Honeybees, Human Burns and Sustainable Development

Sometimes people think of environmental conservation as an after thought rather than a critical component of sustainable development. Yet environmental conservation is critical to sustainable development. Why? First, because of biophilia, or humanity’s innate need for natural systems- as in nature calms us down and revs our immune systems. But also because, the resulting biodiversity, serves as the springboard for human ingenuity.

Take for example, burn wounds. Severe burn wounds are notoriously difficult to treat. Our skin, the largest organ in the human body, serves as a protective barrier between the outside world and us. Stripped of that barrier, we become a vast open wound susceptible to infection. For complex reasons, once a burn reaches a certain size and depth our own inborn abilities to repair the wound are minimal. Skin grafts, or the transplanting of skin from one portion of the body (or from a donor) to another part of the body ,help fill the void but they aren’t an ideal solution. The reality is that victims of serious burns face an uphill battle of infection and scarring.

One of the cutting edge treatments for dealing with the dressing and the healing of burn wounds lies not in complex biotechnology, but rather in a foodstuff so ubiquitous it’s available on six continents and dates back to antiquity. It's even been found in the tombs of the Egyptian Pharaohs.

The future for burn victims may very well lay in honey.

There is, however, only one problem.

Worldwide, honeybee populations are declining. Between habitat loss and fragmentation, colony collapse disorder, and a myriad of other environmental factors we are losing both the volume of bees and the diversity among bees. North America, for example, plays home to some thirty-five hundred bee species. Most of us are only vaguely aware of the (European) honeybee and the bumblebee.

As scientists narrow down what forms of honey (ask any beekeeper there are thousands) and what properties of honey best serve as dressings, worldwide bees are in a struggle for their very existence. This has repercussions beyond the burn unit - bees pollinate 80% of fruits and vegetables.

We need the bees.

On a similar note, on the Eastern coast of the United States bats are dying of a mysterious illness commonly referred to as “white nose” syndrome. Their death, is not merely a loss because bats are cool (how could Batman exist without bats?), but also because a bat eats upwards of 600 insects in a single hour. As fears of global warming and the spread of tropical mosquito borne diseases such as malaria grows, we will need our insect eating friends more than ever.

And that says nothing of the growing field of biomicry.

Natural systems serve as our grounding force, our source material and our inspiration; of course we need to preserve them.

Sustainable development cares about environmental conservation, because unlike our mad mad accounting system it doesn’t believe that nature is fungible. Nature, cannot, in its entirety be substituted.

There is an argument – a compelling one – that environmental conservation is important because life, even non-human life, has its own intrinsic value outside of its utility to humans. In a culture, however, that is ever focused towards the balance sheet, that is a difficult argument to quantify. That natural systems have quantifiable benefits – many of which remain to be discovered – is a baby step towards at least getting natural systems on the balance sheet.

Photo Credit: Todd Huffman