Outside my office window as I write this article, I can see the tomato plants in our garden heavy with fat, red fruits, like strings of big Christmas bulbs. Perhaps my favorite part of gardening is its alchemical quality, the way a crop seems to come out of nothing. The transformation of dirt and air and sunlight into a perfect tomato seems no less miraculous than the transformation of lead into gold, and it always makes me feel hopeful, secure in the natural world’s generosity.
Picking up a newspaper, though, I get a very different picture of the food supply. For nearly two years now, ominous headlines have described a mysterious ailment, colony collapse disorder (CCD), that is wiping out the honeybees that pollinate many crops. Without honeybees, the story goes, fields will be sterile, economies will collapse, food will be scarce.
But what few accounts acknowledge is that what’s at risk is not itself a natural state of affairs. For one thing, in the United States, where CCD was first reported and has had its greatest impacts, honeybees are not a native species. (European colonists brought the bees to the Americas in the 1600s.) And the way most commercial crops get pollinated, with enormous populations of captive honeybees (in the United States the bees are trucked to and fro), bears little resemblance to the way things happen in the garden or, indeed, in the past. Pollination in modern agriculture isn’t alchemy, it’s industry.