Thursday, 1 October 2015

Why does a beehive represent the ‘anthropocene’?

I was inspired by the forthcoming event at UQ's GCI 'Anthropocene Slam' and got thinking about what object I would choose to represent the anthropocene.... a beehive!

Bee hives have only really been in mass use since the industrial revolution in the mid-19th century.  Its no coincidence that the intensification/industrialization of honey production occurred at this time, along with many other things!  A beehive represents humans controlling a natural ecological system, intensifying it, and exploiting it. 

Honey production is just one aspect of honey beekeeping.  The other is crop pollination.  For our mass global intensive agricultural systems that have developed over the past century we are now dependent on honey bees: e.g. Honey bees enable the production of at least 90 commercially grown crops in North America according to the White House.  Some crops, such as almonds, are almost exclusively pollinated by honey bees, and many crops rely on honey bees for more than 90% of their pollination. 

However, like many of our natural systems and ecosystem services that are being stretched to the max by intensive human use, honey bees are under serious threat.  Diseases such as colony collapse disorder and the pest varroa mite threaten to wipe out vast numbers across the globe. The causes of the losses of bee colonies are multiple – like many of our ‘anthropocene’ wicked problems, but most can be traced back to human resource (over)exploitation.  Loss of forage habitat, loss of genetic diversity, exposure to pesticides…
There are also spillover effects of the problems in the human-managed bee populations, such as the pests and viruses of honeybees also affecting native pollinators.  

Overall, beehives have allowed us to manipulate a natural ecosystem service to intensify our agriculture.  However, this has left our food production system very vulnerable now that beehives and honeybees are experiencing serious problems at a massive scale, posing a threat to our global food security.  I think this is a reflection of so many other ways in which humans have exploited a single natural resource to enable our population to expand, but have now taken it to a point where our ability to continue to expand our population to 9 bn and counting by 2050 is threatened by our very singular reliance on that exploitation and the effect it has … (cf. coal mining, deforestation…) 

but don't stop keeping bees!  On the contrary, we need to continue to support and improve conditions for both managed and wild pollinators, making sure we have diversity and resilience in our pollination systems both locally (in our gardens) and at an industrial scale.