Life of a Bee: The Human Island (Chapter 7)

Image 4. The Beerenberg strawberry farm

It’s late November and on the outskirts of Hahndorf in the Adelaide hills, The Beerenberg Farm is enjoying the busiest time of the year in their tourism trade. The recent break of the prolonged Australian drought delayed one of the farm’s major attractions by a couple of weeks, however, by now the strawberry fields (image 4.) are in full production and swamped by happy families plucking ripe fruit from the plants.

Hay-fever has dampened my enthusiasm somewhat, but I’m grateful to be out here. Not only is it a fun activity in itself, but it helps to overcome a lingering case of writers-block. When deciding to undertake this project, I had casually noted this chapter and thought little more of it – for it’s such a fundamental aspect of human ecology that I assumed it would come to me quite easily. Alas, this hadn’t been the case. I even put it off and worked on following chapters instead. However, watching the bees hop from flower to flower (image 5.) and stumbling upon many flowers at different stages of maturity, I finally have my theme.

Around 140 million years ago, the world began to bloom. Flowering plants have ever since diversified to become the dominant group of terrestrial plants and both the perfume and artistic colour of the natural world. Culturally, flowers have long played a role in human societies, from simple decoration to an important nonverbal form of communication.

 

Image 5. Bee landing

Yet, flowering plants are most important to our species for the food they supply. All fruit, vegetables, grain and legumes and most nuts come from flowering plants. All herbivorous land animals that we farm for meat produce consume mostly flowering plants. Even honey could not exist were it not for the nectar produced in flowers.

Our existence as we know it relies on flowering plant and their existence in turn relies on pollination – much of which is assisted by other species. It’s a beautiful demonstration of ecology at its finest, most elegant and incidentally artistic; a perfect illustration of the paradoxical attitude of the Human Island – some impossible separation of humanity from nature.

Taking any given variety of apple for example, if you look at what the consumer perceives as the bottom of the fruit, you find what remains of the blossom. After the flower has been successfully pollinated, the ovary at the base of the flower swells and develops into the fruit. Pollinators greatly increase the efficiency of the process, so much so that many species entirely dependent on cross-pollination simply would not propagate without the effort of pollinators (see more here).

Those flowering plants that do not rely on pollinators, simply do not invest in colourful flowers, nectar and large pollen grains. They send small pollen grains out on the wind. For agriculture, this is the strategy employed by the grains (see more here).

As mentioned in an earlier chapter, as much as 60% of the world’s crops rely on natural pollination [1] which demonstrates just how important pollinators are to food security and although it is easy to assume this service is provided freely, as was discussed earlier, there simply is no such thing. Bees are able to be kept in nests to assist with pollination in many cases. However the same cannot be said for butterfly, moths, birds and bats who are also important pollinators. These often require remnant patches of vegetation for roosting, nesting, protection and other parts of their life cycle [9]. Just as with communities that are required to be built near a new mine site, these farm-hands require the basics for life, neighbouring their place of work. The better and vast the facilities, the more potential workers remain on hand.

Image 6. The Passionfruit flower, covered in large pollen grains

Pollination is far from the only service offered by the non-human work-force. Where adequate environments are available on and surrounding the farm, predatory species can provide excellent pest control. As weed invasiveness generally increases with environmental disturbance, having healthy and diversity natural environments surrounding the farm also provide a barrier from weeds [10] as well as protection from storm events (such as top soil lost and crop damage from runoff and strong winds). Allowing certain species access to the farm will also assist with soil perturbation and nutrient transfer.

In collaboration with various academic groups, farmers in Victoria and Tasmania have provided numerous case studies where they were able to improve profits and resilience while reducing effort through increasing diversity of biology and practices on their plots [11]. As discussed earlier, to increase production on the land requires an increase in effort. As many species are well designed for such tasks, there is potential to increase yield and also restore local biodiversity by creating agricultural land that provides habitats for non-human farm-hands.

Stopping to sneeze for the umpteenth time, I pan across the strawberry field. I guess the occasional tourist gets stung by the odd bee. However, if we moved the bees away to protect the tourists, we effectively remove the creators of the fruit. This is the heart of the problem of the Human Island. Sure, we’ll continue to produce grains, meat and a few fruit and vegetables that are able to self-pollinate (however, this would long term lead to a loss of genetic diversity), but it would be a very boring diet and most likely, one of reduced nutrition.

The world is made a much more beautifully rich, fragrant and delicious by the diversity of flowering plants. The world is more wonderful with biodiversity. The smiles on the faces of the tourist around me tell me as much. You simply cannot have the direct produce without indirect producers. We owe a lot to the life of a bee and the many other farm-hands.

Reference
[9] Fischer, J., Zerger, A., Gibbons, P., Scott, J., and, Law, B. S. (2010) Tree decline and he future of Australia farmland biodiversity. PNAS. 107(45): 19597-19602. doi:1008476107.
[10] Fischer, J., Lindenmayer, D. B., and, Manning, A. D., 2006. Biodiversity, ecosystem function, and resilience: ten guiding principles for commodity production landscapes. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 4(2): 80-86.
[11] Lefroy, T., Bailey, K., Unwin, G., Norton, T. (Editors) 2008. Biodiversity: Integrating Conservation and Production. CSIRO Publishing. http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/5915.htm
[12] TEEB Foundation 2010. The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity. Edited by Pushpam Kumar. Earthscan, London. http://www.teebweb.org/InformationMaterial/TEEBReports/tabid/1278/Default.aspx

This is chapter seven of the series The Human Island: A Place of Ecological Ruin. To see the previous chapter, click here. As the series grows, the complete work can be found here.

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4 thoughts on “Life of a Bee: The Human Island (Chapter 7)

  1. Ditto WtD , and also worms which aerate the soil and aid water absorbtion ,ants too ! bring soil and nutriants up to the surface when they tunnel , so much work is done for us by creatures we try to destroy .

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    1. I cover more on ecological services (including soil conditioning) later in the series 🙂
      Legumes, which I only discuss briefly (maybe I could fit another chapter in?) are another incredibly valuable group – other than compost, access to nitrogen is mainly through legume nodules in which bacteria can fix nitrogen. It’s pretty cool (as a study, I really got a kick out of plant biology).

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  2. Interesting – and I LOVE the pictures. Here in the northern hemisphere, we’re covered in a blanket of white, so it’s refreshing to see your world!

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