By Heather Swan
Illustration by David Wilson
Heading southeast on a two-lane highway out of Madison, Wisconsin, the houses grow sparse and the sky expands, and you are soon surrounded by the most dominant crops grown in the midwest: seed corn and soybeans. Recently, I drove this route through July-high fields on my way to Pied Beauty Farm in southern Wisconsin. I had been invited to the farm by its owners, Josh and Kerstin Mabie, to talk about the connection between bees and land.
The Mabies are not farmers by training. They are part of a trend of young professionals who have chosen to start farming on the side, or as a shift in vocation. They see this as a way to live closer to their ideals and help create a more sustainable way of growing food. After acquiring this land, they tilled up acres of soybeans and planted apple trees, hops, and prairie plants. They have plans to get honeybees in the spring. My book, Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field, prompted them to invite me to take part in their educational lyceum series; they hoped some people would show up to eat farm-fresh food and talk about how to help honeybees and other pollinators.
I spotted the place from a distance, up on a small rise—a classic red barn, a small white farmhouse, and a huge garden filled with orange, red, and pink zinnias bordering a wild field of white Dutch clover, field grasses, and volunteer wildflowers—a distinct shift from even patterns of green. I was met on the gravel driveway by two enthusiastic ambassadors, the farmers’ young children, who suggested I park in the grass. Their parents were in the kitchen preparing salads and pizzas for the guests. Slowly people arrived: a teacher from the local school; a couple who had just purchased some goats; some college professors who knew Josh; a woman curious about attracting bees to her yard.
Pied Beauty Farm was the perfect setting to discuss issues facing pollinators. Looking out in one direction, we could see acres of tidy, even rows of soybeans, the verdant triumph of industrial agriculture, and in another, we saw apple trees, flowers, and a field of organic clover.
Our relationship to pollinators is complicated; humans need bees and other insects to pollinate much of our food and keep our ecosystems thriving, yet the way we grow this food is contributing to their decline. Our industrial agricultural landscapes are an ongoing threat to the health of pollinators, but changes in land use—like those on display at Pied Beauty Farm—may offer a saving grace.
If you spend much time with honeybees, you will be confronted with the complex interconnection of insects, flowers, and land. As a beekeeper, I know this firsthand. Honeybees must live in a collaborative community to survive, and because they are intimately connected to the landscapes where they live, they need healthy forage and clean water. The colony lives in a small space, like a hive box or a tree, but because bees travel up to several miles for pollen, nectar, and tree sap, the honeybee “home” is far larger than the hive itself. The honeybee world is a web, connecting them with the plants, water, trees, and soil of the surrounding landscape.
Unfortunately, human activity has made these connections much harder to maintain. Honeybees—and insects of all kinds—are dying at an unprecedented pace. A study out of Germany, last fall, reported a seventy-five percent loss of flying insects over a period of twenty-five years, and another, from the University of Vermont, shows specific evidence of wild bee decline in the U.S. As Elizabeth Kolbert (among others) has described, we are in the midst of a sixth extinction. There are all kinds of reasons for this, including loss of habitat, climate change, disease, and pesticide use. One huge influence on the decline in pollinators, specifically, is the way much of the world farms.
The industrial agriculture model—also known as ‘conventional’ farming—is built on a combination of monocropping and chemical inputs. This is the dominant model, especially in the United States. It’s good for producing high volumes of specific products for an ever-growing global population, but is designed to sustain only single crops. When these single crops need pollination, millions of hives of managed honeybees are shipped in. Often, there is not enough biodiversity in the landscape to sustain them once they pollinate the crop, so they are often fed high fructose corn syrup, which has been shown to be bad for their health. In most fields, there are no other flowering plants for forage.
Honeybee nervous systems are intricate and sensitive. They can read the vibrations of another bee dancing a map to a flower, in the dark, by touch alone.
A recent report by the United States Department of Agriculture estimates that, in 2018, soybean crops cover 89.6 million acres of farmland and grain crops, like corn, exceed eighty-one million acres. “Producers planted 94 percent of the soybean acreage using herbicide resistant seed varieties, unchanged from 2017,” the report explained, and “Ninety-two percent of all corn acres planted in the United States are biotech varieties.” That’s a lot of area without biodiversity—and a lot of chemically-dependent crops. Often, genetically modified crops are developed to be resistant to herbicides. Other crops are designed to have systemic pesticides embedded in the plant itself, many of which persist in the landscape even after the plant has decomposed.
The damaging effects of pesticides and herbicides are well known. Neeonicotinoids, a class of pesticides which affect the neurological system of honeybees and other insects, contribute to pollinator decline. Imidacloprid and chlorpyrifos have been shown to impair the migratory patterns of seed-eating songbirds. An herbicide called glyphosate is known to disrupt the intestinal system of the honeybee. According to a 2016 study, “Since 1974 in the U.S., over 1.6 billion kilograms of glyphosate active ingredient have been applied, or 19% of estimated global use.” While this works for increasing yields, it isn’t good for pollinators.
Honeybee nervous systems are intricate and sensitive. Honeybees can read the vibrations of another bee dancing a map to a flower, in the dark, by touch alone. Their olfactory powers enable them to distinguish the scent of specific blossoms. Humans have even trained them to reliably detect diseases, drugs, and bombs. Their dexterity is crucial for grooming, for packing pollen onto their legs, for building honeycomb out of wax.
In my own life with honeybees, I have observed bees twitching uncontrollably after being poisoned, but often the effects of chemicals are not immediately observable. Some toxins disrupt insects’ gut bacteria, and damage from neonicotinoids happens incrementally over time. It is excruciating to imagine these gentle, sensitive insects suffering from a neurotoxin, knowing the implications of their sensory impairment. The result is clear: for pollinators, the monocropping system, with intensive chemical inputs, is not working well.
It puzzled me why people who work with land for a living—who understand its importance more than many of the rest of us—would use these products and farm in this way. I wanted to talk with a conventional farmer who could help me understand the conventional farm story, so I contacted an old family friend, Mel Gratton.
Mel is from the rolling hills of northern Illinois, a couple of hours due west from Chicago, and has been in the farming business since he was a boy. Mel and his brother farm six-hundred acres that have been in the family for more than 130 years. They raise corn, soybeans, and beef cattle. Mel is in the business because he loves farming—planting, raising calves, and experiencing (as his wife Vickie, a retired nurse, reminds him) the “ritual of renewal” each spring. He talked enthusiastically about how farming had evolved in his seventy years. The transformations directly related to technological advances and economic pressures.
Mel emphasized that farming used to be very hard work, physically as well as mentally. His grandparents pulled a plow with horses. His father’s first tractor did not have power steering. Much of the farm work was necessarily done by hand. Mel remembers the physical exhaustion he and his brother experienced after heaving square hay bales into the barn all day. “Today,” Mel marveled, “a tractor can be driven by GPS, and a combine can map changing yields as it moves across the field…The farmer can sit inside an air-conditioned cab and doesn’t have to have deal with climate conditions, like dust or cold, or biting insects.”
He sees both the positive and negative aspects of this. “You can farm all day now and go home and still have a life, because you aren’t completely drained. It’s more of a business now, rather than a lifestyle,” he says, “but that business supports a different kind of lifestyle.”
Success, with this method of farming, has a lot to do with scale. The equipment and technology are not cheap, and so a farmer needs a lot of acreage to support them. A good harvest from those acres needs to be reliable; many farmers are in deep debt. “[Farmers] can’t afford to switch to something like specialty market vegetables on a whim,” Mel explained. “They are pretty committed to commodity crops like soy, corn, or wheat when they have invested in this kind of equipment.” So how do you ensure the success of vast fields of one plant? The answer comes in the advances in crop science.
Mel explained to me how, before the introduction of Bt Corn, a genetically modified plant, the European corn borer would burrow through a corn stock and end up in the ear of corn, making a pathway for pathogens and decreasing crop yields. By filling the corn with a bacterium that would kill the insect, farmers had more successful corn plants. Roundup-ready crops were another invention. These crops are immune to the herbicides used to kill everything around the main crop, decreasing competition. Mel believes that crop science and technology have made it easier to feed more people with less work, and that this is a very good thing.
When Mel explained it this way, his logic and methods made sense. But still, I had reservations. I shared a story with Mel and Vickie about how helpless I felt when my daughter and I were sprayed by a crop duster, and how scared I was when she grew sick afterward, and one of the lymph glands in her neck grew to the size of a mango. Mel paused and nodded. He agreed that not all chemicals are good ones. And he was clearly familiar with the argument against pesticides and herbicides. “I am not against organic farmers,” he said. He thinks there is room for all kinds of farmers and styles of farming, but he says, “Everything is not so black and white.”
At the end our conversation, Mel talked about his commitment to stewardship of the land. He believes the land is a resource that he is using for his lifetime and says he hopes to improve it to the best of his ability. He practices no-till farming, for example, which helps keep land from eroding. He leaves corn stalks in the field so that they can decompose and return organic matter to the soil. He has areas of his land that are covered with forest, where many creatures can thrive. “This ethic of conserving the land for the future puts a tremendous pressure on everything I do,” Mel said.
I left our conversation with a new appreciation for the evolution of farming and a deeper respect for Mel, but I was still thinking about the bees and other insects—the foundation of our ecosystems, the pollinators of our crops, creatures I truly love. I sensed that many farmers had not chosen to use these pesticides and herbicides knowing they would be bad for honeybees—or humans. They chose them because they were a solution to problems in production, and, like DDT, many of these chemicals were seen as a boon when first produced. Now, we have more information, but the system we’ve created is hard to step out of.
After visiting Mel, I drove out to the Driftless area in Wisconsin—”Driftless,” they call this country, because the glaciers did not smooth it out. Driving into the Driftless, the roads get curvy and narrow as the hills multiply. Creeks and rivers serpentine through the valleys. Geographically speaking, it seems to make sense that farmers interested in smaller farms and more diverse crops would gravitate here. Many hillsides were covered in wildflowers, brambles, and trees, a haven for native insects. And yet, I still passed miles of soy and corn.
I was on my way to visit The Thimmesch Family Farm, at the top of a hill in the Kickapoo Valley watershed. The modest yellow house is home to Jason and Jennelle Thimmesch and their 4 children: Myra, Isaac, Genevieve, and Nanka. The Thimmesches have grit and fierce idealism. Before moving to Viroqua, they lived in a teepee off the grid into a Wisconsin winter. When they first moved to Viroqua, they worked as farm hands for a small CSA. The children were still very young when they bought this place—”in a dilapidated state”—from a struggling Amish family.
Part of the draw to Viroqua, for the Thimmesches, was a conversation and then an extended visit with Mark Shepard, who is known for his book Permaculture Agriculture: Real World Permaculture for Farmers. A workshop in biodynamic farming inspired them further. Biodynamic farming was developed by Rudolf Steiner, a scientist and philosopher who believed that the farm should be seen a “single, self-sustaining organism that thrives through biodiversity, the integration of crops and livestock and the creation of a closed-loop system of fertility.” He wrote extensively about his reverence for the honeybee and predicted a serious decline of bees around the world if we did not shift our mechanized view of agriculture and the natural world.
Jason said he and Jennelle were filled with “romantic idealism”, and their original vision was to go “all-in.” When an opportunity arose to work on an organic farm in the area as farm hands, they took it. Within a few years they were building their own dream farm. They had milk cows, sheep, chickens, honeybees, and a wide range of organic vegetables. They did everything by hand in the house and in the field with no electricity and heated with wood, all while homeschooling the four small children. The oldest children worked with their parents in the fields.
But agricultural fundamentalism wasn’t working for them. “I couldn’t live up to the ‘Ma Ingalls’ image,” Jennelle explained. So they rethought their farm dream, and she decided to start her own business in a nearby town. Jason explained he now focuses on three main certified organic crops for income: garlic, brussels sprouts, and cilantro. Part of the rotation involves planting cover crops like hairy vetch, buckwheat, and winter rye to add nitrogen and organic matter to the soil. He still maintains a smaller vegetable garden, raises sheep, fifteen laying hens, and a few steers to feed family and friends and create manure. While Jason still uses some biodynamic preps for the fields, like a nettle tea, or a concoction made of equisetum or horsetail, he goes against biodynamic principles by purchasing some manufactured organic treatments.
The permaculture influence can still be seen in a wooded section of his land that is covered in hazelnuts, apples, and American chestnuts. This acre is snuggled up next to a stand of maple trees, which produce syrup in the spring. There is even a small, unkempt vineyard tucked between two of the main fields. When staring at his land, I saw a rich tapestry of organic plants, habitat for a wide range of insects and birds.
I asked him about a wilder area, where I spot milkweed and Queen Anne’s lace. “Yes,” he said, “I leave this for the bees and the butterflies!” He no longer keeps honeybees, but between his neighbor’s hives and all of the mason bees and bumblebees around, pollinators are plentiful on his property.
The Amish have also made an impression on Jason. He still does nearly everything without mechanization. This year, he’s planted nine thousand brussels sprouts plants by hand and sold thirty thousand bunches of cilantro to places like Whole Foods and HyVee. He hires neighbors, including several Amish women and a few high school students from the down the hill, to help. Often, seven to nine people work together in the fields. Because Jason is out there daily, he knows the soil and the plants and the animals intimately and can respond when he sees an issue arise.
After lunch, Jason, Isaac, and I loaded the van with some boxes of brussels sprouts to make deliveries. One of our stops was Harmony Valley Farm. Harmony Valley consists of approximately three hundred acres and grows a wide range of produce for its fifteen hundred CSA members. Harmony Valley has addressed the decline of pollinators in several ways beyond simply farming without agro-chemical pesticides, including educating their members and giving out “Pollinator Packs,” which are collections of native plants, such as purple coneflower and blue sage, that are beneficial to these crucial insects. This felt encouraging—another example of a positive project.
With a new vision of farming and land use, perhaps we wouldn’t need to use honeybees as industrial tools. Maybe we can turn the tide of insect decline.
I’ve been collecting ideas like this for awhile. I thought of the blueberry growers I met while doing research for my book, who planted native flowers next to their berries and discovered that providing healthy forage for native bees and honeybees increased their yields. By attracting “beneficial insects” who prey on blueberry pests, they decreased their need to use pesticides. And I just returned from Amsterdam, which made the decision to plant organic flowers in all of the city’s green spaces—including beside train stations and along highways—and has seen, as a result, a forty-five-percent increase in native bee diversity and an increase in honeybee health.
Beekeepers have a role to play, too. Tom Seeley’s research has shown that honeybees are healthier when they are not intensively and chemically managed. We can use his findings to change our own practices to be less invasive and more respectful. And many entomologists I know are studying how native bees can pollinate as efficiently, if not more efficiently, than honeybees. With a new vision of farming and land use, perhaps we wouldn’t need to use honeybees as industrial tools. Maybe we can turn the tide of insect decline.
Before I left the Driftless, Jason and I stood on his farm, staring at his shy sheep. Jason became more philosophical. He talked about the life of the farm as a way to be a good steward of the land, to support his family, and to connect to his community—including pollinators. He is not sure if his children will continue farming here, but he seems confident someone will continue caring for this land.
I hope Jason is right. I hope that whoever farms this land in the future, if it remains a farm, will keep its balance of cultivation and wildness. There is so much evidence that if we strike this balance just right, things for both humans and nonhumans can improve.
On the road home, I passed hillsides covered with goldenrod under slowly reddening maples. I passed fields of corn stalks, gilded in the late light. I thought again about Pied Beauty Farm, Josh and Kerstin Mabie and their beautiful idealism, the healthy landscape they are creating. I thought about Mel and his belief in stewardship. Answers to the problems our planet is facing are not simple, and there is no simple fix. We need to work together to create a more sustainable plan for humans and nonhumans alike.
These days, the bees are gathering the last bits of available pollen and nectar in preparation for winter. Would the honeybees who live in my backyard survive this year? At this moment, I feel hopeful.
Heather Swan‘s nonfiction has appeared in such places as Aeon, ISLE, Minding Nature, Edge Effects, About Place, and Resilience Journal. Her book Where Honeybees Thrive: Stories from the Field, which narrates the multi-disciplinary response to honeybee and pollinator decline, won the 2018 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award. She teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Belt Magazine is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. To support more independent writing and journalism made by and for the Rust Belt and greater Midwest, make a donation or become a member starting at just $5 a month.