Save the bees, save the planet

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Native bee advocate Celeste Ets-Hokin didn't just spend time this summer helping me find squash bees. She also spent months putting together a 2011 native bee calendar, and days writing letters to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) about upcoming food safety regulations that will affect all U.S. food growers.

“The FDA sets regulations on how they grow food,” Ets-Hokin explained. “And that could have a negative impact on organic and sustainable growers if the FDA creates regulations that conflict with conservation.”

Farmers are stewards of the majority of the world’s arable areas, Ets-Hokin observes.

“And as stewards of 90 percent of the planet’s arable land, it’s important that growers understand the need for bee habitat and conservation,” she said. “This can be done by restoring habitat, putting in insectary plantings and hedgerows, and other measures.”

Ets-Hokin rejects the notion that bee conservation efforts are elitist.
“If it were so elitist, you wouldn’t have all these preexisting federal programs like the National Resources Conservation Service,” Ets-Hokin said.

But most agriculture operations are run by huge corporations that are not physically present on the land they control, she observes.
“So, when the growers plough under thousands of acres of field, leaving only a patch of dirt, they don’t have to see how it looks,” Ets-Hokin said. “But when farmers put hedgerows and insectaries around farms, they see flowers that bloom all year. That’s refreshing to the spirit. It provides ecosystem services like pollination and beneficial pest control. But it also provides a spiritual uplifting. And I think that is under valued.”

Ets-Hokin worries about the negative impacts on native bees and other beneficial pollinators if the FDA develops a one-size-fits-all approach to food safety.

“If they develop a model that’s tailored to industrial operations, and force it on smaller operations that don’t pose the same risks as bigger operations, with lots of middle men and plastic packaging processes, you incur another risk,” she said, referring to outbreaks of E. coli (Escherichia coli) food poisoning, which are caused by the ingestion of E. coli bacteria.

“When you bring organics to the farmer’s market, there is not one recorded case of E.coli,” Ets-Hokin continued. “But if you impose the same testing protocols and fees on small growers, you disincentivize conservation. And that’s too bad. We need the mosaic.”

In an effort to spread awareness about the importance of bee habitat, Ets-Hokin focussed her newly published  2011 bee calendar on the central role that bees, including native bees, play in ensuring the safety of our food supply and the health of our ecosystem.

“Without native bees, many of the plants that anchor our terrestrial ecosystems would eventually disappear," Ets-Hokin wrote in the introduction to her calendar.

“So, it’s not enough to say that we’ll put aside a little area for conservation on farms,” she told me, as we hung out in her bee-friendly yard. “It must be done in a regenerative cycle, in which we reuse waste on farms as input for the next round of crops.”

Ets-Hokin also told me how she got into the bee calendar business.

“Originally, I was going to try and produce flash cards, but it turned out that a someone had already done that,” she recalled. “So, then I thought, why not do something more visible and affordable to a broader audience. And so I stole Rollin for the project.”

Ets-Hokin is referring to entomologist and insect photographer Rollin Coville. His kick-ass images helped make Ets-Hokin's 2010 native bee calendar an instant classic. 

“With insects, it’s important to focus on their eyes,” Coville told me in July, as we hunted for sthe elusive squash bee. And I think you’ll agree he’s right about bees' eyes, when you check out the amazing images of these furry little vegetarians that illustrate Ets-Hokin's 2011 bee calendar. Here's hoping that her calendar will inspire growers and gardeners to include and conserve bee-friendly plants and habitat wherever they can. Save the bees, save the planet!