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What Honeybees Have Taught Me About Xenophobia

by Benjamin Eichorn on January 31, 2017

Father and son, Peter and Benjamin Eichorn, observing honey production pattern during the spring "honey flow." (Photo courtesy of Benjamin Eichorn)

Note: The opinions expressed in the following essay do not necessarily reflect the views of the Bay Nature Institute.

My dad, Peter, has been keeping honey bees along the central coast of California since the 1960s. Since I learned to walk, I’ve been helping him with his bees on our family’s farm in Palo Colorado Canyon, between Carmel and Big Sur. Keeping bees with my dad over the years has been nothing short of a series of adventures. Of these adventures, capturing swarms from trees, moving ornery colonies in the dark of night without adequate bee suits or flashlights, and driving down the coast with bees swirling around inside the old Volvo station wagon rank among the most memorable, though there are many, many more.

In the winter we clean, maintain and build new equipment. In the spring, we add boxes, or “supers,” to the colonies during the “honey flow” — those few weeks, normally in April in our area, when honey production is at its annual peak. Summertime heralds the honey extraction process, which is the heaviest, sweatiest, stickiest, and yes, most delicious, task of all. In the fall we monitor the colonies for pests and remove extra supers in order to keep the bees warm during the winter.

Benjamin Eichorn

Benjamin Eichorn

My dad loves his bees almost as much as he loves his own children, though he consumes very little of the honey they produce (the bees’, that is). He loves the work too, though it is not always easy, especially when you’re over 70. And yet, year after year, he continues to invest in his bees. He reads the latest research on natural beekeeping, honing and adjusting his methods. He finds new “bee spots” to place them for the season. He feeds them throughout winter with different concoctions of natural sugars, proteins and essential oils. He builds, repairs and cleans his tools and equipment by hand — all in order to have honey to share with family, friends and our local community. He makes beeswax candles in the winter time. I’ve done the math and I’m pretty sure my dad makes less than $1 per hour investing in his bees. His truly is a labor of love.

For years, I have been trying to convince my dad to keep fewer colonies (he currently keeps around 20). I’ve argued that it’s too much work for too little reward and, more emphatically, that honey bees, as a non-native species, are invasive and potentially damaging to the pristine ecology of the Big Sur coast. My dad is sincerely committed to preserving the ecological integrity of our community, and yet he has stuck to his bees through thick and thin despite my various attempts to persuade him to give them up.

These days, I make my living teaching kids, and the adults who teach them, about the food system in the San Francisco Bay Area. The essence of my work is to help people discover the basics of how to grow and cook food, as well as how to uncover the story behind each bite of food that we eat. Recently, I learned that the word selected as “word of the year” for 2016 by Dictionary.com was xenophobia, a “fear or hatred of foreigners, people from different cultures, or strangers.” Learning this prompted me to ask myself if xenophobic bias has in any way underpinned the way in which I teach about food and food systems, or how I approach working on our family farm. If it had, I told myself, I wanted to dig that xenophobia out by the roots and trash it (or perhaps compost it)! What I found on this inner journey was not what I sought, but it did lead me back to my home and gave me a new perspective on my dad’s honey bees.

As expected, the topics of bees and pollination naturally arise when unveiling the story of food. And for over a decade, despite having been raised by a beekeeper, I realize that I have been promoting a perspective that is anti-foreigner. I’ve been known to say things to my students like “honey bees are not a native species,” and “we should really be paying more attention to the plight of our native bees.” While these statements are both true, they are problematic because they can easily be interpreted to mean that something is bad because it is not native. Yes, the perspective I have maintained for years can even be interpreted as xenophobic!

Bees "fanning" themselves during a routine inspection. Photo: Ben Eichorn

Bees “fanning” themselves during a routine inspection. (Photo by Ben Eichorn)

This anti-honey bee perspective I’ve held for years was in fact too simplistic. Yes, “native” species should be preserved and protected, and “invasive” and “exotic” species should be vetted and carefully monitored, but we have to be aware of the messages we send to our younger generations when we promote an agenda that asserts that natives are inherently better or more valuable than foreigners. The issues confronting our food systems and our global economy are much too nuanced these days for such simple statements to be thrown around so casually, regardless of whether we’re talking about plants, insects, animals or entire groups of people.

Cause for further concern, and the justification for my past anti-honey bee sentiments, is that we have been duped into believing that honey bees, as a species, are at risk. Ask any relatively well-informed person what they know about bees and they will reply, “Uh, they’re dying?” Just try it. In fact, the European honey bee, Apis mellifera, is not endangered. Honey bees that are managed for commercial agriculture, however, are dying in disproportionate numbers when compared to wild honey bees. According to Dennis vanEngelsdorp, one of the nation’s preeminent bee researchers and director of the Honey Bee Lab at the University of Maryland: “feral bee colonies are doing fairly well.” So yes, bees are at risk, but not in the way most of us have been led to believe.

What is at risk, and what we should really be concerned about when it comes to the plight of honey bees, is the price of foods that are grown in a system that depends heavily on them for pollination. The widespread bee-plaguing phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (“CCD”), was originally thought to be caused by influences as obscure (and unscientific) as exposure to cell phone radiation signals or a switching of the Earth’s magnetic field. CCD turns out to be due to parasitic mites, viruses the mites transmit, neonicotinoid pesticide exposure, and other stressors that are exacerbated by the way in which most of them are trucked around the nation without access to the diverse array of pollens and nectars, which would otherwise help their immunity (EPA.gov). Nothing is wrong with the bees. Something is wrong, however, with the way we are attempting to bend nature to our will; something is wrong with our industrialized agricultural model, and the honey bees are a “canary in the coal mine.”

As the honey bees continue to suffer, their demise threatens the structural integrity of the food system itself. A buckling industrial farming model demands that we be prepared for the price of bee-pollinated foods to rise, and the accessibility of these foods to people of all income levels, to diminish. The price of apples and pears, stone fruit and nut crops (almonds in particular), berries and citrus, will rise as the bees continue to say “no” to the way in which they are being treated.

A honey bee pollinates a citrus flower at Country Flat Farm. Photo: Ben Eichorn

A honey bee pollinates a citrus flower at Country Flat Farm. (Photo by Ben Eichorn)

It is time we begin to treat honey bees, and human beings, with the respect they deserve. It is also time we condemn the sentiment that something or someone is inherently bad if it is somehow not “native.” As American citizens, we are all intrinsically connected by one sad and simple fact: very few of us are truly “native” to a place anymore. Every day, human, animal, insect, plant, and microbial immigrants arrive here — by land, by sea, by air — from every continent. This flow cannot be stopped, and we would be foolish and uninformed to think it could be. And every day, cross-pollination and hybridization create new genetic combinations of the species represented on this great blue planet. As potentially threatening as they may seem, each “new” arrival makes a unique contribution to the continuously emerging tapestry that is our collective national (and international) cultural and agro-ecological fabric. The heterogeneity of this fabric will at times lead to conflict and competition, but it is from the combination and intermingling of species and genes, cultures and religions — not their segregation and isolation — that the resilience and healing of both people and planet will rise.

Our only hope is for tolerance. The resilience of generations to come will depend on our ability to encourage and celebrate diversity. And in order to be the stewards of thriving ecological communities, we must learn to preserve and protect the “natives” in our communities while not being afraid of the “exotics” merely because of their “other-ness.” The American democratic experiment, the survival of our species and the species with whom we co-exist, the survival of the planet Earth as we know it, may indeed depend on our ability to overcome our fear of foreigners.

After spending years not keeping honey bees of my own, I’m setting up my own hive near a big stand of winter-blooming, non-native, eucalyptus in San Francisco this season and “composting” my past sentiments about these humble and remarkable creatures.

Benjamin (“Farmer Ben”) Eichorn is an internationally-renowned expert on the topics of edible gardening and food literacy education. He is the author of “Edible Gardening: Ten Essential Practices for Growing Your Own Food.” Ben grew up on Country Flat Farm in Big Sur, where his family grows certified organic Meyer lemons, diverse vegetable and fruit crops, and keeps honey bees. In 2010, he founded Grow Your Lunch after teaching for four years at the Edible Schoolyard Project in Berkeley, CA. He lives in San Francisco.

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Mary McAllister on February 1st, 2017 at 10:31 am

I am very grateful to Bay Nature for publishing this thoughtful article, asking your readers to reconsider the bias against non-native species that has been a constant theme in Bay Nature since its inception.

This is also a timely article. The nativism that has infected American politics is demonstrating the great harm that is done by xenophobic prejudice against “the other.” Banning immigrants and refugees from 7 predominantly Muslim countries is both unfair and damaging to our economy. Immigrants are an integral part of our economy, making vital contributions to science, technology, and innovation.

We are shooting ourselves in the foot when we ban human immigrants, just as we are damaging the environment by eradicating non-native plants and animals that are performing valuable ecological functions.

Thank you to the author of this article and to Bay Nature for publishing it.

Bev Jo on February 1st, 2017 at 2:02 pm

Thank you so much for this article, which is so timely. I especially appreciate the reference to the much-maligned Eucalyptus at the end, since most people have no idea how many native animals these beautiful trees help, from bees of all species to hummingbirds (for nectar) and monarch butterflies (safe roosts during the winter months), to raptors, like eagles, hawks, and large owls (who choose Eucs as their preferred safe nesting sites.)

Nativism, which seems to be only from non-native people, is doing so much harm to our environment, wildlife, and us. And yes, it’s connected to xenophobia towards humans. (Nativism is a US tradition going back to the 1800’s where descendants of the European invaders wanted to stop further immigration.)

The plans to kill thousands of trees in San Francisco and in the East Bay hills (in Oakland parks and in East Bay Regional Parks), along with massive pesticide spraying are horrific and must be stopped, but few people know about it and just trust the “experts.” We already all have glyphosate in our bodies. And we are lucky to have health exotic trees who are better suited to global warming and are resistant to the diseases and infestations and drought killing our native trees.

This excellent site explains more in detail: https://milliontrees.me/2014/08/22/understanding-the-eucalyptus-forest-professor-joe-r-mcbride/

KO on February 1st, 2017 at 8:58 pm

Thank you for opening your mind & heart and learning from your father. After a bout of foulbrood [horrid!] I learned that though bee pests are species specific, the virus’,protozoa, bacteria, and mites that attack bees [all kinds] shelter on the flowers and can jump species. Hence the loss of queen bees last March from honeybees getting bumble bee diarrhea!
California only supported hunting and trapping before the honeybee arrived, in 30 years, it had become a garden state. There would not be enough food in the state for the nativists if the honeybee had not been introduced.
In those years, the hills were alive with floral abundance, now, there is not enough floral pasture to provide the bees with the 7 acres each they need to feed their colonies AND there are horrid toxins everywhere. Humans shouldn’t bee so naive to think that those toxins don’t affect them.
These tiny sentinels are saying “change your ways”. Every spare plot should be covered with covercrops that feed the bees,build the soil, sequester carbon, hold the moisture and aerate the soil. Imagine an enlightened Caltrans, freeways banked by colorful flowers, or bee corridors beneath powerlines. Instead, they quiver in fear someone might sue them if they go stung by a bee.
The bees will survive: I believe their habit of overachieving, gathering surplus nectar and pollen is genetic memory of a distant high-carbon time when pollen lacked nutrition and nectar enough sugars because a CO2 rich atmosphere fueled plant growth over reproduction.

Ellen Gierson on February 1st, 2017 at 9:01 pm

Accolades to Bay Nature Magazine for finally acknowledging the extreme
prejudice against non native plants and animals. I have felt this extreme attitude from the East Bay Regional Park District and Oakland Parks in their application of herbicides and their plans on cutting down thousands of healthy trees they label as non native. It’s awful. I feel we are doing
horrible, irreparable damage by eliminating and eradicating
non native plants and animals. So I was THRILLED to read the very timely and accurate article “ What Honeybees Have Taught Me About Xenophobia” by Benjamin Eichorn in the January 31 issue.

Thanks, Bay Nature!
Ellen Gierson
Oakland Ca

Doug Johnson on February 23rd, 2017 at 1:22 pm

I had mixed emotions reading “What Honeybees Have Taught Me About Xenophobia.” I was touched by the father-son connection based on animal husbandry and love of the land, and I appreciated the author’s epiphany that he should stop dissing organisms solely for being non-native.

However, I cringed at the exhortation that we “condemn the sentiment that something or someone is inherently bad if it is somehow not ‘native’.” First, it’s a mistake to lump people and other organisms together in this context. Second, while I 100% agree that we need to avoid sloppy communication that implies being non-native is itself a problem, it’s essential to also acknowledge that significant damage is caused by some non-native organisms. If you leave this out, as this article does, a reader (or student) may well misunderstand the seriousness of invasive species.

The simple, but complete, story is that non-native species (whether here in California or elsewhere around the globe). are generally not a problem, and often they are valuable for agriculture and horticulture, but a small percentage do cause damage. There is a rich and varied scientific literature exploring invasion biology, a fascinating field that could use more bright minds in the future, like those of the students the author teaches. The impacts of invasive species—from degraded rangelands to lost wildlife habitat, blocked waterways or increased wildfire fuels—are getting worse, and ecological literacy will be increasingly critical in the future.

Invasive species damage diversity. Protecting diversity is the opposite of xenophobia. We can love our native California wildlands, work to protect them from invasive species, love the many non-native organisms around us that aren’t invasive, and love our neighbors in the multi-cultural tapestry of the Bay Area all at the same time.

Doug Johnson, Executive Director
California Invasive Plant Council

Mary Beth James-Thibodeaux on February 26th, 2017 at 5:41 pm

Please don’t equate xenophobia with a desire to eliminate plants and animals that can damage a complicated ecosystem. It is an easy parallel that is common but not valid.

A study done by Diane Thompson at UC Santa Cruz in 2004 showed that the foraging and reproductive success of one species of Bumble bee was reduced by the presence of European honey bee hives. Honey bees do have a negative effect on the native bees.

On the plus side, native bees are much better than European bees at pollinating many food plants, if they are just give a good living environment. I am probably not telling you anything that you don’t know.

I was very discouraged to hear that you set up your own bee hive. Your love of nature is obviously learned at your father’s knee. If you spend time with your dad around his hives, rather than trying convince him to stop raising bees, more power to you, but setting up your own hive is putting the lie to all the good you did supporting native bees, for purely sentimental reasons.

The use of native species as a stand in for people not born in the United States or with non native parents goes back at least to the twenties, as several articles brought to my attention by a friend studying social aspects of Science at UC Berkeley, pointed out. The equivalence is used both against restoration and for Nativism. Don’t revive and continue that unfortunate tradition.

Pat Kittle on April 5th, 2017 at 12:28 am

At the very LEAST a billion humans would like to move here!

Advocating SUSTAINABLE immigration levels is every bit as necessary as any other aspect of sustainability.

What hidden agenda drives this relentless effort to demonize anyone who understands such a basic ecological reality?

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