Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The Birds and The Bees

“Birds do it.  Bees do it.
Even educated fleas, do it.
Let’s do it. Let’s fall in love.”
- Cole Porter (1891-1964), American composer and songwriter

At some point in many adolescents’ lives, parents usually give "the birds and the bees” lecture.  I never got that lecture.  My parents, as modest Koreans, never could get themselves to say the actual word “sex.” The closest I ever got to any lecture regarding reproduction was in college.  I was warned by my mom not to get too close to boys, lest I be “hugged.”  I hate to tell you this, Mom, but I already knew about "hugging" way before you told me. 
I never did figure out why it was called the “birds and the bees.”  I suppose it has something to do with reproduction and fertilization, but no one has given me any precise history of the expression.  Some say Coleridge; others say Cole Porter.  Whatever the origins, honeybees, or Apis mellifera, are of vital importance to society and nature.  Without bees, we wouldn’t be eating most fruits and nuts.  Without bees, there would be no honey.  And without bees, many plants could not reproduce.

We could be in serious danger of living without honeybees.

      Starting in 2006, beekeepers across the US noticed that their hives were dying in large numbers – 20% to 40% of commercial beehives reported massive die-offs.  This was in addition to the already declining honeybee population due to development, pesticides, new pathogens, etc.  According to beekeepers, the bees would become disoriented, fly away, and die.  The suspects were anything and everything:  pesticides, cell phone towers, electrical power lines, GMO crops, and God (one blog had suggested that God had finally called for the “rapture of the bees.”)  There were contradictory signals coming from the apiary world: some colonies would die quickly (as little as 2 days); others would die slowly over weeks.  Some hives were affected; others were not.  Different bee colonies in different parts of the country had contradictory die-off patterns.  Without any theory in sight, entomologists called the phenomenon Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD.
            I am sure that little girls all across the US were thrilled with this.  But for the billion-dollar agricultural industry across the United States, this was catastrophic.  Any farmer will tell you, you want bees. Some of America biggest agricultural exports, such as almonds and apples, are completely dependent upon the bees for their crops.  Even fruits that can self-pollinate, such as peaches, will have both a higher yield and better fruit, if pollinated by bees.  Contrary to the bucolic image of the beekeeper, beekeeping in the US is a serious business and mass loss of beehives alarmed a diverse group of actors: farmers, politicians, the USDA, scientists, commercial and amateur beekeepers and crazily enough, the US military.
            And this is when the story gets interesting (at least to me).  Why would the US military get involved with bees? Apparently, the US Army, in its biological and chemical weapons research department, has been experimenting with bees as possible land mine or poison detectors.  Kismet, in the form of a business card and 2 brothers, brought Army researchers and the “Bee Alert” team in contact.[1] The US Army had developed a new type of technology, Mass-Spectrometry-Based Proteomics (“MSP”), that allowed researchers to identify unknown biological pathogens.  By matching unknown peptide sequences to any organisms’ own unique peptide sequences,[2]  this method could help identify unknown biological entities, even if they had never been previously identified.   MSP,  in combination with the DNA sequencing previously done by the "Bee Alert" team, helped pinpoint the suspect in our bee-massacre.  Or I should say, suspects, because the researchers discovered that the pathogens were tag teaming: an unknown virus, Invertebrate Iridescent Virus (“IIV”), and a known fungus, Nosema ceranae.  Each pathogen, on its own, does not cause CCD, however, in combination, they deliver the TKO.
            You are probably scratching your head, wondering why I would bother you with this long-winded and somewhat technical story.  First, I think it’s interesting (and it’s MY blog!).  Secondly, and most importantly, the story of the bee collapse has some important lessons regarding the vulnerability of nature in the age of agribusiness.
1.     What affects one part of the eco-system, affects the whole.  Many plants are completely dependent upon the bee and other pollinators for reproduction.  If the pollinators go, so goes all the plants, animals and people that depend upon them.
2.     Monoculture – not good for bees, not good for crops, not good for evolution. Bees need a wide variety of plants to forage, and some scientists have speculated that the stress placed on bees by the mass pollination of single-crop orchards has made them more vulnerable to CCD.  And because they can’t survive permanently on these farms, they are continually transported in trucks, being fed with artificial nectar (often made from GMO plants).  Stressed out bees don’t make good pollinators, thus reducing crop yields as a whole.  Single crop farms decrease the gene pool for plants, thus reducing plant viability and survival as a whole. Just say no to monoculture.
3.     We need bees more than bees need us.  If bees are not carefully managed and nurtured, we could see larger losses of honeybees.  There already has been a steady decline in the honeybee population since late 1940s – from 5.9 million to about 2 million currently.  Part of the loss has been from the decline of beekeeping – but most of the blame comes from us. Sprawl, heavy pesticide use, destruction of bee habitats, globalization; these all have impacted bees precipitously. There should be more research on alternate, sustainable pollinators, other than honeybees. Or, better yet, there should be an economic incentive to encourage the resurgence of the bee population.  If honeybees are responsible for producing 40 billion dollars worth of produce, don’t we owe them something for all their hard work?

And to all those apiphobics?  Next time you see that bee, don’t try to kill it or scream for your life.  It’s just trying to do its job.

Lamb Tagine with Honey, Almonds and Apricots
            Today’s recipe is in honor of our friendly, neighborhood honeybee.  The California almond crop uses half a million honeybees every spring to pollinate its trees.  Apricots also depend upon bees to do their reproductive work.  And honey – well, that’s just a given.  And just remember that without the bee, this dish, and many others, would be an exercise in blah.

3 pds. lamb shoulder or neck, trimmed of fat and cut into 2 in. cubes
1 tsp. ground ginger
1 tsp. ground pepper
1 tbs. ras el hanout (see note)
1/4 tsp. saffron (see note)
1/2 c. water
1/2 cup (8 tbs.) of unsalted butter
2 medium onions, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 cinnamon sticks
6 c. chicken stock (I tell you, making your own stock comes in handy!)
2 c. dried apricots, roughly chopped
11/2 c. almonds, whole and blanched (see note)
3/4 c. honey (preferably dark, e.g. forest honey is great for this)
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 c. carrots, peeled and cut into 1/2 rings
1/2 c. flat-leaf (also called Italian) parsley, chopped

1.     In a large bowl, combine ginger, pepper, ras el hanout, saffron and water and mix well.  Add meat and rub paste evenly into the meat.  Cover and refrigerate overnight.
2.     Heat butter over medium heat in a Dutch oven.  When foaming has subsided, add onions, garlic, cinnamon sticks, and cook until onion is soft and translucent.
3.     Add the marinated meat to the pot with the chicken stock.  Bring mixture to a boil and skim any scum that comes to the top.
4.     Reduce the heat to low, cover the pot and simmer for 11/2 hours, stirring occasionally, until meat is tender.  Add water if the tagine becomes too dry. 
5.     Add apricots, almonds, honey, carrots, and ground cinnamon to the pot and simmer, covered, stirring often to prevent burning.  Continue simmering until the meat is almost falling apart, about another 30 minutes. (If the mixture is too watery, uncover and reduce sauce to a syrup consistency.)
6.     Stir in chopped parsley.  Serve immediately with couscous or rice.
NB: Ras el hanout is a Moroccan spice blend.  You can buy it at Middle Eastern markets or at Kalustyans.  You can also make it yourself with the recipe here.  With regards to saffron, try to find Iranian or Syranian saffron.  (The Spanish saffron tastes like orange dust.)  And to blanch your own almonds, boil a pot of water.  Add almonds and stir for about 1 minute.  Strain almonds and when cool enough to handle, slip off skins.

[1] The New York Times does a nice job narrating how the bee detectives came together.
[2] The original article was published in the on-line science journal, PloS ONE.  Click here for the original article.

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