"Inch by inch, row by row,
Gonna make this garden grow…
Till my body and my brain
Tell the music of the land."
It was mid-afternoon on May 16 when more than 30 activists began arriving at San Pablo Park. The crowd was greeted by the lyrics of David Mallett's "Garden Song," performed by the guitar-wielding, guerilla trio known as Occupella. Passersby could tell this was not your average Berkeley demo (as if there were such a thing). First clue: Half the crowd was dressed up as bees.
This West Berkeley park was the staging ground for a self-declared human "Bee-in at Bayer." The goal: to call attention to the chemical maker's role in producing a pesticide linked to "Colony Collapse Disorder," a mysterious syndrome that suddenly turns once-healthy hives into empty shells devoid of bees.
"Our entire ecological system depends on pollinators," the organizers noted in a handout. "Ninety percent of our food crops are pollinated by bees." Occupella underscored this point by breaking into another song that chorused: "For every third bite of food, thank the bees."
In addition to protestors in bee-garb, several people showed up in full-body beekeeper suits, complete with netted hats. Turns out they really were beekeepers. Underneath one wide-brimmed and netted hat was Kathryn Gilje, co-director of the Pesticide Action Network. Asked how her backyard hive in Oakland was faring, she replied: "The bees are doing just great. Producing lots of honey." Not every hive is so lucky as to have a member of PAN as a caretaker.
Another less-fortunate local bee-host explained how she became concerned when her own local community of backyard bees suddenly started to spiral into decline. Her research led to the discovery of two neonicotinoid pesticides—Imidacloprid and Clothianidin. Both are currently among Bayer's best-selling products.
The trade-off could not be clearer. While the EPA's review of neonicotinoid hazards is due to last through 2018, one third of the country's honeybees are continuing to vanish every year. As an emailed call-to-arms from the Berkeley East Bay Gray Panthers put it: "We can't afford to play the odds with extinction so that Bayer can continue to make exorbitant profits."
Bayer recently made good on a seven-year-old promise to halt production of Class 1 pesticides that threaten human health but has done nothing to reduce or halt the production of Clothianidin and Imidacloprid, both of which target "social insects" like bees.
(A passing thought: Have you ever wondered whether pesticide companies intentionally create tongue-tangling names for their products? It certainly makes it hard to complain about a chemical if you can't even pronounce it.)
Back at the park, new volunteers, who arrived dressed in black, were being wrapped in circles of yellow ribbons that turned their black-bloc regalia into a rough semblance of apian attire. A few more heartfelt speeches and we were ready to march off to bee-devil Bayer the Slayer. The plan was simple: make a beeline for the Bayer plant on Ninth Street and "Swarm!"
A parade of people bedecked as bees is certain to stir up enthusiasm from neighbors and drivers and, sure enough, horns were tooted in sympathy as the colorfully bee-decked activists flashed signs reading "Honk If You Like Bees." One protestor was spotted holding a placard that read: "WASPS 4 BEES. White Anglo-Saxon Protestor Against Bayer." Another protest sign drew attention to Bayer's historic role as a major chemical weapons maker for Nazi Germany.
At one point, someone in the parade began singing, "All we are saying is: Give Bees a Chance." It caught on immediately. In between the chorus, the marchers also gave bees some chants (thanks to the family of one young agitator who stayed up late into the night crafting the following shout-outs): "Our Food System's Fallin' without the Bees' Pollen"; "Bees for Our Nation, Not for your Corporation"; "No Bees, No Farms, No Food"; and the inevitable "Whose Bees? Our Bees!"
As the bee-dazzled throng passed the Good Vibrations shop on San Pablo, a reporter pointed out the company's motto, painted on the front door: "Creating a buzz since 1977." Shouts of "Join us!" ensued.
While Bayer's Berkeley facility doesn't make Clothianidin, it's a fair target for anger directed at the parent company. When no one at the plant offered to meet with the circling swarm of drum-banging activists at the closed side gate, several organizers delivered a short speech and symbolically presented Bayer with the "Poisoned Heart Award." The prize took the form of a disgusting-looking plastic sack stuffed with lumps and oozing a thick coating of Hershey's chocolate sauce.
The swarm then took flight and alighted at Bayer's nearby Main Gate for a die-in.
One by one, the bees shook, stumbled, and fluttered to the ground. Their final, ad-libbed cries were poignant enough to elicit tears among the bystanders.
"But… I don't WANT to die!" moaned one young woman as she collapsed on the pavement.
"My honey!" another woman cried out, "I haven't finished making my honey!"
As the bees sprawled silent and unmoving on the asphalt, bystanders looking past the metal gate blocking entry to the plant noticed a strange, sinister-looking cloud of vapor. It rose from behind a building and wafted slowly across the facility, driven by the evening's breeze. Below the cloud, two solemn protester stood holding a large banner. It read: “Mystery Solved! Bayer Is Killing Bees.”
Pesticide Action Network, www.panna.org