Thursday, September 24, 2009

Pumpkins and Pollinators: Part Two

So where is the dark side of the pumpkin?

In her delightful and devastatingly educational book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver advocates eating fresh, locally grown food as much as possible.  She comments on the absurdity of the fact that people in droves buy pumpkins for their Halloween jack-o-lanterns but then throw them away after Halloween and buy canned pumpkin for their Thanksgiving pies.

I maintain that the global food market is at least as evil as global warming and indeed contributes greatly to it, but because our food is almost as close as our breath, the big picture can be hard to see.  For a better idea of it, go to  Click on some of its resources links - but be forewarned - it may change forever the way you feel about eating a banana.

The other dark issue I'm thinking about today, because I'm thinking about pumpkins, is the pollination crisis.  Which is, of course, unavoidably intertwined with the global food crisis.

Stephen L. Buchmann and Gary Paul Nabhan, authors of the The Forgotten Pollinators, say that bees of the genera Peponapis possess superior ability to pollinate pumpkins and others in the squash family.  In fact, these "squash" or "gourd bees" show up at the crack of dawn, when blossoms are first opening, beating out honeybees by about half an hour.  They also visit squash blossoms more often than other pollinators, and are, according to the authors,  "strong fliers that frequently move pollen between far-flung plants of the same species, thereby promoting genetic diversity."

But these bees are in decline for a number of reasons, including pesticide use and habitats disturbed by human activity.  Most commercial pumpkins are now pollinated by domesticated honeybees, but there is still often an inadequate number of pollinators, in which case farmers resort to hand pollination.  Artificial insemination, if you will. 

The message of The Forgotten Pollinators is that the relationship between pollinators and plants is so important and delicate that if one declines, the other often will too.  And therefore so will we.  It's not much of a stretch to imagine how the overall ecology of the planet is affected by the myriad of such relationships.  And this is the point, really - that the problem is not just extinction of species but extinction of relationships.

I love honeybees, but their domestication and humanly created ubiquity is a major contributor to the decline of native pollinators.  Kind of like how Wal-Mart puts the Mom-and-Pop grocery out of business.   And when you personally know that sweet couple, Mom and Pop, it pisses you off all the more.  The squash bee and blossom are a sweet couple too:
Pollen-covered gourd bees spend lengthy periods of time perching, grooming, and waiting on the massive gourd stigmas--behavior never observed among honeybees, nor among other native bees for that matter.  These are secretive little lives that feed us.

And when we mistreat these little lives, the repercussions may suddenly cascade in from unknown directions.  (from The Forgotten Pollinators)
It's food for thought, no?

Now don't get me wrong - I still sometimes buy convenience and fast foods, and my household consumes way too much coffee to always go the fair-trade organic route.  And I still regularly buy bananas for my toddler's breakfast, even though the amount of fossil fuel required to get them to the local grocery store is outrageous.

But I've made little changes, here and there, and they add up over time.  It's like the advice you always read about starting an exercise program or diet - don't try to change it all at once; you'll just get overwhelmed and give up altogether.

I just want to keep making these changes, keep growing my awareness of The Way It Is.  Get to know the birds and the bees and all my other enigmatic neighbors, and as much as I'm able, to love them as myself.


  1. Quite enlightening. You've caught me just in time...I just bought a pumpkin for jack-o-lantern purposes, for a costume party I'm having. Perhaps I can enlist my dad's help in using it for his pumpkin pies instead of buying a can of pumpkin like we usually do...[sheepish look]...

    That's quite amazing. All this time I had no idea there were such things as "gourd bees" or "squash bees." They sound like admirable little buggers, too...preening the blossoms, tending the fields as it were. It is incredibly easy to forget the consequences of one's actions, for there are so many, so seemingly insignificant, that ripple on you. It's a shame that innocent bystanders like these bees get caught up in those consequences.

  2. Well, at least you don't buy the whole pie.

    The truly awful thing is that the entire planet gets caught up in the consequences.

    Not to sound too Lion King, but we all just need to be more aware of the web of life, the connectedness of everything.

    And not just because we need to "save the planet" but because it's fun and inspiring to discover and explore all the interlacings.

    So what are you dressing up as for your party? Or will you be blogging about that?



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