His cherished text “The Fable of the Bees” is undermined by the fate of our modern pollinatorsby Julian Baggini / May 10, 2020 / Leave a comment
In 1714, philosopher Bernard Mandeville set out in over 400 lines of doggerel the most enduring argument for the value of the free market. The Fable of the Bees tells of a hive full of selfish, deceitful, mean-spirited insects. However, the consequence of each looking after their own was a thriving community. “Thus every Part was full of Vice, Yet the whole Mass a Paradise”.
Subtitled Private Vices, Public Benefits, The Fable of the Bees anticipated every argument made since for the virtues of not just tolerating selfishness and profiteering but celebrating their productive power. Gordon Gekko could not have summed it up more succinctly when he proclaimed that greed was good in Oliver Stone’s Wall Street. Mandeville even celebrated the value of pointless, brash bling, saying that “luxury Employ’d a Million of the Poor, And odious Pride a Million more.”
It is therefore grimly ironic that a contemporary tale about bees, this time no mere fable, exposes the fatal flaw in Mandevillian laissez-faire. A little over 300 years after Mandeville held up the bees as an example to humans, we’ve found ourselves seriously stung.
Worries about declining bee populations have been around for several years now. Without pollinators, the world would face an unprecedented food crisis. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, “Three out of four crops across the globe producing fruits or seeds for human use as food depend, at least in part, on pollinators.”
However, this is not simply a problem of preserving wild populations of bees. Much of the pollination is done not by wild bees, but hives bred specifically for this purpose. It’s a huge business: one US beekeeper interviewed by the Financial Times has 75,000 hives alone. Beekeepers transport these hives, often over vast distances, to do their work at critical times in the season. In North America, queen bees are often imported from Australasia and South America. Travel restrictions due to Covid-19 mean that most of these hives cannot be moved and many crops will simply fail.
But why is there any need at all for such a strange trade? Because modern agricultural methods, with their frequently sprayed monocultures, lack the biodiversity for little other than the crop itself to survive. The pollinators have been wiped out in the fields, and so have to be…