The ironies of my previous profession are not lost on me. As a committed waste avoider, I always felt a bit of a fraud having to negotiate energy from waste contracts, which rely on abundance of municipal waste. Similarly, though my job involved negotiating rights and obligations based on concession, license or property rights, I never doubted that the things that really matter have absolutely nothing to do with ownership, as two recent developments reminded me yet again.
The painful duty of a pet ‘owner’
Zoë, our affectionate moggy, has been very ill, sucking Mr M and me into a maelstrom of emotions. A preliminary examination suggested a problem in her large intestine and by the time the results of her blood tests came back, the vet thought it prudent to organise a scan and X-ray. Checking a pet into hospital for tests into a possible tumour in the colon is pretty nerve-racking at the best of times; doing so on the anniversary of mum losing her battle with bowel cancer felt like the universe was playing a sick joke on me.
Scans and X-rays turned into an endoscopy and biopsy and the days of waiting crawled by. Being a walking stereotype (i.e. childless couple dotty about our cats), we visited Zoë daily, watching her increasing disinterest in food but not in tickles or cuddles. The sadness at seeing our cat so ill and the hollow emptiness her absence left at home mingled with the agonising knowledge that at some point we might have to do the kindest thing and let her go.
As the days went by, the vets judged surgery to be the best course of action. It went well and Zoë seems to be through the risky recovery phase. We are delighted that our little companion is back home again and settling into her normal routine, which in true feline fashion revolves around food and sleeping.
Alas, we have also learnt that her cancer is aggressive. For now we are enjoying her subdued company for as long as she is comfortable and she is returning our kindness with trust and cuddles. However, we remain painfully aware that in the coming weeks or months we face the most painful duty that accompanies the privilege of being a pet ‘owner’…
Stewards of bees
It is, of course, very easy to feel responsible for the fate of a cute animal that enters the home and nestles itself into the household. But what about other animals, like the ones I may not keep?
Mr M, indulgent of many of my domestic and gardening antics, has drawn a line at a beehive in the garden, and rightly so. Having seen my ankles and wrists double in size with mosquito bites, he is taking no chances with my hyperactive immune system. Of course, I do not need to keep bees to feel a responsibility for them, which is why I, like many others, was bitterly disappointed on 15 March.
A European Union proposal for a ban of three neonicotinoid pesticides failed to muster the necessary majority. (My own government abstained despite significant public backing for the ban.) The 2-year moratorium was proposed in response to increasing scientific evidence that these systemic insecticides are contributing significantly to the decline in bee populations. With many plants and nearly three quarters of all food dependent on pollination by bees and other insects, the disappearance of bees would not just be a great loss of biodiversity, it would be a human tragedy too!
Although neonicotinoids are intended to control pests (e.g. aphids and leaf-eating beetles), they can be ingested by bees as plants often absorb the locally applied pesticide and transport it to other areas, including the flowers. Manufacturers dismiss the risk to bees and other pollinating insects on the basis that any doses ingested via pollen or nectar are sub-lethal. However, research has shown that even a tiny dose can adversely impact bees’ behaviour and that multiple sub-lethal doses accumulate in a bee’s system over time.
Many gardeners and allotment holders like myself, as well as smallholders and organic farmers, are extremely aware of our role as bee stewards. As such we not only avoid synthetic pesticides, we actively plant bee friendly flowers to feed them. However, despite us cultivating a patchwork of safe-havens, bees remain at risk from neonicotinoid poisoning as they are are not constrained by nominal boundaries, flying several miles in search of food.
The unsuccessful attempt to ban three neonicotinoid pesticides is very disappointing but fortunately it is not the end of the road. And if anything, it has fired up us bee stewards to keep the pressure on! The European Commission is appealing the decision so the ban could yet be passed. Moreover, we are not just relying on politicians to give bees a fighting chance. In the UK retailers (from large chains to small garden centres) are starting to respond to campaigners and take neonicotinotoid-containing products off the shelf. And focus is now shifting to gardening magazines with bee stewards writing to publishers about their advertising policies in respect of these pesticides.
A call to arms
The fate of a well-loved cat is extremely distressing to me, a “moggy guardian”, but even in the midst of my sadness, I am aware that the fate of anonymous bees is of much greater concern for humanity. So please join me and other stewards of bees. Grow some bee-friendly plants or the green manure phacelia; sign this petition; write to your local politician or minister of agriculture to urge your government to support the EU ban*; ask your garden centre why it is stocking any of these products; or email the publisher of your favourite gardening magazine to ask why it advertises neonicotinoids!
* This post is written from a European perspective but the issue is not limited to Europe. E.g. in the United States, beekeepers and campaigners are taking the Environmental Protection Agency to court for failing to protect pollinating bees from toxic pesticides. (New Scientist, 22 March 2013)