On a normal spring day bees cluster on willow catkins, filling the air with buzzing. But last year the bees were few and far between. I began to worry we might have a silent spring.
Thing is, native and bumble bee populations are declining. For those of us who like to eat, this is a problem because bees pollinate 75 percent of the fruits, vegetables, and nuts grown in the United States – about $3 billion worth of crops each year. Plus, they pollinate plants and fruit trees that provide food for birds and other wildlife.
Rebecca E. Hirsch dives into the pollinator crisis in her most recent book, Where Have All the Bees Gone? She begins her tale by taking the reader on a field trip to find Franklin’s bumble bee, once common in Oregon and California. That bee hasn’t been seen since 2001, and it’s not the only bumble bee in decline either. In her book, Rebecca highlights what can happen when wild bees disappear. For example, decades of pesticide use in apple orchards in Sichuan, China, killed off the natural pollinators. Now farmers have to pay workers to climb ladders and hand-pollinate the blossoms using paintbrushes of bamboo and chicken feathers.
So I caught up with Rebecca by phone a few weeks ago. Had she intended her book to be an activist call to action, I wondered?
Yes, she said. “I wanted to embrace the more activist part of environmental writing. I wanted to appeal to emotion and encourage people to take action.” So she turned to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring as a mentor text, reading and re-reading passages to see how Rachel put words to the page.
Inspiration to write about bees came while volunteering at a local pollinator garden. It was eight years ago, Rebecca said. “At first I worked there because I wanted to see the butterflies. But all the master gardeners talked about were the bees, so I started to pay attention to them.” When Rebecca planted native plants in her own garden, she noticed the bees visited every day. The butterflies? Only occasionally.
When she heard hints about bees in trouble, Rebecca began learning about the Rusty patch bumble bee. It was the first bee to be put on the endangered species list, “and that was when I decided to do a book about bees,” she said. Rebecca also spent time at a rural school. One of the teachers works with his class to convert a strip of grass into pollinator garden every year.
As a nonfiction writer, Rebecca feels most comfortable with facts. “I had to learn that it’s okay for people to have a point of view.” As she read other writers, Rebecca decided that she needed to figure out how to imbue her writing with a more activist voice. “We need to be shouting about the environmental stuff,” she said, referring to climate change and other issues. “Even if you’re not an environmental writer, find a way to work environmental concerns into your story.”
You can find out more about Rebecca at her website.