Cotton and bees share a lot of things?
The global cotton harvest rises by a cool 60% when bees help out.
We talked to beekeeper Olaf Nils Dube

Mr. Dube, how are your bees doing?
Apparently, each colony has its own personality?

 

“That’s true! Bees are little organisms and can be very distinctive. Especially when they are free to live their own lives and follow their natural instincts. You can tell from each comb how unique they are. They are almost like small works of art. At the same time, hives are quite sensitive. My bees are very relaxed. Gentle and even-tempered. I don’t pressure them through interventions, but simply let them do their own thing. So, I don’t need a Teletubby-style suit with gloves and veil to protect me from stressed bees.”
Rights: ond/Insel Verlag

You actually have a background in media. But sometime in your mid-30s, you decided to ditch your job, swap an apartment in Berlin-Pankow for a circus caravan and became a beekeeper. Did you do all this to save the bees?

“Not at all. I did it for personal reasons since I no longer believed in my job and had always wanted to work with nature. I didn’t set out to save the honey bee. The real disaster is a different one: The mass disappearance of insects. Bee mortality only detracts from the real issue. We are destroying vital habitats. With huge machines working the fields, the soil is degrading. Then there are monocultures, agricultural toxins and the incessant, rising use of pesticides.”

 

"We are destroying vital habitats."

So, the bees aren’t doing as badly as reported in the media?

“The honey bee won’t go extinct. Sure, there are losses in winter, which might be influenced by environmental factors. And beekeeping is no longer as easy as it used to be in conventional farming. But generally, there’s a beekeeper to take care of the bees and to intervene when things get serious, for example by resettlement. At the same time, beekeepers also need to take a good look at themselves. What we do is animal husbandry and can take many shapes. If you take your bees to an almond orchard for pollination while it’s been sprayed with pesticides, you shouldn’t be “surprised” by mysterious bee deaths. No matter how much we love our winged friends, the bigger issues are the widespread extinction of species and the stability of our ecosystems caused by the overexploitation of natural resources.”

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Dozens of the more than 560 wild bee species are currently threatened by such an extinction, among them the bellflower wasp bee, the broom sand bee, or the golden rock bee. Should we prepare for a global wild bee colony collapse?

“I am no expert on wild insects. But when you work with nature and get around, you will notice how radically their habitats have changed over the past few decades. There are fewer and fewer hedges or rows, key habitats for many animals—from birds to insects. Wild insects need nesting sites, dead wood and loamy escarpments, but conventional farming has turned everything into huge, green deserts. Wild insects need a very specific bloom at a very specific time but there are fewer and fewer flowers on our meadows.”

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More than 80 percent of all flowering plants are pollinated by insects and other animals. Without these pollinators, we can’t grow apples, pears, tomatoes, or coffee. While cotton does not rely on pollinators, yields increase when bees get involved. In Maja Lunde’s bestseller “The History of Bees” farmers scale ladders to fertilize each individual cherry blossoms by hand with brushes. Is this going to be our future?

“This is already happening, for example, in China. Entire farms there rely on artificial pollination. As long as labor remains cheap, they’ll probably make do somehow. People are also working on tiny drones, miniature electronic bees, designed to buzz around orchards. Anything is imaginable. But such news confuses the issue. Of all insects, we only really care about the bees. We admire their supposed industriousness, their ingenious organization and appreciate their work as pollinators and honey producers. So, when they appear threatened, we actually care. That’s a very human-centric approach and vision. We shouldn’t just care about what’s useful to us right now or tomorrow. The earth is round, everything’s connected and falls back on us. We don’t have the right to decide what gets to live on this planet.”

Bees are especially threatened by increasingly aggressive pesticides (insecticides, fungicides and herbicides) used in farming. Most recently, the focus was on neonicotinoids: A single teaspoon of this substance could kill a billion of bees – or 20,000 large colonies. What makes these pesticides so incredibly dangerous?

“The effect of these substances is fatal because their actions are increasingly complex, and it becomes harder and harder to even keep an eye on their breakdown products and interactions in the soil and groundwater – if this was ever possible at all. When a colony dies, the beekeeper doesn’t immediately know whether it was caused by a specific insecticide. A lot of the time, they just weaken the hive; their effect is sublethal and doesn’t kill them directly. But we do know that so-called neonics damage the bees’ sense of orientation. While this doesn’t kill all bees, it decimates the hive because individuals get lost and can’t find their way home. So colonies don’t thrive as usual. But that’s hard to determine for the beekeeper since it could also have many natural causes.”

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Cotton is a great example of the ultimate result of such a chemical escalation. It’s a sought-after raw material for the two billion pairs of jeans produced every year and it is drenched in pesticides. Today’s cotton plants are sprayed more than thirty times throughout their growing cycle with grave results for insects and bees. Certified organic producers that honor the GOTS standards protect the environment by only using natural pesticides. What else can be done?

“The problem is the sheer scale of what we do. I deliberately decided to grow my business in a different way. I wanted to stay small and branch out instead. Without a huge fleet of machines to boost efficiency. Conventional agriculture focuses on growth and efficiency. More goods, even more profit. To me, smaller feels right. I’d rather push different values. The farms of small, regional producers are a lot more varied, colorful, rich, and close to the consumer. They don’t specialize on a single monoculture but pursue many different paths. Done right, organic farming encourages meadows to bloom through step-by-step mowing, giving the insects room to roam. Of course, this is not as efficient or profitable. Farmers used to have a saying: “Bees and sheep feed the farmer in his sleep.” That’s no longer the case.”

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Sustainable consumption of eco-friendly products, from food to cotton, protects our nature. What else can each and every one of us do to help the bees and insects around us?

“If you have a garden, let the grass and clover grow. Allow a little chaos and disorder, at least in one corner. German gardens often look like they are groomed by psychopaths: like sterile football pitches. If you let things grow and go to seed a bit, the results are magical. All of a sudden, long-forgotten medicinal plants reappear and attract new insects. It’s almost like having your own little zoo.”

 

“If you have a garden, let the grass and clover grow."