During 1791-92, more than 300,000 people chose not to buy sugar as a protest against the slave trade — the first large-scale consumer boycott. Among the more distinguished participants were Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley, but far more numerous — and more significant — were the women involved. The boycott had minimal impact on the sugar industry; the novelist Maria Edgeworth strikes a note of wry cynicism in a letter written during the boycott’s inception, remarking that “whether it will at all conduce to the end proposed is perhaps wholly uncertain, and in the meantime we go on eating apple pie and worry about the honey-bees”. (Honey and fruit were the obvious substitutes for imported cane sugar, and Edgeworth refers to concerns that Britain’s apiaries would struggle to cope with an increased demand for honey.) Nevertheless, the boycott not only mobilised and integrated women as a crucial force within the abolition movement, but it also revealed to women (and men) that the decisions they made when shopping for groceries, or serving tea, or making a pudding, were not insignificant. Rather, those quotidian choices really mattered — and therefore, collectively, women wielded great power.
Humans weren’t the only beings involved in this pivotal movement. Honey bees provided abolitionists with sweetness in their tea, without the bitter taste of “blood sugar”. And in the 18th century, as had been the case for millennia and continues to be so, humans relied on bees for much more than honey. These precious creatures continue to sustain our planet, pollinating our food, parks, gardens, woodlands and other green spaces. They also continue to enrich our culture, as fascinating objects of study for scientists and artists alike. Tolstoy, a keen beekeeper, wrote in War and Peace: “The closer we examine the honey bee, the more we realise the workings of a beehive encompass territories beyond our comprehension.”
There was no real need for Edgeworth’s contemporaries to “worry about the honey bees”, but there certainly is today. Last year, honey harvests were down more than 70 per cent, due, it seems, to a combination of factors: disease spread by parasitical Varroa mites, harmful pesticides and habitat loss. Government action has been sluggish, in contrast to the bee-like efficiency and activity of organisations such as Friends of the Earth, Buglife and the Royal Horticultural Society, which have pulled together the efforts of many smaller groups and individuals. In March, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs finally published a draft of its national pollinator strategy, which was commissioned last year in response to vigorous campaigning and a petition signed by more than 40,000 people as part of a campaign called the Bee Cause. Demonstrably, our small, everyday acts are as important, and as potentially life-saving, as ever.
So what immediate action can we, as individuals or families, take to protect Britain’s bees? I would suggest two easy initial steps. First off, sign the new petition for the Bee Cause, calling for the government to strengthen its national pollinator strategy. Next, do some bee-friendly gardening. Avoid pesticides, and plant flowers which bees love in your garden or window box — there are extensive lists of these on the RHS website (Google “RHS Perfect for Pollinators”), and FOE will send you a free pack of wildflower seeds if you make a donation to the Bee Cause. Rather than simply worrying, we need to wield our collective power — as consumers, gardeners and voters — to save Britain’s bees.