Saving Seeds, Feeding the World & the Vanishing Bees

I have friends on both sides of the whole “colony collapse disorder” situation with honeybees. I have two friends; both named Karen, who produce honey. Both have suffered losses to their hives, which seem to be growing worse.

Recently I watched “The Vanishing of the Bees”, a documentary on the situation and it was really hard to see grown men in tears as they discussed the extent of their losses. It was personal. They clearly have a connection with their bees. I actually didn’t finish watching it since, like all documentaries, it got too depressing.

On a related, seemingly unrelated topic, here is a picture of my corn this year taken the first week of July. I know, it’s kind of pathetic, all staggered with big gaps … it’s the “Motley Crew” of my garden.

organic saved seed corn

It looks bad for a number of reasons. I save my own seed, which means that fewer seeds actually germinate. Commercially sold seed is treated to make sure it germinates consistently. It’s also rough looking because I stagger the planting, hoping that by having successive plantings I’ll maximize the number of weeks I have fresh corn for our CSA members.

The third reason for the gaps in the rows is pests. The bulk of the damage was done by cutworms … obnoxious caterpillar-like demons that live in the soil and find anything green once it reaches about 2” at which point they lop it off. In a perfect world I can spot them from the holes in the rows but when running a CSA I just don’t have the time to get to everything. I replant those sections the cutworms have trashed but it’s often too late for the replant to amount to much, so holes remain.

This photo is what ‘real’ corn looks like. This is what corn looked like in the pioneer days … hence the title of our book “Little House Off The Grid.” This is what most corn would have looked like prior to World War II at which point chemical companies switched from producing chemicals for the war effort and turned their attention to our domestic food supply, which would have been largely organic at the time.

This is what a field of my friend Eric’s corn looks like. I took this several days before I took the one of my corn. Kind of makes me feel like a major loser. Well, not so much a loser but someone growing within the limits of nature. I am in awe of what commercial farmers with commercial seed are capable of. This is why the world population has grown from 3 billion in 1959 to 7 billion 54 years later. It was all made possible by chemicals and fossil fuel based ‘cides’.

erics corn

There have been many articles on the issue of disappearing bees. The bulk of scientists believe that neonicotinoids, a pesticide on corn seeds are chiefly responsible. Needless to say the corn growers association talk about the dollar cost if we were to stop using this class of pesticides. Here’s a link to one of the recent articles;

And this is where it gets difficult. Do you want to feed the world or do you want to have the fruits and vegetables pollinated by bees? This is where it gets really dicey for politicians. I would do what Europe has done and ban this class of pesticides. If the price of corn goes up, so be it. Since a great deal of corn ends up being cycled through animals it would raise the price of meat so people would eat less, which would be better for their health and according to the United Nations really reduce their contribution to climate change through methane emissions.

A lot of hard-core green people see a monoculture field of corn or soybeans and wheat as a bad thing. I look at a massive field of corn, all the same size, without a single cutworm fatality, and I am in awe. I do see the down side to this type of agriculture and if we don’t scale back or eliminate neonics, cereals, which don’t need bees to pollinate them, will be all we’ll be eating. Don’t get me wrong, I love cereals. I structure my diet around them. I call myself a ‘wheat-a-tarian’ (or a pizza-a-tarian). I love bread, and pasta and anything made from wheat. Sub-buns…veggie burger buns. pizza… But I also love fruit and so many of the other tasty green and colored things that bees play such an active role in growing.

We’ll need a new perspective on what a field of corn ‘should’ look like though if we stop using some of these chemicals. I’m going to get the ball rolling by announcing the first annual “Ugliest Corn Field in North America” competition. I’m a little slow off the mark promoting it this year, so I’m the only entry but it doesn’t matter, because with a field of corn as ornery looking as mine, I was going to win hands down anyway.

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After publishing this blog post, reader Jim Cherry sent us this photo with this explanation. Thanks Jim! That’s some really tall corn!!!

“This is my father’s crop of corn he (standing in the foreground) grew on new ground back in 1936 at a place about 60Km inland from Byron Bay, the most easterly aspect of Australia. This was open pollinated corn and before the days they knew anything about chemical pesticides or fertilizers.”

old corn crop

7 Responses to “Saving Seeds, Feeding the World & the Vanishing Bees”

  • Jim:

    Hi Cam And Michelle
    I too am concerned with the plight of the honey bee. I have a hive which took me 3 attempts to get established due to summer heatwaves and poor nectarial supplies but finally got it up and running. Depending on the season, I can get between about 15 and 40Kgs of honey each year. Being concerned with CCD, I hope to be able to keep chemical and disease problems away from my bees.
    With your corn, I think it is a good crop considering the prevailing issues you have. You will probably notice that the ears of corn near the gaps will produce heavier crops than those where they are thickly populated. When the crop gets to head high you wont notice the gaps. At least you admit that you have had problems, a lot of people wouldn’t even acknowledge they grow corn. Having an even crop like your friend’s crop might indicate he has some sort of control over it. I do grow corn every year but only in small quantities just to feed my family, unfortunately I can’t eat it.

  • Hi Ron & Mari! Yes, we actually use toilet paper rolls around some of our plants to protect them from cutworms but unfortunately it just isn’t a viable solution for things like corn and beans etc. It would take us days and days to protect each little seedling. So as Cam says, we overplant knowing we will lose some to cutworms and we try to be vigilant about spotting cutworm damage and digging out the little pests! ~Michelle~

  • jon:

    If corn was only grown the way you do it, we wouldn’t have the craziness of high fructose corn syrup, food for fuel, or grass eating animals consuming “feed”.

  • Ron & Mari (Chicago):

    Cutworms must reach all the way around the circumference of a plant stalk just above the soil level in order to inflict their unique damage. Gently placing a nail, match stick, plastic straw etc. into the soil immediately adjacent to the emerging plant stalk prevents Mr. Cutworm from from wrapping all the way around the emerging stalk due to the increased circumference of the now two stalk system. He’s usually too short for the task. This used to work for my dad’s tomato plants etc. in his Arkansas garden. Perhaps it will work with emerging corn stalks eventhough it’s labor intensive.

    Your neighbor’s corn is a beautifully disguised alien designed not to terrify the natives before it has insideously infiltrated the entire system and wrought its destruction.

    FRANKENFOOD and the unintended consequences of excessive COMPLEXITY!

  • Gerrit:

    Great “food for thought” Cam. Best wishes to the team during the dog days of August.

  • Kate:

    This is the first year I tried growing corn in central Alberta. It has done amazingly well because we have had some nice hot temperatures after our long cold wet spring. Maybe we will actually be able to eat some|

    I have also watched and read about our bee problem. I would rather pay high high food prices than watch us extinguish a species!


  • tiffany:

    I think I have you beat. I only have 12 plants but they look like Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree did, so I win!

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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