A Letter about the Birds and Bees
July 13, 2013
I'm writing this aboard a train heading to Quebec. It's a gorgeous time of the year to ride the rails in Canada. Golden drifts of Black-eyed Susans brighten the side of the track, interrupted by occasional vivid orange flashes as we whip by a naturalized clump of daylilies. Pale tan giant cylinders of hay make mown farm fields look like a Magritte painting. In one area near the Kingston limestone flats I think I saw wild white phlox blooming, and every few kilometers brings a new ecozone with different flowers to enjoy. Zipping past a swamp, I saw a brilliant mound of what looked like Canada lilies growing on a bluff above the water...
I'm on my way to Quebec City, whence a rental car and I will take a pleasant afternoon drive along the south shore of the St. Lawrence. We'll stop at Grand-Métis where my world-traveller cousin Paul [photo next email: Paul mugging it up with one of my giant heritage tomatoes] awaits us in a cabin looking out over the great river, which here partakes largely of the sea with two meter tides and fascinating tidepools just beside the deck. Tomorrow morning we will be off to celebrate Bastille Day at Les Jardins du Métis/Reford Gardens. I've brought my "Prince des Jardiniers" gardening hat from France along to shelter my balding pate from the hot July sun as we wander through the kilometers of gardens and landscapes of what is arguably Canada's finest grand garden. We have the promise of a personal tour from Alexander Reford, the gardens' owner, to look forward too, then dining at an auberge with a view of the sunset over the great river.
But I'm visiting Grand-Métis for more than just garden tourism. I'll be giving a talk in the gardens about the birds and the bees, and if you know me you'll guess it won't be about sex, it will be about tobacco.
Some of you may have caught my discussion with farmer and beekeeper Dave Schuit on Canada AM last week. [apologies for the ad - be patient, please!]. Dave and I were there to talk about the catastrophic losses he and other beekeepers are experiencing, as more and more of their honeybees die off over winter or during corn planting season. Dave and I agreed that although many diseases and pests are bothering the bees, the straw that breaks the camel's back is the widespread use of nicotine-based pesticides.
Do you grow tobacco plants in your garden? Last year I had three different species (I'm sending Nicotiana sylvestris, while the unusual blue leaves and golden tubular bells of Brazilian tree tobacco Nicotiana glauca gave foliage interest and flowers for daytime pollinators. But all tobacco species share one botanical innovation: the acutely toxic (to insects) nerve poison nicotine.
Yes, that's right: nerve poison. The stuff is to most insects and water bugs as the horrible chemical nerve gases are to us. That's why chemists at Bayer, Monsanto, and other companies modified the structure of nicotine to make it last longer (up to years in some soils), reside permanently in the plant it is applied to, and be as toxic to bees as nerve gases are to us. These "neonicotinoid" pesticides now coat the
If "neonics" (as most farmers and beekeepers call them) only killed corn rootworms, I wouldn't be talking about them in the gorgeous surroundings of Reford Gardens. But they go where they aren't meant to. Bees gather them up in pollen and in the sweet-tasting little droplets of sap young corn seedlings release at dawn. Birds eat them as they hunt for seeds that the sowing drill didn't get all the way underground. One droplet of seedling sap kills a bee, one coated kernel of corn can kill a blue jay, one grain of wheat can make a songbird sterile. Washed into streams and ponds, neonics kill the water bugs fish thrive on. And, just in case you don't care about the natural world at all, recent studies show small quantities cause abnormal development in the brains of newborn rats...an organism often used to test for possible teratogenic effects on human fetuses and infants. Mothers who smoke have children with ADHD more often than non-smokers - and nicotine is the reason. Do we want neonics in our food?
This spring, for the first time in history, there weren't enough honeybees to pollinate the California almond crop when the trees bloomed. The price of almonds is expected to double this winter. This summer, a landscaper was called in by a Target store in Oregon to get rid of pesky aphids in the trees around the parking lot which were shedding sticky honeydew on shoppers' cars. Problem is, a neonic pesticide was used ("knocks 'em right down"), the trees were linden trees in full bloom, and over the next day or so perhaps 50,000 dead bumblebees were found on the asphalt of the lot. Dave Schuit lost over 40% of his honey bees when neonic-treated corn was grown near his hives, and has had to sell his farm to recoup his losses (he had to choose between buying new bees or paying the mortgage, and opted for the bees).
I close this letter with a silent prayer that future years will bring back the buzzing of the bees and the sounds of the songbirds.