Monday, June 20, 2011

To Bee Or Not To Bee: Interview, Part One.

I'm really excited about our second Do Something Good Giveaway. Partly because I get giddy at the thought of sharing this special find with you, lovely readers, who I love almost as much as ice cream, but also because I've partnered with a wonderful company to bring it to you. Win-win!

I was recently put in touch with Mark Tanney, the marketing and internet manager for Honey Girl Organics (HGO), a family-run business based on the North Shore of Oahu, Hawai'i. Mark very graciously offered to send me a boxload of HGO products to sample, and if I liked them (which I really did - I'll tell you why in a sec.) he wanted to work together to bring you a very special giveaway.

Apart from being impressed with the fact that HGO skincare products are organic and made from a very simple blend of raw ingredients (that's why I liked them - that and the fact that they make my so-sensitive skin feel happy), I was also impressed with  Mark's passion for his cause.  Very early on in our correspondence, Mark told me that he wanted to raise awareness about honey bees and Colony Collapse Disorder.  CCD refers to the phenomenon of worker bees from a colony inexplicably vanishing, which eventually kills off the entire beehive. Mark is far more knowledgeable and articulate when it comes to explaining how devastating CCD is, and after exchanging many emails with him, I decided that the best way to get his message out to you was to do it in his own words.

I had the chance to interview Mark via Skype last week (my first time interviewing someone, it was all that and a can of beans). Read on to learn more about Honey Girl Organics, the bees that make HGO products possible, and the sobering facts about Colony Collapse Disorder. Stay tuned for part two of the interview tomorrow, followed by the Do Something Good Giveaway & challenge beginning on Wednesday.

Anthony Maxfield, one of the three co-founders of Honey Girl Organics

Obligatory Disclaimer: The views expressed in this interview are those of Mark Tanney, who is not a scientist, doctor or bee-researcher. Even though he does sound like one. I was not compensated to do this interview, or to publish positive statements about the company and their products but chose to do it after being impressed with Mark's knowledge and passion about the subject matter, and after trying the product samples and wanting to share them with you.
Is it true that the Honey Girl Organics began when one of the owners made a creme for his wife? It sounds like a very sweet story!

Yes, it is true, and the “wife” is my sister, one of the founders of the company. They moved out to Hawai'i over 20 years ago onto a property on the North Shore. It had some beehives on it and my sister’s husband decided to see if he could keep the bees, rather than getting rid of them. At the time, his purpose was just to get honey out of the hives a couple of times during the year. He would regularly come back from working with the beehives with really soft hands. My sister asked him if he could do something to make a creme out it, and that’s how it all started. It was a very long process over many years of doing different things with the bee products, it was gradual, and not a commercial approach. By the time they started the business about five years ago along with another friend, they had a number of products in hand.

What attracted me to Honey Girl Organics was the fact that they are made with just a few very simple, natural ingredients. There is even a line on your website that mentions the “edible factor” of your products. Can you tell me more about what that means?

Using natural ingredients was a part of the process of research by Anthony (the beekeeper). A lot of the ingredient choices were made on the basis of what people have been doing since ancient times, confirmed by what scientists are saying now. Many ancient peoples wrote a lot about the beneficial properties of bee products.

The edible factor is really important because there is a lot about the skin that is a two-way street. It’s not just that we sweat and otherwise eliminate toxins through the pores, but the skin also takes in and absorbs what you put on it. Chemicals and toxins that are in most skincare products do get absorbed into the body, through the skin. Just think about how things like nicotine patches and birth control patches work. So you don't want to put something on your skin that you wouldn’t want inside your body. We’ve also found that the natural ingredients that we use have really beneficial effects on your skin as well as being safe for the body.

I’m a mom of two young children and the idea of having products in my house that are safe, natural and non-toxic is a priority. But the fact that the ingredients used in HGO are readily available in nature, that they haven’t been overly processed or changed really speaks to me.

Yes, definitely. I think more and more, people are aware of that these days. You know, when I was growing up, all the standard products on the shelf were just what everyone used. You had the idea that if it was a skin care product available in a store, it must be okay or else they wouldn’t sell it. And we have certainly learned a lot since then.

Going back to the bees then, I think it’s safe to say that bees are the lifeblood of HGO, correct?

Yes, it's definitely based on bee products, and it is definitely how the company began.

In some of our earliest correspondence, I was immediately struck by your passion for honey bees - preserving them, caring for them, spreading knowledge and education about them too. You once wrote to me that you had “bee fever”, and that bees do so much good for everything they contact. Can you expand on what you meant?

The star of the show is pollination. Without that, the world wouldn't be anything like we know it to be. The bees, to me, are the ultimate win-win game in action. It's true that what bees are doing is for their own self-interest. If they pollinate more plants, then next year there are lots more flowers and the bees can get the nectar and pollen that they need to thrive. But it just so happens that pollination is also the best possible thing for the rest of the world as well. Pollination is the key to life, and bees are the number one pollinators.

When I say “bee fever”, there are two aspects to that for me. The first part is just marveling at something that is more finely tuned than a Swiss Watch. Every single thing about the beehive is exactly right for it’s purpose. The bees just do everything they must do to make it absolutely perfect. They have been practicing being bees for tens of millions of years. Part two of bee fever has come as I’ve learned more and more about how absolutely critical bees are to life on earth. The situation is more serious than people seem to realize. Everyone's attention these days seems to be on the many other important issues - the economy, the environment, global warming, etc. - but the loss of the bee population may be the most serious of all.

You’re of course referring to Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. I didn’t know this before I talked to you, but CCD is a huge, potentially world-changing issue. It’s my understanding that nobody knows why the bees are just literally disappearing from the hive.  Tell me why Colony Collapse Disorder is such a crisis, and what it will mean for us if CCD isn’t halted.

CCD is a crisis because without the bees, there is no pollination. Right now, all the commercial bees in the United States are packed up in semi-tractor trailers and are taken out to pollinate our crops. For example, they are taken to California just to pollinate almonds, so every almond you eat is made by this process. Without bees to pollinate, almost all the food we eat will disappear. There are some foods that are pollinated by wind, like oatmeal, and those limited crops would remain if we lost the bees. But not much else would survive. Almost all of our fruits and vegetables certainly would be gone from the face of the earth. I hate to be the one sounding some kind of extremist alarm, but the predictions are that if we lose the bees, eventually the majority of the world’s population would die out.

It would be a catastrophe.

Yes, absolutely. And not just for human beings, but for virtually all forms of life. It’s a very serious thing, and up to now, scientists just don't understand why the problem isn’t getting any better. Last year’s report shows that the same general trend is continuing. Once again about 30% of the hives disappeared in 2010/2011 (the report Mark is referring to is the latest USDA Survey Report on 2010/2011 Winter Honey Bee losses). And that is bad. There is some level of loss of beehives that occurs naturally every winter, but the amount that is happening now is vastly greater than is sustainable, as far as maintaining our bees.

Am I correct in understanding that scientists don’t really know what is causing CCD, and that they think it’s actually a combination of factors?

That seems to be the general consensus right now. There seems to be a combination of overuse of pesticides, various parasites, viruses, and possibly many other factors. In the past, the bees have faced assault from many types of threats, and they were able to hold their own against them. But bees today are weakened by so many threats. One is the incredible use of pesticides. Bees are also suffering from a lack of nutrition, because when they go out to areas to pollinate, they have no variety at all in their nutrition. We talked about almonds; when bees pollinate them the almonds they have only one type of nectar from the almond trees. This mono-nutritional type of practice is further weakening the bees, and it's considered to be one of the burdens stacking up against the bees. Plus, there are other types of issues that could be playing into this that no one has figured out or considered at all yet. It’s just a combination of things that are really taking a toll on the bees, and they are really not able to hold up against this anymore.

I feel like the problem is so much bigger than just one tiny factor, that perhaps we are putting so much stress on the bees to begin with. Is it possible that we may have created this problem ourselves?

Oh, absolutely. I think that it’s clearly a human created problem. I believe it was in the Nature show you and I have talked about by email (Mark is referring to an episode of the PBS show Nature, called Silence of the Bees. You view the full 50 minute episode here), they mentioned that if the farmers would just set aside a certain portion of the acreage for the almonds and put different types of vegetation on their land, then the bees would have something to sustain themselves all year long. Right now, when the almonds are not flowering, there is nothing whatsoever for the bees to eat. It’s like a desert, so no wild bees can live in that area anymore. They could solve that problem.

So how hard would it be to mandate something like that?

That’s a good question. Another question is, why should it have to be mandated? Farmers themselves are close to the earth. Farmers should understand these things. Why are they needing a mandate to do that? They clearly must see what is happening here, why don’t they just do something about it on their own?

There was one part in Silence of the Bees that painted a picture of what would happen if bees disappeared. It was absolutely stunning. There is a small village in China where the bees have inexplicably vanished, yet they still needed to cultivate their produce of pears. They were hand pollinating, which was just...crazy. Can you tell me if that’s a feasible thing for us to do here?

That was amazing to see, wasn’t it? They are managing right now to sustain this entire area that is famous for it’s pears by literally hand pollinating each and every pear blossom because there are no bees left there. They make these little feather wands and dip it into the pollen and then brush it on each blossom.

Yes, and what struck me was that there were hundreds of villagers doing the job of just a handful of bees. It costs so much money and takes so much more time.

True. And they were also saying how the young people of the village are not seeing hand pollination as a part of their future life, so they are all going to the cities. And it will not be sustainable to continue with hand pollination in that area much longer. What it could come down to, if we lose the bees to a level where we can not sustain our food, is that people may have to put aside most pursuits in life and get to be hand pollinating a lot of our food just to survive. It’s hard to say whether or not it’s feasible, it probably comes down to a choice between either doing that, or things changing drastically on earth.

I do hope that it doesn’t come to that. But as you mentioned, the numbers are really sobering. The report you mentioned (the latest USDA survey report) says that levels are holding at rate of loss of 30% for the past few years, what does that mean?

You are correct. At least the rate of decline is not getting worse. But, even if the rate of decline continues at 30% loss of hives per year, and even if it doesn’t get any worse, it is still completely non-sustainable and it will crash the bee population.

So let’s talk about solutions. Is there anything that the Average Joe (or the not-so-average person who wants to change the world) can do to help save the bees?

Yes there are some things that can be done, and there are indications in some areas that these things are really making a difference in bringing the bees back to a healthy level. So it’s absolutely possible.

Feeling a bit overwhelmed? Yeah, I was too. But there ARE things we can do to help. Please come back tomorrow to read the second half of the interview, where Mark and I discuss the simple changes we can all make to help save the bees. Let's do it together - let's Do Something Good.
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