Saturday, May 31, 2014
Honeybees and a Tale of Two Companies: Mann Lake vs. Monsanto
Honey bees, crucial in the pollination of many U.S. food crops, continue to die off at an alarming rate. Total losses of managed honey bee colonies was 23.2 percent nationwide for the 2013-2014 winter, according to the annual report issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the "Bee Informed Partnership," a group of honeybee industry participants.
The death rate for the most recent winter, October 2013 through April 2014, follows a 30.5 percent loss reported for the winter of 2012-2013, and a 21.9 percent loss in 2011-2012. At this rate, bee populations have been dying at a rate the U.S. government says is economically unsustainable. Honey bees pollinate plants that produce about a quarter of the food consumed by Americans, including apples, almonds, watermelons and beans, according to government reports.
Scientists, consumer groups and bee keepers say the devastating rate of bee deaths is due at least in part to the growing use of pesticides sold by agrichemical companies to boost yields of staple crops such as corn. On May 9 the Harvard School of Public Health released a study that found that two widely used neonicotinoids — a class of insecticide — appear to have significantly harmed honey bee colonies over their winter dormant period.
"With the damning evidence mounting, pesticide companies can no longer spin their way out of this crisis," said Michele Simon, a public health lawyer who specializes in food issues.
The guilty parties? Monsanto Co (whose executives have close ties with both the Obama Administration and with Bill and Hillary Clinton) and DuPont, both of whom are responsible for producing the majority of the defoliant Agent Orange which affected generations of Americans during the post-Vietnam war years.
Last year, organic farmers were outraged to discover that the Illinois Department of Agriculture had actually seized and destroyed healthy bee colonies belonging to a scientist who spent 15 years developing a strain that was resistant to the toxic effect of Monsanto’s chemical Roundup.
Meanwhile, the entire European Union has enacted an outright ban on the use of neonicotinoids on crops, home lawns, and gardens
But in the small town of Hackensack, Minnesota, a small company named Mann Lake Limited stands as David against Goliath.
The company was started by Betty and Jack Thomas, who were hobby beekeepers 30 years ago. But as bees and supplies grew scarce, they took matters into their own hands.
“Let’s start a little bee keeping supply business as a cottage industry out at the lake,” Jack said.
It wasn’t long before business boomed. They now employ 350 people, making their business larger than the town in which they are located. Those 350 employees make everything from the hives to the food bees eat in the off season. They supply beekeepers large and small, from Minnesota to the Middle East, and have recently opened a new facility in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania.
“When you are a hobby beekeeper you start out with the equipment which we make,” Jack said. “Now you need bees to put in that equipment.” And so, millions of bees arrive at Mann Lake Limited in early May, after a 30-hour nonstop run from California, where the new bees are bred. They come in 2,000 wooden crates, stacked onto pallets. Each box holds a queen, and 15,000 worker bees.
Nationwide, the problems that both commercial and hobby beekeepers have is keeping their bees alive and away from the pesticides that appear to be annihilating them.
“Always in the back of the mind is: What else can we do?” Jack said. “Where can we expand? What new products can we come up with?”
It’s all to give bees a fighting chance.
Betty and Jack, like some other socially responsible businesses such as Juan Valdez Coffee and New Belgium Brewing, have since turned their business over to their employees through an employee stock ownership plan. In essence, their business’ “worker bees” are also now the owners “the colony,” and all share a vision to prevent a catastrophic collapse of the nation’s food supply.
One can only hope that as in the biblical story, David defeats the mighty Goliath.