Monday, 24 November 2008

What is man's best friend?

The topic came up recently in conversation, which really is man's best friend?

Straight away the more adrenalin driven friends said that it was the dog. The dog is the only animal that will step in between us and an attacker and lay its life on the line for us, so it must be our best friend. Immediately I felt rapport with that point of view, I have cried, unashamedly, like a baby at the end of life of so many dogs that I shared a great love with.

Then others step in and say that it is the cat, the cat is continuously on guard around us, protecting us from all things that it can physically control, and warning us about other predators.

This awoke a feeling of sympathy from me, especially as I owe my life to a cat.

As a child of about 6 months of age, my mother put me in a playpen outside on the lawn outside our home to enjoy the sun and play to my hearts content. Smuttsy, our cat, as usual took up a guarding position at the edge of the lawn and the day drifted along.

The house was in the married quarters at the Royal Norwegian Airforce base at Kjevik, near Kristiansand in Southern Norway. When, suddenly, my mother heard screaming from the garden from both me and Smuttsy, and she dashed to the kitchen window to see a huge viper on the lawn trying to get to me, with Smuttsy attached by her teeth to its head and shaking it as hard as she could. I was cheering on Smuttsy, with no understanding of what was happening.

My mother dashed outside clutching a broom, and upon seeing her approaching as well, the viper gave up it foray and desperately retreated to the woods with Smuttsy still hanging on, screaming and spitting, until she emerged a few minutes later, swaggering over her triumph. Since then, almost every cat I have lived with (never owned a single one of them) was named Smuttsy, I could do no less for my babyhood saviour, and so it must be my best friend ever?

Then again, someone else turned around and said that man's best friend is the honeybee. That sounds a bit extreme I thought, but then I was given the facts.

Some 250,000 species of flowering plants depend on bees for pollination. Many of these are crucial to world agriculture. Bees increase the yields of around 90 crops, such as apples, blueberries and cucumbers by up to 30%, so many fruits and vegetables would become scarce and prohibitively expensive.

In addition, many of our medicines, both conventional and alternative remedies, come from flowering plants. And cotton is another essential product pollinated by the bee, so we could say goodbye to cheap T-shirts and jeans.

But it's not just the human race that would suffer. Spare a thought for the poor birds and small mammals that feed off the berries and seeds that rely on bee pollination. They would die of hunger and in turn their predators – the omnivores or carnivores that continue the food chain would also starve. We could survive on wind-pollinated grains and fish, but there would be wars for control of dwindling food supplies. South America's ancient Mayan civilisation is thought to have died of starvation.

Although other insects and animals do pollinate – such as bats, butterflies and even wasps – none is designed like the bee as a pollinator machine. Who would want a world without honey, flowers, and third of everything we eat including chocolate and coffee? Not me. There are 20,000 bee species around the world including solitary bees, bumblebees and honeybees. Many are monoletic – pollinate one plant – others like bumblebees and honeybees are polylectic. While bumblebees live in colonies of a few hundred, the sheer number of honeybees in a hive – up to 50,000 in the summer - and their ability to be managed, manipulated and transported by man makes them the most valuable pollinator.

Unfortunately all bees are already under serious threat. Industrialised farming with its monocultures and pesticides has destroyed biodiversity and robbed the majority of bees of their habitat and food. While across the globe, the western honeybee – bred for its gentle nature and prolific honey making and pollination – is plagued by parasites and viruses, and also jeopardised by modern agricultural practices. More than a third of honeybees were wiped out in the US this year by Colony Collapse Disorder, a mysterious disease which is thought to be a combination of these assailants.

Bee populations are in free fall, and a world without bees would be totally catastrophic for mankind. The bee advocates maintained that the work done for us by the bees, and the fact that they do not harm us in any way, unless they feel themselves threatened, makes them our best friends, and we should be doing everything in our power to save and allow then to prosper as one our very best friends.

And that's how I left the question of man's best friend. I have loved and laughed with my dog and cat life companions, I can never do that with the honeybee, but I can treat it as my most valuable co-existing friend. I leave lavender flowering into the winter to give them late food and I have other plants flowering early to give them feed before the main crops burst into flower. It is just a question of becoming aware of the unique relationship we have with the honeybee.

Another friend, who is a bee-keeper, seemed surprised that not everybody thinks this way.

No comments:

Post a Comment