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Sunflowers, Bees Collateral Victims In Effort For Clean Safe Food – OpEd


Fifty Christmas seasons ago, much of this city and the Cordillera provinces’ woodlands, valleys, glens and landscapes were beautifully carpeted with golden wild sunflowers (Tithonia diversifolia). Wild bees abounded, pollinating wild and domesticated flowers, ensuring genetic evolution.

Today, the sunflowers are sparse, the fields ugly, pockmarked by human touch as thousands of the plants are cut and killed intentionally two months before every Christmas season. Considered by apiculturists as the best sources of nectar for wild and domesticated bees alike in this part of the country, the plants are being killed resulting to the loss of billions of bees, the world’s best pollinators.

A quote often ascribed to Albert Einstein but without no known proof says, “If the bee disappears from the surface of the earth, man would have no more than four years to live” highlighting how vital bees are to the survival of of plant and animal species on the planet, including humans.

Use of Sunflowers as Fertilizer, an Indigenous Know-how

The wild sunflowers, native to Mexico, are being cut in the Cordillera region to be used either as green manure or composting material for the production of organically-grown vegetables.

Unwittingly, farmers intending to satisfy consumers’ growing demand for organically-grown safe and nutritious vegetables cut thousands of the plants from September to November and compost these as organic fertilizer. This allows them to make a killing in the market when they harvest their crops near Christmas and New Year, the seasons when vegetables are in their peak demand.

Locally called “marapait”, the wild sunflowers use as rich fertilizer can be traced to the indigenous knowledge of the natives of Mountain Province.

For hundreds of years, they have used the plant as basal fertilizer, incorporating these in rice paddies together with pig manure and composted rice straw. Many farms in Mountain Province grow sunflower hedges as sole source of nitrogen fertilizer. Sunflower biomass decomposes rapidly after application to the soil.

The use is not without scientific basis. Then Philippine Department of Agriculture have found that sunflower leaves have high nitrogen content (2.9 percent oven dry weight) and that a ton of fresh sunflower can yield as much as 60 kg of nitrogen fertilizer. Nitrogen is the most basic fertilizer element needed by crops.

The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (UNFAO) and the International Center for Research in Agroforestry (ICRAF) say wild sunflower leaf biomass is high in nutrients, averaging about 3.5% nitrogen, 0.37% potassium and 4.1% phosphorus on a dry matter basis. This means the high nitrogen content is good for green plants.

Wild sunflower is a robust herbaceous and bushy perennial that grows up to 3 to 4 meters tall. Branches are stout, with hollow stems. The plant produces large flower heads with bright yellow to golden petals.

How Are Bees Affected Adversely?

The manner and process how honey is made is one of God’s wonders science can’t duplicate.

Worker bees, after hibernating on the rainy and stormy months of June to September, start foraging for nectar and pollen on October. It is also on these months that sunflowers bloom with overflowing nectar. Nectar is the sugary liquid found in flowers. Worker bees using their long, tube-shaped tongues sip the nectar from the flowers and store this in their crop. While sloshing inside the bees’ crop, the nectar mixes with enzymes that transform its chemical composition making it more suitable for long-term storage.

Apiculturist Nelson Palispis who trains farmers in this province explained in one of his trainings, “When a worker bee returns to the hive, it passes the nectar to another bee by regurgitating the liquid into the other bee’s mouth. This regurgitation process is repeated until the partially digested nectar is finally deposited into a honeycomb”.

It does not end there. “Once in the comb, the nectar, still a viscous liquid, is fanned by the bees using their wings to speed up the process of evaporating any water. When most of the water has evaporated from the honeycomb, the bees seal the comb with a secretion of liquid from their abdomen, which eventually hardens into beeswax. Away from air and water, the honey is stored indefinitely, providing bees with the perfect food source for cold and rainy months, “Nelson elaborated.

Unfortunately, just as the bees time their nectar foraging from September to December, these are also the months when hundreds of farmers engaged in organic vegetable growing, cut thousands of sunflower plants to death, harvesting these be composted as fertilizer. As a consequence, the bees are deprived of plants rich in nectar. The bees are forced to forage on other plants mostly vegetables sprayed with deadly insecticides resulting to the death of millions of bees.

New Zealand-based apiculturist and former chief beekeeper of Saint Louis University’s Beekeeping program here Jose Bandiwan lamented “Benguet is the country’s worst user of dangerous pesticides, this uncontrolled chemical abuse is killing everything—bees, birds, beneficial insects, the soil, water—it is practically a biocide.”

“With the wild sunflowers, bees have a chance on foraging on non-poisoned sources of nectar, but when you kill the sunflowers the bees are forced to forage on vegetable flowers laced with chemicals, killing thousands of bees everyday,” he deplored.

Worldwide, the Malaysia-based Pesticide Action Network(PAN) says billions of bees are being wiped out due to pesticides yearly, and honey tests reveal worldwide contamination by bee-killing pesticides. It warns of ecological Armageddon if the dramatic fall of inset numbers don’t abate.

Nelson is one of the fortunate beekeepers in the province, his bee colonies are situated in the village of Anchukey more than 1,500 masl opposite Mount Pulag, far from farms and surrounded by thousands of sunflower plants.

A Need for A Mutualistic Understanding

Jose believes it is senseless depriving bees of priceless sunflower nectar and people from appreciating the beauty of sunflowers. He likewise avers beekeepers and organic vegetable growers to benefit alike from sunflowers and bees. “Apiculturists and organic vegetable growers must agree on a timetable that allows bees to forage nectar before the sunflower plants are harvested to be composted, most likely the months of September and October. Organic vegetable growers can cut the sunflower plants after those months,” he proposed.

“Organic vegetable growers can also harvest plants that have finished blooming. On one hand, farmers and beekeepers must not merely depend on the resources without sweat, they must plant more sunflowers,” he added.

The idea led the government of New Zealand to support a Project Marapait in Benguet aimed at increasing bees for pollination at the same time intensifying planting of sunflowers. The project, implemented by the Cordillera Ecological Center has put a shot in the arm to beekeeping in the province.

Today, the sunflower plants may be less than before, the bees foraging may be fewer but Nelson says there is light ahead of the tunnel. “Nature has a way of healing we hardly understand if we don’t do our part. Planting those that give life is not nature’s sole responsibility, we must do our share,” he quipped.

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Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan

Dr. Michael A. Bengwayan wrote for the British Panos News and Features and GEMINI News Service, the Brunei Times, and US Environment News Service. In the Philippines, he wrote for DEPTHNews of the Press Foundation of Asia, Today, the Philippine Post, and Vera Files. A practicing environmentalist, he holds postgraduate degrees in environment resource management and development studies as a European Union (EU) Fellow at University College, Dublin, Ireland. He is currently a Fellow of Echoing Green Foundation of New York City. He now writes for Business Mirror and Eurasia Review.

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