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Wednesday, 04 April 2007 00:00

Honeybees and hemp: Where did we go wrong?

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By Kathleen Lamont

I’ve got two cents to add to the honeybee dilemma. There are approximately 20,000 species of bees roaming around, out of which approximately 300 pollinate, and of those 300 most people can identify two — the bumblebee and the honeybee.

At the moment the honeybees are getting all the press because of their disappearance, which, like many things these days, is a result of our general lack of knowledge and respect for the way nature works. When we let nature do its magic, things work fine. When man decides he knows better, then we get bees that take a hike.

It is my opinion that because we domesticated their habitat and turned them into a commodity, we stressed their natural way of life. So I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise when they get weak and sick, don’t produce as much and eventually become diseased. Instead of letting the honeybees roam free to produce honey where they will, we have brought them to us, and consequently they have acquired mites, varora (due to importation of queen bees from infested areas of southeast Asia) and tracheal, whereupon we have placed insecticide in their hives which finds its way into the honey. Is this progress?

In the meantime, there are lots of wild bees, butterflies, humming birds and even bats that will pollinate for you. One bee in particular is touted as far more effective than the honeybee at pollinating fruit crops, and that’s the orchard mason bee or Osmia lignaria. You can create a habitat to attract more of them to your garden by setting out bee blocks for them to nest in, and you can provide food for them when they wake up in the early spring by planting the shrub Pieris Japonica around your garden. So, now you have a project. Study up on it and let’s give the honeybees a rest, so I can get you up to speed on my next topic, industrial hemp. And believe me, there’s not enough room in this one monthly column to do that, so I will attempt to give you the big picture.

Industiral Hemp, Cannabis sativa L. subsp. sativa var. sativa, also known as feral hemp or ditch weed, is the naturalized fiber grown in the U.S. for fiber and food until 1937. Marijuana, C. sativa subsp. indica, is primarly a recreational and medicinal drug and generally has poor fiber quality. The major difference is the tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC content of both plants. Industrial hemp generally contains 1 percent or less THC as compared to today’s sinsemilla, which averages 13.65 percent THC. Smoking industrial hemp would result in such ill effects as nausea and headache. Hemp grown for fiber has never contained psychoactive qualities.

The products of industrial hemp are interchangeable with those from timber and petroleum. The uses of industrial hemp are almost too good to be true. Here are a few: paper, construction products such as fiber board, plastics and polymers, textiles, furniture, automotive, paints and sealants, lubricants and fuel, food and feed. A 1938 Popular Mechanics magazine article touted industrial hemp as the “New Billion-Dollar Crop: Hemp is the standard fiber of the world...and can be used to produce more than 25,000 products.”

William Hale, a biochemist with Dow Chemical in the 1930’s coined the term “chemurgy,” stating that anything that can be made from a hydrocarbon can be made from a carbohydrate. Henry Ford produced an automobile sporting hemp fenders and fueled with hemp. America’s founding fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, both long-time hemp farmers, were strong advocates of a hemp-based economy for their new country.

Timing is everything, and in the 1930s both industrial hemp and petrochemicals were taking off and thus created a fork in the road. Due to the negative campaign struck by the oil interests and our government (i.e., films such as “Reefer Madness” and newspaper articles flaunting headlines like “Killer Weed, Marijuana, the Greatest Menace to Society Ever Known”), the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act was brought before the United States Congress and passed. The red tape created by this legislation virtually shut down the production of industrial hemp.

Industrial Hemp fell victim to the anti-drug sentiment of the time and by virtue of association we lost the most valuable sustainable crop of our time. According to an article in California’s most conservative newspaper, The Orange County Register, “Since 1937, about half the forests in the world have been cut down to make paper. If hemp had not been outlawed, most would still be standing, oxygenating the planet.” Alas.

Industrial hemp is a dream crop for farmers and the economy. The plant grows 6 to 16 feet tall in 70 to 110 days and yields 3 to 8 tons of dry stalk per acre. Since it grows tall and thick, it is self-mulching and chokes out weeds leaving a virtually weed-free field for the next crop. Since it is naturally hardy it does not need pesticides and its roots condition the soil. It adds value to the regional economy because the materials produced can be manufactured locally. Products such as clothing, foodstuffs, insulation materials, livestock feed, oil-spill absorbents, newsprint, and parachutes — it’s endless, really.

I could not end this column without giving a shout out to my feathered friends. For years, hemp seed, which is 25 percent protein, was included in commercial wild birdseed. Then in the late ‘60s when marijuana came into heavy use, it was eliminated altogether. Currently some seed packagers import a fertilized version of the seed, but most have omitted it from their mix due to high importing expenses. It is thought by some that our song bird population has declined in recent years partly because industrial hemp is no longer cultivated or grown in the wild.

Though it is grown and imported from other countries, industrial hemp had a brief renaissance in the U.S. in the 1990s, but once again it was shut down due to its association with its psychoactive cousin. Politicians simply do not want to stick their necks out on this issue, and look how much fun we’re having figuring out if we’re going to grow ethanol or create an energy station on every corner to charge our electric cars — neither of which is sustainable.

So if you were wondering about the connection between honeybees and hemp, here it is: While honeybees and hemp have a big role to play in the success of our survival and well being here on planet Earth, in our infinite wisdom the hand of man has manipulated them both to near extinction.

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