Unless you’re a Pacific Northwesterner or have a thing for bowtie-wearing, bicycle-riding lawmakers, you may never have heard of U.S. Rep. Earl Blumenauer—a Democrat who represents the city of Portland in my home state, Oregon. Likewise, you might never have heard of Rep. John Conyers, who represents Detroit; he is better known than Blumenauer, but still not exactly a household name outside of D.C. or Michigan.
However, if you like almonds, avocados, apples, cranberries, and a good percentage of the rest of the food you eat every day, you should be cheering this duo. Earlier this month, Blumenauer and Conyers introduced a bill intended to rescue America’s increasingly endangered bees—not because they are cute and fuzzy but because an enormous number of foods are dependent on pollination by them (as well as other insects). Bees don’t just make honey, you see. They also flit from flower to flower on the plants and trees that produce blueberries, nectarines, pumpkins, and more, transferring grains of pollen from the flower’s anther to its stigma, which is what allows those plants to go forth and multiply.
All of which makes it alarming that bees are currently dying off at a rapid pace. Between 2012 and 2013, U.S. beekeepers lost 45 percent of the colonies they operate to a scourge called “colony collapse disorder,” which scientists predict could cause widespread crop failures by as soon as next year. Why is this happening? One clear culprit scientists have identified is a particular batch of insecticides widely used on crops across the continent called “neonicotinoids.” Last month in a Portland suburb, more than 50,000 bumblebees died in a Target parking lot as a direct result of exposure to such a pesticide, which had been applied to a stretch of European linden trees.
That’s in Blumenauer’s district, and the congressman hopes these deaths won’t be in vain. The bill he and Conyers introduced would enact a temporary ban on all such insecticides until the Environmental Protection Agency devotes ample study to the pesticides’ true effect on pollinators and the secretary of the Interior conducts a nationwide study of bee mortality. “This is something that’s not particularly partisan,” Blumenauer told me. “What we’re seeing is the emergence of a large and growing sector of agricultural producers that realize the cost and consequences of this problem. People are also understanding that it’s cheaper and more effective to use nonchemical techniques.”
Blumenauer’s foes include the “Big Six” lobby of genetically engineered seed manufacturers, which have invested millions to develop seeds capable of withstanding the use of these pesticides. It’s a formidable opposition. What’s more, any legislation dreamed up by lawmakers on the left side of the aisle has a slim chance of survival in this right-wing House of Representatives. Still, even if the bill doesn’t pass, it’s at least possible that the awareness it helps create could shame the EPA into implementing some of these steps unilaterally. In the meantime, for those of you who typically think of bees as little more than a nuisance, ask yourself: do you want to live in a world without apricots, cherries, or plums? Nope, neither do I.