BY: ROB HOFFMAN
Louis Masai hates the label “street artist.” In fact he rejects any label or stereotype that corners him into a specific category. He doesn’t see himself as an activist either. Mainly, he just wants to include everyone in the conversation.
And his reasoning makes sense. Seeing a street canvasser stopping people to elaborate on “Varroa’s aggressive hemolymph thirst as a catalyst for global honey bee CCD” will probably result in you putting on your headphones and walking straight faced past them without a second thought. But walking by a city wall of enormous spray-painted honey bees holding picket signs and wearing purple crowns will easily warrant 30 seconds of quiet contemplation.
This is where Masai’s efforts are directed.
Recently, Masai embarked on the project, Save The Bees, that would make the disappearance of our world’s honey bees available to people who don’t have time to worry about conservation, or who are at least in the dark about the dire situation and how it stands to affect them personally.
The concept is simple: paint explosive murals on the walls of major city intersections, and grab the attention of urbanites with a medium they can relate to.
Masai’s murals have become popularized in a number of major cities—including Glastonbury, Bristol, New York, Miami and New Orleans—spray-painting walls with giant bees on vibrant backgrounds, including slogans like “When we go, we’re taking you all with us!”
Of course, Masai is alluding to the near-certain death of humans following the extinction of honey bees. This is a very real, and very time sensitive issue, with a U.S. National Agriculture Statistics report indicating a 60 percent drop-off in honey bee population between 1947 and 2008. The correlation between the livelihood of humans and honey bees is simple: honey bees are responsible for approximately 80 percent of global plant and flower pollination. This means that 70 out of 100 crops essential to human nutrition are pollinated by these bees.
In an interview, Masai briefly identifies two root causes of the problem: Varroa mites and harmful pesticides.
Varroa mites are a parasite that date back 70 years, after western honey bees were introduced to the eastern honey bee territory. Though the parasite doesn’t seem particularly detrimental to the eastern honey bee, it’s become an issue for the more susceptible breed of western honey bees, who have been exposed to the parasite due to bee-transportation.
Basically, the function of the Varroa parasite in honey bees is to spread disease and viruses, and suck out their hemolymph (bee blood). These diseases and viruses would be relatively harmless on their own, but channeled through the Varroa mites’ direct access to the circulatory system, compromise the bees’ entire network of cells, deteriorating their immune system and health.
Another major issue contributing to the decline of honey bees is pesticide use. Last year, a Harvard University research paper connected the disappearance of honeybees to insecticides. The study tested the use of neonicotinoid, the most typically used insecticide, on bee health. Half of the colonies treated with neonicotinoid died. Alternatively, untreated colonies didn’t suffer any harm.
Elliud Muli, senior lecturer at South Eastern Kenya University and researcher at the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, identifies a third factor in the disappearance of bees—a lack of flowering plants to provide necessary bee-food, as a result of drought and climate change.
“Our East African honey bees appear to be resilient to these invasive pests [Varroa mites]…Some of our preliminary data suggest that the loss of habitat and drought impacting flowering plants, from which the bees get all their food, may be the more important factor driving these declines.” Says Muli.
However, the issue cannot be reduced to one—or even three—specific factors. Rather it is a combination of multiple factors that create a downwards death-spiral for bee population.
In a paper from the French National Institute for Agronomic Reseach, Yves Le Conte and Maria Navajas explain how climate change factors might encourage mass-migrations and behavioural changes in bees, which isn’t a huge problem if they are able to properly assimilate to their new environments. However, it is most likely that, “Honey bees will also need to adapt to a whole array of predators, parasites and pathogens surrounding them. Not only will the relationships between hosts and parasites change, honey bees will have to cope with new stresses arising from trade-facilitated transfers of pathogens among honey bee species.”
As previously mentioned—and predicted by this 2008 paper—Western honey bees have had a difficult time adapting to the Varroa parasite and the pathogens than gain direct access to their circulatory system as a result.
It is then, in short, a clusterfuck of human-led factors that is currently killing off one of the Earth’s most valuable insect allies. From climate change, to pesticide use and general pollution we are not doing the bees, the Earth, and in conjuncture ourselves any favours by brushing it off.
For Masai, this is the precise reason for his Save the Bees project, with which—in full colour and mural-sized exclamation—he makes the issue pretty tough to ignore.
This kind of art we need more of—especially if it means a dwindling population of vest-clad twenty somethings lining your morning walk with cheery “excuse me sir, have a moment to discuss the bees!?”
If you’re looking to contribute to the survival of honey bees, an article in The Guardian by master beekeeper and past president of the British Beekepers’ Association, Dr. Ivor Davis, suggests a few ways to help save bees from disappearing:
1. Planting garden flowers—especially in urban areas
Single flowering plants and vegetables work best. “Go for all the allium family, all the mints, all beans except French beans and flowering herbs. Bees like daisy-shaped flowers – asters and sunflowers, also tall plants like hollyhocks, larkspur and foxgloves.” Says Davis.
2. Purchase honey from local supply
Show some support for local beekeepers and pay them for their hard earned harvesting and conservation efforts. Help beekeepers help the bees—buy local.
3. Give a beekeeper access to your garden
If you have extra space in your garden, get your local beekeeping association to hook you up with beekeeper and hive. Urban beekeepers without access to a proper garden appreciate having space to tend to their colony, your plants will appreciate the bees’ contribution, and you’ll appreciate eating a higher quality of food that comes as a product.