After an unfortunate bee-killing incident, I did some research to learn more about the anger I experienced from animal activists.

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In the grand scheme of things the death of a single bumblebee is of little consequence. Or it would have been but for the intervention of a bunch of wild-eyed animal rights activists who targeted the manager of a U.K. store specializing in amazing hand-crafted silver jewelry.

I first got to know the kindly and gregarious Greta when I settled in the UK seaside city of Brighton in 2002. After relocating to Spain in 2010, I would always make a point of visiting her when I was on business trips to the U.K. to see how well her business was doing—and to treat myself to a fabulous new item of jewelry.

It was just before the Covid lock-down that I last visited the store. It was just before Christmas and I paused to admire Greta’s very stylish window display. Upon voluminous layers of white netting she had laid out her tastiest wares, then completed the stunning display with two potted hyacinths.

Big mistake!

Attracted by the flowers, in flew a bumblebee, which promptly got itself trapped between the layers of netting. Greta wasn’t aware of its presence until a young woman stormed in off the street, and aggressively demanded that it be liberated. Both Greta and I tried to free it, but it was clear that this could not be done without dismantling the entire window display.

I told the angry activist that it was Mission Impossible, and that the bee appeared to be on its last legs anyway. She then fired off a warning: “If that bee’s not freed in ten minutes I will be back with friends and we’ll pull your display apart and trash your store!

A panic-stricken Greta managed to find a long stick and tried once more to get the bee out. “Give it up, Greta,” I said. “Just give me the stick and I’ll put it out of its misery. If the lunatics come back we’ll just say it died of natural causes.”

She was appalled by my apparent callousness, but I assured her that the critter appeared to be close to death and I would be doing the right thing. After she reluctantly agreed I used the stick to send it to Bee Heaven.

I waited to see whether the woman would follow through on her threat. She certainly did, with around eight people, all in their teens and early 20s.

Before they could enter the store I intercepted them on the sidewalk, and ordered Greta to lock the door behind me. That’s when things got ugly. One of the male activists pinned me against the store window, pointed at the dead bee, and sprayed spittle in my face as he screamed “murderer, murderer!” Another punched me in the gut. A third aimed a kick at my left shin.

At that point, the police arrived, and the mob was dispersed. My fear, and that of Greta’s, was that they would return and smash the store’s window. Mercifully that never happened.

I have to confess that, at the time of the incident I had no idea that passions were running high in the U.K. over the fast diminishing bee populations. So in an effort to understand the anger of the activists—fury so great that it turned them into raging beasts—I immediately did some research and learned from Friends of the Earth that the plight of bees is being directly caused by a number of threats.

These include habitat loss, climate change, toxic pesticides, and disease. The interaction between these makes an unpredictable future for bees and many other pollinators. These threats have led to nearly 1 in 10 of Europe’s wild bee species facing extinction.

Changes in our land use, including insensitive urban development and intensive farming, have caused significant losses and fragmentation of pollinator-friendly habitats. This results in bees losing the diverse food sources they need for a healthy diet.

It’s vital that bees have enough flowers to forage—and safe places to use for nesting, among vegetation, the soil and hedges. But since the Second World War, we’ve lost 97% of our wildflower meadows, leaving our bees with little natural habitat.

Photo credit: Laura Arias via Pexels

Here I should point out Friends of the Earth are currently running a petition calling on the U.K. government to stop pesticides contaminating the countryside and food, and harming wildlife. To date, almost 240,000 people have signed it.

Similar threats exists in the U.S. to bee populations, bumblebees in particular. According to a 2021 report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the American bumblebee was once common in open prairies, grasslands, and urban areas across most of the United States but has experienced a rapid and severe decline.

Over the past 20 years, it has disappeared or become very rare in 16 states; overall, observations of the bee have declined by nearly 90 percent!

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said:

The species’ decline has been the result of multiple concurrent threats, including habitat loss, pesticides, disease, climate change, and competition from (non-native) honeybees. Pesticide use, especially the widespread use of neonicotinoid insecticides, reduces survival and harms reproduction as well as bumblebee immune systems. And weakened immune systems make the bees more susceptible to diseases that are spread by domesticated bumblebees and honeybees.

It’s not only in the U.S. and the U.K. that are experiencing a decline in bee populations. The trend, sadly, is global, and is yet another indicator of the damage we continue to inflict on our planet.

The death of one bee, as I said, may be of little consequence. But One Earth explains that the disappearance of many species of bees has dire consequences because wild bee pollination is fundamental to the reproduction of hundreds of thousands of wild plant species, and is key to securing adequate yields in about 85 percent of food crops.

All the information I gleaned about bees gave me a better understanding of the behavior of the Brighton activists. But I still feel that theirs was a gross over-reaction, one that indicated that the legitimate concerns some have about wildlife preservation do not always extend to the welfare of humans. The matter could have been resolved in a far more civilized manner.

Sure, collectively we have done untold damage to our planet, but intimidating and attacking two caring, animal-loving septuagenarians is no way to make the earth a better place, either for wildlife or for humans.

Upon learning that, as individuals, we can help—albeit in a small way—to bring back bees with plants attractive to them I began populating my balcony in Spain with flowers rich in pollen and untainted by pesticides. It was my way of showing some contrition for having killed the Brighton bumblebee. Now some are now making it all the way up to my 31st floor apartment.

Photo credit: Barry Duke

Veteran journalist and free speech activist Barry Duke was, for 24 years, editor of The Freethinker magazine, the second oldest continually active freethought publication in the world, established by G.W....