Connection: How Your Health Choices Affect the Web of Life

bee on eucalyptus flower

As we twisted along the Portuguese back road out of Lisbon that evening, sun setting into the ocean we’d recently flown over, the smell of eucalyptus hung heavy in the air. John and I knew we’d left our familiar world behind, and the thrill of our second European trip was palpable. Wind in our faces, our mopeds seemed the perfect way to experience this new world, as we could go anywhere a bike could, but not go so fast as to miss the feel of the land and cultures we were exploring.

And it was always the farmers and country people where we felt most at home, connected to the people who were connected to the earth for their livelihood. We knew from past experience we’d be welcomed on the land.

Connection. It’s what makes travel interesting. When we see what ties us together, our similarities vs our differences, the world gets smaller, the heart beats truer, and we are reminded that we are not alone in our concerns and strivings.

Hand Signals, Smiles, and Earlobes

When we pulled into the farm to see if we might throw our sleeping bags down for the night, we were greeted with a smile from the Portuguese farmer. In our first few minutes, it became apparent that it was going to be all hand signals and smiles to communicate, as my little bit of French and John’s bit of German was of no use to speak to this simple, wrinkled man, carrying his bucket to fetch the evening’s milk.

Sign language it was, but oh, how different. He relayed to us pretty quickly that his sign for something that was really great was a tug on his ear lobe, a raise of eye brows skyward and a smile. Strangely foreign to us, but immediately appreciated. “Ahhhhhh…!”

He gave us a tin cup of the warm milk, fresh from his cow, but it was too early in our palates’ education to appreciate it like this man did. We’d grown up in the “dairy state,” but were used to store bought cold milk and this just tasted, well, horrible to us. We smiled, sipped it a bit, pulled our earlobes and snuck off to pour it out where he couldn’t see us. We were careful that he not be hurt by our squandering his generosity.

This gracious man, well into his 70’s, took us on a walking tour of his farm, and we came upon a raised vat the size of a swimming pool and easily twelve feet deep, where he was cooking the native eucalyptus leaves to extract their potent goodness. His signs told us it was going for medicine production. Herbal medicine, being made in the European countryside on a small farm, that could end up in lozenges in check out lines in our own hometown, so distant now.

Connection. There it was. We’d sucked on menthol eucalyptus! We were gazing at the source now. Who knew?

United by an Insect

Now, 40 years hence, I know the eucalyptus crop in Portugal, like the vegetable crops in the California valleys that feed the majority of Americans, depend on the same species to reproduce and deliver their bounty: Apis mellifica, the honey bee.

Honey bees, as you may know, are in big trouble. That trouble is labeled Colony Collapse Disorder, or CCD. They’re not making it back home after foraging and bee keepers are finding hives deserted, sometimes with the honey and wax intact, but devoid of bees. Last winter, one third of U.S. honeybee colonies died or disappeared, a 42% increase over the prior year, and well above the 10-15% expected normal winter losses. [Time Magazine, August 19, 2013]

Bee illness and disappearance is largely because of pesticide use, primarily a particular kind that’s relatively recent on the scene: neonicotinoids, a class of compounds that is now the leading pesticide used agriculturally to do one thing: kill insect pests.

The largest manufacturer of these chemicals is Bayer, who, interestingly, will happily sell YOU their main compound, Imidacloprid, to poison the fleas on your pets. It’s called Advantage. It comes with warnings not to get it on you or your children. This pesticide kills pests by overstimulating the insect’s nervous system, putting it into spasm, causing suffocation. Imidacloprid and its relatives have been found in bee pollen and it is ubiquitous in the environment after a decade of heavy use.

The Flea Bone’s Connected to the Honey Bone

How significant is the honeybee? One of every three mouthfuls of food you eat depend on bees. They are the unsung heroes of agriculture, pollinating crops from apples to asparagus to broccoli and onions. Almond trees are 100% dependent on bees to produce a crop.

Europeans, after extensive study, have just this year banned the use of these neonicotinoids for the next two years. Our government is slow to follow that lead, but how about you? Will you choose pesticides to deal with fleas for your pets?

I’d suggest alternative, non-toxic means. The act of killing with pesticides always and inevitably comes back to bite mankind. Fipronil, another insecticide chemical in Advantage’s main competitor, called Frontline, has also been blamed for the honeybee’s demise. And, as is true of all “killer chemicals,” there’s now resistance in the flea populations, as generations of fleas have mutated and passed survival genes on to their offspring.

This resistance is also at work in the nightmare of resistant microbes, after years of indiscriminate antibiotic use. A few bacteria always survive any drug, pass on their resistance to the next generations, and our once powerful drugs become impotent. Woe be unto the person landing in the hospital for some minor surgery. Nosocomial (hospital acquired) infections are increasingly causing deaths from the new array of superbugs who live there and won’t be killed by the ever stronger antibiotics thrown at them.

How Big is Holistic?

Do you see the connection? Every choice we make affects a greater whole. Simple decisions like flea control can affect the health of not only your animal, but perhaps the availability of your favorite fruit. Is your holistic vet selling you pesticides?

Mankind has foolishly considered himself the center of the universe for too long now, and we’re paying the price for such hubris. Might I suggest we bring the Precautionary Principle into our every decision? Imagine Monsanto having to convince us that their GMO crops, refused by hungry pigs, will be harmless to us and the environment.

Uh huh.


photo attribution: Bee on Eucalyptus, from raider of gin

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Leave a Comment


  1. Tricia on October 13, 2013 at 8:58 pm

    My 2yr old Great Dane loves raspberries – but interestingly enough – he will only eat the organic one when given the choice between the two. Makes you think.

    • Will Falconer, DVM on October 14, 2013 at 5:25 am

      Danes as our food testers? Sniffing out GMO’s and herbicides for us? Makes sense to me. We know their sense of smell far exceeds our own.

  2. elle on October 7, 2013 at 10:26 am

    Monsanto does just that. They have a shill writer at the Motley Fool website writing about the benefits of GMO (among many other disinformation outlets). I saw the headline a few minutes ago on the Yahoo front page and went to investigate. It was really sad to see that propaganda on a financial site where the readers are most likely not knowledgable about the horrendous effects of GMO’s and Monsanto’s revolving door with the FDA. Of course, I left a comment with some facts, but that will probably either be scrubbed shortly or attacked by some of their trolls.
    I feel sorry for the young people because this is the world they’re going to have live in for a long time. I wish we had organic food advocates here that are as vocal and powerful as those in Europe. It’s like Americans are asleep or something.
    But I think that the big chemical companies see that Americans are more into watching television than researching issues like this and so this country becomes a target for their marketing. Just like when cigarette companies here were finally busted, they went to third world countries to peddle their toxic wares.
    Thanks for the information about the Bayer pesticide that’s in those flea prevention chemicals. I knew it had to be something bad because you can’t kill one life form without harming another.