as we like to believe. Though I imagine if nature had her druthers, she might very well choose to eliminate us like a bad dream and let the honeybees and the ants and the trees and the whales take over.

But hey, maybe that's just the sardonic fatalism talking. I'm sure we'll all be just fine for eons to come. Right?


Mark Morford's Notes & Errata column appears every Wednesday and Friday on SFGate and in the Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle.

He also teaches yoga, subscribes to magazines, admires trees, detests shrill alarmism (including his own), sleeps naked. He has not seen your blog, but is sure it's amazing. He never wears sneakers. He writes about politics, pop culture, sex, music, design, a wry and punch-drunk universe, vibrators, scotch, media, spirituality and small European cars. And sometimes, parrots:

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Bill Totten


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