Pesticides on the prairie
Yesterday I went to Glacial Heritage Preserve to photograph bees. The prairie was in full bloom, a watercolor of camas, golden paintbrush, chocolate lily, and balsam root. The scent of flowers floated on a breeze caught between hot and cold—jacket on, jacket off.
Camera in hand, I began to walk the flower-lined trails, looking for bees. When I found nothing, I wandered through the research plots where the flowers were even thicker. Color competed for attention: yellow, orange, purple, crimson, and white but still no bees. I didn’t see an insect, a bird, a snake. For forty minutes I roamed, finally spotting a lone bumble, the very common Bombus vosnesenskii.
I spent two hours on the trails and ended up seeing four B. vosnesenskii, two B. mixtus, one Halictus rubicundus, and one Apis mellifera. Add to that four flies and one butterfly. I thought back to the days when a walk in a prairie was deafening: insects buzzing, clicking, whining, and singing. As I kid, I covered my ears and complained, “It’s too loud!” But now it is silent.
Across a dirt track from the research plots is a tree farm. There, acres and acres of groomed soil in straight rows glistens brown in the sunlight. Not a green thing exists—neither a weed nor blade of grass mars the perfect lines. I don’t know what they do to the soil, but something. I can only assume that seeds are planted under there, Douglas-fir probably, which will emerge in perfect monoculture.
On the far side of the preserve another monoculture is being mowed—animal feed of some sort. Houses skirt much of the remainder, ephemeral structures built on top of the historic Mima Mounds.
Could pesticide drift from the adjacent lands be killing the bees? I don’t know, but something created this bee desert. The irony—one of several—is that the research plots are being used to raise flowers and host plants favored by four species of rare butterfly, all in hopes of restoring their populations to the Glacial Heritage Preserve.
I also don’t know if chemicals are used on the preserve itself, but certainly two miles away at the Mima Mounds Natural Area, herbicides are used in abundance. I go there frequently, looking for bees, and often I see signs warning of herbicide use. We are taught herbicides are safe for insects because that is what they want us to believe.
Only two or three percent of the western Washington prairies still exist and great effort is expended on these remaining patches. They are called natural areas, but in fact, history tells us that Native American tribes kept these tracks of land cleared so the camas would proliferate. The bulbs were an important food, and only by keeping the trees at bay, would the camas survive. The tribes did this by burning the land while the camas bulbs, protected by the soil, survived and multiplied.
Since the prairies were man made, once the tribes stopped harvesting and burning—or were forced to—the forest returned. Douglas-fir, oak, and sword fern once again took up their rightful place, and introduced species, notably scots broom, moved in as well.
Now we have decided to preserve the remaining prairie so we can see and enjoy the ecosystem they supported, along with the birds and butterflies that thrived there. But how do we do it? We use chemicals, of course. Poison and more poison will solve all our problems. Just keep dumping it on and the prairie will return.
This may have worked at first, but I believe background levels of toxic chemicals have increased to the point where some species can no longer survive. We assume that these poisons disappear with time, but maybe not. Maybe a little bit persists and that small amount is added to next year’s dose and so on through the seasons until the background level itself is too much for some.
Add those background levels to the chemicals that waft on the breeze, or flow with the ground water, or travel back to nests on the wing, and you have a recipe for death. These incremental doses of toxin, I believe, are killing the honey bees.
If you think that within a “natural area” living things are safe from pesticides, think again. In the name of life itself, what is wrong with us? Surely we are destroying the very things that make us human.