There are no longer any bees in Volhynia

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There are no longer any bees in Volhynia

Richard Seymour

‘I mourn for the bees. They have been destroyed by warring armies. There are no longer any bees in Volhynia.
‘We desecrated the hives. We fumigated them with sulphur and detonated them with gunpowder. Smouldering rags have spread a foul stench over the holy republics of the bees. Dying, they flew slowly, their buzzing barely audible. Deprived of bread, we procured honey with our sabres. There are no longer any bees in Volhynia.’ —Isaac Babel, The Road to Brody

‘When Ra weeps the water that flows from his eyes upon the ground turns into working bees. They work in flowers and trees of every kind and wax and honey come into being.’ Salt Magical Papyrus

In the middle of lockdown, a dying bee visited us. It was staggering about the houseplants next to the kitchen window, scarcely able to move its wings. My partner mixed a solution of sugar and water, and poured some out on the tiles for the bee to drink. We watched, rapt, as it warily approached and dipped its proboscis into the pool of improvised nectar. Its tiny black tongue flicked out, like the stroke of a pen, this way, then that. It drank. It was shocked and furious to then be captured in a glass. It beat its wings frantically, frantically against its prison. Released outside, into the open air, it took manic flight up one floor, two floors, three, over the trees and far and wide.

Two thirds of the earth’s species are entomofauna, or insects. Like Darwin’s worms, they are historical actors. They make an enormous contribution to civilisation. Worms prepare the soil for cultivation. They feed us and, when we die, they eat us. Insects pollinate, control pests, sustain wildlife and recycle dead organic matter. They are a primary food for birds, amphibians, fish and reptiles, sustaining vital food webs. Among pollinators, while other insects are important, only the honeybee does the sort of work that sustains mass consumption. They pollinate buckwheat, broccoli, almonds, apples, cranberries, melons, blueberries, cherries, cashew, kiwi, turnip, coriander, watermelon, cardamom, macadamia, apricot, pear and raspberry.  In principle, we could live on corn, soybeans and rice, which don’t need pollination, but it would be an impoverished diet. A third of all the food we currently eat depends directly on such pollination. The Egyptians, who knew of only a fraction of this work, thought bees were divine.

The insects are dying off. They are dying faster than birds or mammals or reptiles. One million insect species are threatened with extinction. The total mass of insects on the planet is declining by 2.5 per cent a year. Such figures convey an artificial sense of clarity. There are huge gaps in human knowledge of the problem. The order of Diptera (flies) is ecologically important, but there is little work on those populations. It is only intuited, felt in everyday experience, that they are dwindling rapidly, dropping like flies. The problem of bee decline is better understood thanks to the panic over colony collapse disorder that began in the mid-2000s. The monitoring of honeybee populations, for example, shows that in the six months from October 2018 to April 2019, 40 per cent of US honeybee colonies disappeared. There is always some winter loss, but this was far bigger than usual. Over time, bee diversity has fallen by nearly a quarter. Some honeybee species are in immediate danger of extinction.

The capitalist discourse admits only of the commercial value of insects. In articles and books whose sales pitch is, ‘oh wow, bugs are so cool, I didn’t know they did that’, large and mostly arbitrary sums are attached to their contribution to the economy. The illusion here is that we can somehow ‘price in’ the value of these little workers to our economy, much as we aim to ‘price in’ the value of clean air and worker safety, or the damage caused by emissions. The result would be just another way of subsuming these life processes under the same law of value that is destroying them. Maybe, if insects are worth so many billions, we could pay a biotech company to look after them. The issue is life, not profit. The issue is civilisation, not capital. No insects, no human civilisation. If insects disappeared, society would start to disintegrate. They are disappearing.

Why should they disappear, where would they go? Extinction is unavoidable, even necessary from an evolutionary perspective. It is the handmaiden of natural selection. But the annihilation of species today has little in common with past extinctions. In those events, as Darwin put it, species would ‘gradually disappear, one after another, first from one spot, then from another, and finally from the world.’ They would be gradually driven to the end of existence through competition with another species. In the capitalist biosphere, life processes don’t have aeons to adapt to new environments. They have precisely two seconds to get out of the way before they are crushed under the wheels.

Amid the panic over colony collapse disorder, melittologists found not one cause of bee decline, but several related causes. To these, they gave the term ‘sub-lethal stressors‘. The work that bees do is ‘energetically and cognitively demanding’. This makes them susceptible to anything that impairs their memory, spatial awareness, nutrition and learning. And capitalist agriculture supplies several of these stressors. The main cause of loss of entomofauna is habitat loss, as wilderness is annexed and transformed into farmland. The crop monocultures that then arise on this land damage the nutrition available to bees, much as humans might be malnourished if we only ate olives. This makes them more vulnerable to disease or gut parasites which effectively steal their nourishment. And, thanks to the creation of global value chains, several viruses and pests that harm bees have been globalised. The pesticides that are then used to control the biological make-up of farmland, and the diesel fumes emitted by farmer vehicles and tools, disturb the bees’ brain chemistry. 

The final stressor, which may be decisive in the coming years, is rising temperatures. The growing number of unusually hot days is closely correlated with episodes of local decline and extinction where they occur. Higher temperatures also make it less likely that a new area will be colonised by bees. They are suffocating, sweltering, dying off in the heat. They are physically not adapted to the kind of world that global warming is producing. A world where the extreme heat is likely to be unliveable for billions of humans is also one in which the bees will perish.

In short, many of the same mechanisms that have plunged us into pandemic, and given us the worst crisis in the history of capitalism, are factors in extinction. It’s no good blaming irresponsible farmers. At every step, you see agribusiness trying to do what it is supposed to do, what is mandated to do, what it has a legal license to do, what it is morally required to do. It exists to seek out and exploit new seams of value. It will do so minimising costs, and maximising the return to shareholders. The moral axiom of capitalist civilisation is that accumulation is the best way, in the best of all possible worlds, to satisfy human needs. From this point of view, which disavows human dependencies on nature, agribusiness is a responsible global industry that fulfils its remit very well. 

Until now, it was possible to meet expanding consumer needs, to support expanding populations, to even diversify the diets of hitherto poor people, and not worry too much about who was making a profit out of it or how. One did not have to think that capital accumulation might one day, and forever, rob the taste of apples or raspberries from our mouths. Let alone consider that these precepts might one day destroy the conditions for life and civilisation as we know it.

About the author

Richard Seymour is a writer and broadcaster from Northern Ireland and the author of numerous books about politics including Against Austerity and Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics.

His writing appears in The New York Times, the London Review of Books, the Guardian, Prospect, Jacobin, and innumerable other places including his own Patreon. He is an editor at Salvage magazine.

His book The Disenchanted Earth: Reflections on Ecosocialism & Barbarism is published on 21 April 2022, available for pre-order now. 

You can order The Disenchanted Earth here.

Author photograph © Marta Corada

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