They Might Be Mites


Of all the ills afflicting bees, giants of a sort may not be among them, but mites may be implicated in their decline. If you believe the sort of giants that may be afflicting the bees worst of all, which is to say pesticide manufacturing giants such as Bayer and Syngenta, the primary culprits to blame for bee colony declines are not their neonicotinoid pesticides, but rather Varroa mites. The mites afflict honey bees, weakening them as they feed on the bees’ fat reserves and injecting viruses into the bees through their sucking mouth parts.


But all manner of bees and other pollinating insects are declining around the world, not just the honey bees that are afflicted with Varroa mites. Neonicotinoid pesticides work systemically by being absorbed into every part of a plant, including the flowers, attacking the nervous system of whatever invertebrate feeds on the plant, including the flowers. As the name suggests, neonicotinoids are derived from nicotine, a poison found in tobacco and other plants in the nightshade family.

Nicotine has long been applied topically to plants and insects as a pesticide. Japanese chemists synthesized Imidacloprid, the first neonicotinoid, in the 1980s. In the 1990s, Bayer began large scale manufacturing and distribution of the pesticide, which was an advance over plain nicotine on account of its solubility in water and consequent ability to disseminate systemically throughout a plant for long-term protection from insect feeding, rather than being restricted to the temporary effects of topical application.

Bombus lapidarius queen - Echium vulgare - Keila
A red-tailed bumblebee (Bombus lapidarius) queen feeds on the flower of a blueweed (Echium vulgare) in Keila, northwestern Estonia. Photo by Ivar Leidus.

It’s interesting then that the pesticide manufacturing giants have followed the lead of Big Tobacco in muddying the research waters regarding their products. In the previous century, the tobacco industry fought efforts by researchers and regulators to fully inform the public of the dangers of tobacco use, generally by spreading the spurious claim that there was more doubt about the issue than there really was, and by persuading a vocal minority of clinicians and media flacks to side with them. This model has since been followed by the fossil fuel industry in denying the human causes of climate change.

A 2013 cover by Circe Link and Christian Nesmith of “Your Move” by Yes. One could choose to hear the lyrics in the background chorus as “Give bees a chance” instead of “Give peace a chance”.

Now, after scientists and environmentalists sounded the alarm about neonicotinoids in the late 2000s and early 2010s, the pesticide giants have adopted the same methods, and their fall guy, as it were, is the lowly Varroa mite, a creature difficult to like in any scenario. Bayer and Syngenta and the rest have been aided and abetted in their disinformation campaign by the current presidential administration’s Environmental Protection Agency, an agency rendered ineffectual in protecting the environment by the hiring of right wing ideologues who are all too eager to sow goodwill among multinational corporations by not allowing the collapse of bee populations to get in the way of reaping enormous sums of money. After all, what are friends for?
— Izzy


A Corny Time of Year


October is corn harvest time in much of the United States, and popcorn has this month dedicated to it in all its glory. The sweet corn harvest was earlier, in August and September, but for field corn and popcorn, October is typically the month when farmers cut the stalks. The Harvest Moon was on October 5th, and at the end of the month corn and corn stalks figure in Halloween decorations and celebrations. Corn will have a part in the celebrations of Thanksgiving and Christmas, too, though for Christmas its part will fall mostly to strings of popcorn for garlanding Christmas trees.


Popcorn is made from a special variety of maize, called Zea mays everta, the special popping characteristic of which Native Americans may have discovered long ago when some kernels fell near a cooking fire. It was a long time between that discovery and the one in the 1960s by Orville Redenbacher and his business partner, Charlie Bowman, of a hybrid strain that popped more reliably and twice as large as earlier popcorns. The “gourmet” description added to the packaging of their product was purely marketing. In the meantime, popcorn had become a favorite snack food in America by the early twentieth century and had even become ingrained in popular culture, with the merchandising of Cracker Jack caramel corn and peanuts in a box with a prize, and the baseball song “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”, which included a reference to Cracker Jack.

“Shine On, Harvest Moon” sheet music cover from 1908, with corn shocks included in the artwork. This songbook standard was written by Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth. Norworth also co-wrote “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” in the same year, with Albert Von Tilzer.

The biggest boost to popcorn sales came from movie theaters, even though theater owners initially resisted selling popcorn in house because of the low brow connotations of the snack. Popcorn was cheap, and movie theater owners in the first few decades of the twentieth century sought a slightly higher class clientele. That changed during the Great Depression when theater owners took concession sales away from independent vendors out on the sidewalk and brought the selling of high profit items like popcorn under their own wing in the lobby. It wouldn’t be far fetched to say that popcorn sales saved many a movie theater from bankruptcy during the darkest years of the Great Depression.


The next big boost to popcorn sales came in the 1980s with the simultaneous advent of home video rentals and the widespread appearance of microwave ovens in homes and, with them, microwaveable popcorn. Suddenly people could save money on a trip to the movie theater and still enjoy a facsimile of their favorite movie theater snack at home. There have been health concerns about both movie theater popcorn and microwaveable popcorn, each for different reasons. Lately there have also been alarms about the use of neonicotinoids, implicated in honey bee deaths and colony decline, as a seed coating for planted popcorn. The good news is that popcorn has not been swept up in the GMO madness.

Cracker jack newspaper ad 1916
1916 newspaper advertisement for Cracker Jack.

The Swedish Chef grooves to the tune “Popcorn”. For an added treat, turn on the captions.

The best tasting popcorn and the healthiest might have been the batches people cooked up themselves on their stove tops at home in the days before they gave in to the tempting convenience of microwaveable popcorn. It’s still possible to make it that way, of course, and it is really not that difficult. The home cook also has the advantage of controlling the amount of butter and salt added, the two ingredients that turn popcorn from a relatively healthy snack into a not entirely healthy one. What makes the concept of home cooked popcorn even more attractive and plausible is the addition to the home entertainment system since the 1970s of video recorders and DVDs, all with associated remote controls featuring pause buttons. No more rushing to pop up a snack during a commercial break! Take some time to relax and do it right.
― Izzy


Good In, Good Out


Gardening starts with good soil, and container gardening is even more dependent on quality soil because the plant’s roots are constrained. The container soil has to supply all the minerals and nutrients the plant might need, though the gardener usually has to replenish them at least once during the growing season on account of the original supply leaching away. Spending a little more on quality potting soil is well worth it if quality is indeed what the product delivers. The plants will be healthier and look better if they are flowers, and they will be healthier in themselves and for you if they are vegetables.


The best commercial potting soils don’t have synthetically derived fertilizers mixed in, but instead have naturally derived fertilizers which cover a broad spectrum of a plant’s nutritional needs. The difference for plants between potting soils with naturally derived fertilizers and those with synthetically derived fertilizers is like the difference for people between a nutritionally balanced, full meal, and an energy bar or drink. A gardener shopping in the garden center of one of the big home improvement chains is most likely to see options for plain potting soil (cheap), potting soil with synthetic fertilizer mixed in (middling), and the greenwashed version from a major manufacturer such as Scotts, makers of Miracle-Gro (expensive).


Hands sifting through potting soil in a garden bed; photo by M. Tullottes.


The plain potting soil offered at the big chains is often very low quality stuff not worth the savings. The middling priced stuff is better quality soil, but it almost always has synthetic fertilizer mixed in. Paying extra for the greenwashed version is more likely than not giving your money to a corporation that doesn’t need it, but wants to crowd out honest competitors, because that is simply how big corporations operate. They’re cynically manipulating your interest in doing the right thing and your willingness to spend a little more to further that interest. It’s doubtful in that case whether spending the little extra does more for you the consumer than it does for their executives.


UNEP Stop Greenwashing Bayer
A protest sign hung over the sign announcing the 2007 International Youth Conference of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) in Leverkusen, Germany; photo by PhilippM2. The German pharmaceutical company Bayer manufactures neonicotinoid pesticides which have been implicated in the collapse of bee colonies worldwide.


There are excellent potting soils available without synthetic fertilizers from honest manufacturers, but chances are you won’t find them at the big home improvement chains. Your best bet is a locally or regionally owned farmers co-operative or garden center. The price will be higher than the green-washed version available at the big chain, but it’s quality will probably be better, and there’s the satisfaction of paying that extra bit to decent people instead of fat cat executives for whom a few dollars more means nothing other than another martini on their expense account. A conscientiously managed local garden center or farmers co-operative is a gardener’s golden nugget amid the commercial tailings of the big chains. The customer service is almost always better at the mom and pop places, and that alone can be worth the higher prices.


One purchasing option that people are turning to more and more, even for bulk items like potting soil, is Amazon and other online retailers. They have the widest selection of anybody, and often the best prices even after including the cost of shipping. It’s hard to deny that combination, and then add in the convenience of shopping online and it’s completely understandable why more and more people shop for everything at Amazon. Keep in mind how they treat their employees, however, and balance that with brick and mortar stores, especially the mom and pop ones, where you can see for yourself at least part of the operation and how it is conducted. What you put into the soil shows itself in the plants which grow from it, and what you put into your community will just as surely show itself sooner or later.
― Izzy