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Sydney Ross Singer


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POSTED: Friday, October 16, 2009

A medical anthropologist on the Big Island outraged that healthy honey bees are being killed by the state Department of Agriculture is sometimes derided for his criticism of Hawaii's “;irrational, unscientific”; efforts to eradicate non-native species. But that doesn't keep him from speaking up.

Years ago, Sydney Ross Singer argued that the state would never be able to eradicate the coqui frog and shouldn't spend millions of taxpayers' dollars trying. His advice to accept the nocturnal noisemakers fell on deaf ears, but he feels vindicated that the state gave up the fight this year on the Big Island.

And last summer, Singer railed against a state plan to introduce an insect to attack the strawberry guava tree, which crowds out native trees in some areas. While not an indigenous species, strawberry guava has been in the islands for 200 years and produces edible fruit.

Now Singer is opposing the state's efforts to control the lethal varroa mite by killing healthy swarms of honey bees, essential to the pollination of food crops and wild fruits and vegetables. According to its Web site, the DOA is creating bee-free zones around Hawaii airports and harbors in an effort to stem the spread of the mite, carried by infected bees. That the state lists honey bees as an agricultural pest, subject to eradication, especially alarms Singer, 51, who lives with his wife and son on about 70 lush acres near Kalapana.

As a medical anthropologist, with degrees from the University of Utah and Duke University, Singer studies how cultural attitudes, lifestyles and behaviors cause mental and physical health problems. Singer and his family live “;off the grid,”; relying on solar power and a water-catchment system, and have goats, sheep, horses, chickens, ducks, geese, dogs, cats and tilapia. Besides growing fruit trees, they enjoy wild fruit such as guava and thimbleberry.

“;I don't spray anything. It's just like eating from the bounty of nature. I think this is the healthiest lifestyle and I study lifestyle, that's my thing,”; said Singer, who is originally from New York City and moved to the Big Island 17 years ago. “;Because of my background, I don't take the abundance of nature for granted.”;

QUESTION: Regarding the honey bees, why are you interested?

ANSWER: Everybody should be interested. It affects our agriculture and our wild food. I live with my family on a nature preserve on the Puna Coast and we rely on growing our own food and know how important the bees are to that effort. Yet the state government is treating the honey bee as an invasive species. I think Hawaii in general is just not friendly to agriculture because of the prevailing invasive species hysteria and the view that the only thing in Hawaii that matters is native species. ... There's a conflict between agriculture and conservation and we have to have an environmental policy that allows both.

Q: How do you strike a balance, specifically on the honey bees?

A: I think to conserve our native forests we need to define areas that are weeded and managed and then let the rest of the island be. There's more to the environment than just native trees being preserved. ... A lot of the exotic species make our lives much more enjoyable, including the honey bee and the fruit trees that they pollinate. So instead of losing the honey bee, we should be going into areas where we don't want nonnative trees and managing those areas — set them aside like nature preserves or botanical gardens. ... Instead they have this policy to try to eradicate things, everywhere. ... Native trees are not the only thing that people want from their environment. (Commercial) farming and sustainability, being able to grow your own food, is absolutely important, and the honey bee is essential to that.

Q: Is the honey bee doomed in Hawaii?

A: If we left it to the government, with their ambivalence, their love-hate relationship (with the bee), it would be. ... But we're hopeful that resistant strains (resistant to the varroa mite) will develop and repopulate our islands (with bees).

Q: Has your own vegetation been affected?

A: Not yet. The mites are just moving into our neighborhood area, but they are spreading islandwide, so we know they'll be here eventually. And what's really disturbing is that the government is still promoting a policy of killing healthy bees in these swarm traps. There's no excuse for that, no rationale for killing healthy bees.

Q: What is their rationale?

A: They say it's to test for mites, ... but that's not necessary. It's possible to check for mites without killing all the bees. It's really just for the convenience of government workers to bag up the swarm and kill it rather than take it to a hive or give it to a farmer or someone who raises bees. And there are volunteers willing to do this, but they are being discouraged by the Department of Agriculture.

Q: Do you raise bees yourself?

A: Yes, my son rescues wild bees from places people don't want them, like walls in homes ... and brings them here, where they are wanted. It's nice having your own honey and pollination service, especially if you are growing fruit trees and enjoying the bounty of the island.

Q: What kind of food do you grow?

A: We grow a variety of tropical fruits, coconuts, mangos, lychee, bananas, almost everything you can imagine. It's wonderful.

Q: Where do you live?

A: We have about 70 acres near the volcano, in Puna. ... Most of it we're preserving as rainforest. It's a wildlife sanctuary, that's what we consider it. We're not concerned just about ourselves, but also about wildlife, everything in the forest that depends on wild fruit. What's going to happen to all those animals as they look for food and there's less fruit because the bees that used to pollinate it are gone? Wild pigs, for example, could get more destructive. This can cause a lot of secondary environmental effects. ... It's wrong to kill healthy bees. We need as many healthy bees as possible so that you can take the mite-resistant ones and help them develop. All these invasive species committees are really extermination groups.