Leaving Candyland

By Liza Field

Humans want the sweet life. It’s an endearing, useful instinct that has kept our kind — like nectar-seeking bees — alive through the ages. But today, our sweet tooth appears ready to kill us off — along with those bees.

It’s not just about corn syrup sodas, funnel cakes and diabetes, but also a mental blip. We humans (unlike bees) have the unique cognitive ability to remove our platefuls of reality from their larger context and cling to them, with no regard for the whole.

So it’s easy for us, if ungrounded in larger wisdom, to believe the sweetness-and-light we crave can be sustained exclusive of any darker reality or any sobering responsibility for a world more ancient and profound than a short sugar high.

This mental disconnect works great for advertisers. And not just the ones promoting the Big-Swig-and-fries combo.

Our sweet tooth is gullible to an abundance of denial-marketing and go-back-to-sleep assurances disguised as journalism, think-tank assessments and “we-care” nonprofits.

These op-eds, reports and pundits assure us, for example, that our various environmental crises are mere illusions — “alarmist junk science” and “dubious at best.” Really there’s no problem with water contamination, chemical toxins or declining species; everything’s great!

The bliss craver in the human mind wants to agree, escape the bitter tonic of bad news and go back to sweeter scenarios. It’s how Big Tobacco deceived smokers for decades, funding pseudo-research and think tanks to tell people nicotine was benign — indeed, part of a balanced lifestyle!

The results of those sweet assurances were bitter, as many smokers obligingly ignored the “junk science,” continued the habit and died prolonged, difficult deaths.

Sugar-coated news has become an expert marketing ploy. Today, it’s at work for another nicotine-based business — pesticides.

Named for their key ingredient, “neonicotinoids” (or “neonics”) are the most commonly used pesticide in the world. Growing criticism has called for their ban, as mounting research continues implicating them in the planet’s alarming bee declines.

Contact with this insect-neurotoxin can kill bees directly. But lesser amounts, distributed throughout a plant and its blooms, will scramble a bee’s brain and nervous system, leaving it unable to navigate back to its hive and weakening its immunity.

Compounding the problem, neonics persist for years in soil. They get continually taken up by plants, where they bloom into more sweet-looking toxic lures for pollinators.

Grub-killing lawn treatments often contain neonics that saturate soils, poisoning many beneficial organisms, including firefly larvae and beetles. The pesticide then gets absorbed by clover, violets and other blooming plants that kill pollinators as well.

Neonics also leach into waterways, killing aquatic life. And a study conducted by renowned toxicologist Pierre Mineau, who included the industry’s own unpublished research in his review, found neonics deadly to birds.

In 2013, the European Commission banned three neonics pesticides and is reviewing others. Beekeepers, gardeners and environmental groups have called for the EPA to do likewise.

Home Depot announced in June that it will begin requiring its nursery suppliers to label neonics-contaminated plants by the fourth quarter of this year. It is looking into eliminating them altogether.

Pesticide giants Bayer, Monsanto and Syngenta are also taking action — not by dropping the neonics, but changing public opinion about them. All three companies have been gifting universities and bee researchers with sizable donations to sweeten the research pot and better direct its focus away from these pesticides.

Monsanto, whose agricultural seeds are coated in neonics, formed an official Honey Bee Advisory Council, its board helpfully stacked with Monsanto executives. Meanwhile, the Bayer Bee Care Tour vehicle, full of attractive, flowery brochures, has been traveling to ag forums and universities across the United States.

These handouts explain why bees’ real problem isn’t pesticides but rather the Varroa mite — which Bayer is working to eliminate with a new pesticide. The consistent, appealing message is that the public can relax and lie back among the flowers; pesticide makers have the bee problem covered.

“Not to worry,” Mr. Bumble the beekeeper tells little Toby, in Bayer’s charming children’s book, “Toby and the Bees.” As the wise authority figure, Mr. Bumble waves off Toby’s childish concerns about bee health. The bees’ only problem is the mite, which Mr. Bumble can helpfully exterminate with “special medicine.”

It makes for a happy ending — and a sweet bedtime story. So do most ads, PR talk and political assurances geared to send stirred-up people back to sleep.

But maybe it’s not the right time on the planet for humans to be asleep — much less agreeing to such a profound lights out.

Liza Field (LField@wcc.vccs.edu) is a teacher, hiker and tree-planter who writes from Southwest Virginia. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

About Liza Field 19 Articles
Liza Field (LField@wcc.vccs.edu) is a teacher, hiker and tree planter who writes from Southwest Virginia. Her columns are distributed by Bay Journal News Service.