"Our Bees, Ourselves" and what it means for the Rez

During my first tour of the La Plant garden project in August 2013, I left wondering, "Where are all the bees?" Food grew in the garden, but the tomato plants could have been more robust, the squash more vibrant. It didn't make sense because the prairies were full of rich, swaying grasses and blooming sunflowers, echinacea and native flowers. It soon became apparent that the lack of bees was symptomatic of a surrounding agricultural system that thrived on vast single-crop fields, chemicals and practices that dissuaded the building of natural agroecosystem health. But, the absence of pollinators also magnifies something greater and deeply troubling: the poor communal and social health of the Reservation.

Entering this growing season, my goal was to rebuild the pollinator population and eventually set the groundwork for having beehives in future growing seasons. This meant the planting of flowering, domesticated crops and reintroducing native grasses and flowers. Every action made by Simply Smiles is intentional, and confronting the food and bee situation is no different. Put simply: Without bees, we don't have food. A significant portion of our favorite foods - 70% - are pollinated by bees. Without food, how can we expect to nourish individuals, build thriving communities and resilient ecosystems?

Mark Winston's op-ed column, "Our Bees, Ourselves," could not be more timely. Winston discusses colony collapse disorder (CCD) as "vexing because there is no one cause, but rather a thousand little cuts." Winston suggests CCD and honeybee collapse is linked to pesticide applications to the hives themselves and biocide applications in field crops on which the bees feed, the lack of agricultural diversity, and unsustainable practices in commercial beekeeping. He also suggests,

Bees also provide some clues to how we may build a more collaborative relationship with the services that ecosystems can provide. Beyond honeybees, there are thousands of wild bee species that could offer some of the pollination service needed for agriculture. Yet feral bees — that is, bees not kept by beekeepers — also are threatened by factors similar to those afflicting honeybees: heavy pesticide use, destruction of nesting sites by overly intensive agriculture and a lack of diverse nectar and pollen sources thanks to highly effective weed killers, which decimate the unmanaged plants that bees depend on for nutrition.

In May, I interviewed a local farmer about the methods currently used in the area to increase field biodiversity, namely the presence of beneficial insects. This farmer had been working the land for decades and had noticed a decline in yield and the increasing difficulty to compete with other growers as well as the expense of using biocides and treated seeds. While he was not personally against sustainable methods such as strip plantings of perennial grasses and flowers, he suggested that farmers are more preoccupied by the need to maximize their space and meager profits in already tough growing conditions. He also mentioned past situations where perennial plants became "super weeds" and took over prime farmland. I appreciated the farmer's earnest comments, but I left our conversation concerned about the lack of forethought for the future and the acknowledgement about the interconnectedness of these symptoms. If you don't put the time in now rebuilding and nourishing the land and its human and non-human communities, profits and yields will only continue to decrease and dependence on chemical inputs will be immensely cost prohibitive. 

Farming and ranching is the economic backbone of South Dakota and, surprisingly, the Reservation, but how is it serving the health of the people and the land? In short: Not well. People are not eating well, which affects mental and physical capacity. Farm and grazing land looks stripped. A few beehive clusters dot a few pastures, but I still can't see bees in the garden. These conditions are a sign that efforts need to be made to balance cultivated food production and the growth of perennial plants to feed the land, the people and encourage pollinators. The care of bees and, by extension, the protection of their habit can teach an invaluable lesson, as Winston eloquently writes:

There is a lesson in the decline of bees about how to respond to the most fundamental challenges facing contemporary human societies. We can best meet our own needs if we maintain a balance with nature — a balance that is as important to our health and prosperity as it is to the bees.

To care about the bees is no longer an obscure concern of backyard beekeeping enthusiasts or hippies. The presence of thriving, blooming gardens and farms because of pollinators is an indicator of the social, economic and political health of our human constructs, institutions and communities.