Scientists are still trying to figure out what’s causing CCD, or Colony Collapse Disorder, a plague that’s killing off millions of bee across the United States. Among the possible culprits are a virus, increased vulnerability to disease due to breeding, overwork (hives of bees are trucked around the country for months to pollinate crops), increased exposure to all kinds of insecticides, and perhaps even all of the above.
Whatever the cause, Aaron Hirsh says, the way to keep our crops pollinated could be simple: restore habitats for wild bees near crops that need to be pollinated.
As the swift expansion of feral honeybees across the Americas shows, they are not especially picky about their habitat; most anything outside of parking lot or vast monoculture will do. And for native bees, habitat could be restored to suit the needs of whichever species are exceptionally good pollinators of local crops. Bumblebees, for instance, are the best pollinators of Maine blueberries, whereas blue orchard bees work well for California almonds.
Hirsh’s idea is reminiscent of Michael Pollan’s proposals for decreasing the present monoculture in American agriculture outlined in his recent books.
Update: See also Beekeeping Backwards. (thx, david)
We’re running out of dirt. So says geologist David R. Montgomery in Charles Mann’s article about the perils affecting the world’s soil, including soil compaction in industrialized nations, drought in Africa, and erosion in China.1 Not that progress isn’t being made. Some of the farm land in Burkina Faso has been recovered by local farming techniques.
He assembled the farmers in his area, and by 1981 they were experimenting together with techniques to restore the soil, some of them traditions that Ouédraogo had heard about in school. One of them was cordons pierreux: long lines of stones, each perhaps the size of a big fist. Snagged by the cordon, rains washing over crusty Sahelian soil pause long enough to percolate. Suspended silt falls to the bottom, along with seeds that sprout in this slightly richer environment. The line of stones becomes a line of plants that slows the water further. More seeds sprout at the upstream edge. Grasses are replaced by shrubs and trees, which enrich the soil with falling leaves. In a few years a simple line of rocks can restore an entire field.
For a time Ouédraogo worked with a farmer named Yacouba Sawadogo. Innovative and independent-minded, he wanted to stay on his farm with his three wives and 31 children. “From my grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather, we were always here,” he says. Sawadogo, too, laid cordons pierreux across his fields. But during the dry season he also hacked thousands of foot-deep holes in his fields-za”i, as they are called, a technique he had heard about from his parents. Sawadogo salted each pit with manure, which attracted termites. The termites digested the organic matter, making its nutrients more readily available to plants. Equally important, the insects dug channels in the soil. When the rains came, water trickled through the termite holes into the ground. In each hole Sawadogo planted trees. “Without trees, no soil,” he says. The trees thrived in the looser, wetter soil in each zai. Stone by stone, hole by hole, Sawadogo turned 50 acres of wasteland into the biggest private forest for hundreds of miles.
Sawadogo’s method turned out to be a little too successful. Burkina’s government allows cities to annex nearby land and Sawadogo’s forest was recently snatched up by a nearby town. Don’t forget to check out the accompanying photos…this is National Geographic after all.
 Mann is the author of 1491, one of the most interesting books I’ve read in the past few years. ↩
Jared Diamond calls agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”. “With the advent of agriculture [the] elite became better off, but most people became worse off”.
James Kunstler lays out a gloomy and depressing energy crisis future in The Long Emergency. “Our lives will become profoundly and intensely local. Daily life will be far less about mobility and much more about staying where you are.”