The First Bee


The season’s first bee – well, the first bee I saw, I’m sure there were others – landed outside on our house wall a last week and dithered there for a few minutes before departing again. Then there were more, bumping clumsily into the window of my office and startling me, or just hovering and making a lot of noise.

So today I went to the back of the house and checked the spot in the roof where a colony of bees takes up annual residence. And sure enough, there they were, a small swam of them already busy with work in the upper eave of our house wall.

There’s a reassuring regularity to their annual return. It means life is taking its habitual course. The early seeds of springtime, each promising new life: Bees gonna fly, flowers gonna bloom and trees gonna grow. And it’s time to be planting the seeds of the season out in the garden.


A crazy corn variety, glass-gem corn, a non-GM corn variety. Created using tradition cross-breeding of US native corn varieties.
Photo: Greg Schoen

Sometime soon, the Brazilian parliament is going to be voting on whether seeds will continue to follow the age-old cycle of containing the life of a new spring. A bill to allow the use of sterile seeds has been in the pipeline since 2007, and is due for an imminent vote after being postponed late last year due to protests.

So-called Terminator seeds, or ‘gene-use restriction technology’, has banned around the world for its inherent danger and, dare I say, its inherent immorality. The genetically-modified seeds are programmed to die off after a single crop, which is to say, each crop is its own complete and finished cycle. Each new crop requires a new purchase from the seed company.

It’s not that most farmers don’t already buy their seeds from companies already, and it’s not that farmers and gardeners like myself haven’t been buying seeds from companies for the past century or more. And there are well-publicized conflicts when farmers replant patented seeds without paying the licensing fee – i.e. keeping back a seed stock from the previous year’s harvest for replanting. Still, the GM crops have an infuriating habit of spreading beyond their planting parameters and mixing with non-GM crops.

The proponents of the gene-use restriction technology in Brazil say the sterile plants would be for non-food crops only, and would be used only for medicinal plants and the fast-growing eucalyptus trees that feed the paper-making industry.

Glass-gem cornPhoto: Greg Schoen

Glass gem corn
Photo: Greg Schoen

But once a ban has been broken, it’s been broken. Even if the uses are meant to be limited, non-food, and ‘beneficial to humanity’, as Eduardo Sciarra, Social Democratic party leader in the Brazilian Congress, has said.

A handful of seed companies control 60% of all seed patents around the world. Many farmers, large and small, are already dependent on seed companies and the narrow range of seed crops they supply.

A loss of biodiversity and monoculture as well as economic dependency often result.

Seed companies like Monsanto and Syngenta hold patents on gene-use restriction technology, but have pledged not to implement these patents. If the door were to be opened, however, how long could each company resist the tug of economic activity? Adding the option of sterile seeds to this could initiate a disastrous cascade, the antithesis of the annual cycle of life heralded by the bee outside my window.

I encourage you to take a moment and join me in signing a petition to remind the Brazilian parliament of its responsibility, not just to its own people and environment, but to ours as well.

Last year’s bees.


Wolf Trap

I was sitting in a very inviting pub the other day, The Rusty Bike, enjoying a plate of locally caught fish and a glass of wine, when the conversation at the next table turned to the real differences between wolves and dogs. What was interesting about the conversation wasn’t its conclusions – because there weren’t any – but the manner of the discourse itself.

The point under dispute was this: While dogs and wolves might be almost genetically identical, are they fundamentally different due to thousands of years of domestication? Two people at the table said yes, dogs are different; one man said no, it’s all just a matter of early training (i.e., given a pup at an early age, any canine can be domesticated).

What struck me was that the fellow arguing for no major differences between wolves and dogs wasn’t interested in real answers – he was interested in winning, nothing more. It didn’t matter that others had excellent arguments, a few verifiable facts at their fingertips, and a willingness to discuss. (And, in fact, they were correct. A longish but fun article on the topic here.)

And so to the current U.S. administration moves to delist the gray wolf as an endangered species in the United States.

After three decades of protection under the Endangered Species Act, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has decided to turn the management of wolf protection over to state authorities. In areas where wolves have lost some of their federal protection over recent years, there have been drastic reductions in the wolf population due to widespread hunting. In particular, alpha wolves are prized targets, thus putting entire packs at risk.

An apt illustration of a wolf and its ecosystem.
Image: Anna Emilia via Wolfeyebrows

Another aspect of this is the key role top predators play in ecosystems as a whole. Their elimination tends to have wide and negative ripple effects.

I can’t claim to understand the source and motivation of current anti-wolf sentiment. According to several articles I’ve read, the USFWS intentionally excluded the participation of several wolf specialists – even those who had done most of the federal research on wolf conservation – because none of these scientists agreed that wolves were recovered enough as a species to be de-listed as endangered.

Nonetheless, this plan is moving forward.

Because for whatever reason, this doesn’t seem to be about the facts. It seems to be about winning, and winning only. At least, for those in favor of wolf hunting.

To end this post on a happier note, if you’re ever in Exeter, UK, check out the charming and unpretentious Rusty Bike ‘gastropub’ – a place I’d visit on the regular if I lived anywhere nearby.


Over on Summit County Voice, Bob Berwyn has written a number of excellent articles on the issue of wolf protection and de-listing.

If you want to take action, there will be public hearings held on this issue in three U.S. cities – you can find the dates and locations here.

Any de-listing proposal allows a period of public comment. This has been extended until 11:59 p.m. on 28 October, 2013. Comments can be submitted here. Other comments can be sent here.

Finally, think about taking a minute and signing a petition in support of continuing one of the potential success stories of the Endangered Species Act.