By Heather Clay —
Bees are dying. Why are they in trouble and what can you do to help?
One third of every bite we eat depends on the pollinating activity of many species of insects. We would have a very bland diet if it was not for the most prolific pollinator, the honey bee, transferring pollen from flower to flower and initiating the production of fruit or seeds. Our food would be limited to wind pollinated plants such as wheat, rice, corn, or oats. It goes without saying that we need healthy bees in adequate supply to pollinate the great variety of fruit and vegetable crops that keep us healthy.
Bees are in trouble around the world. Over the past decade beekeepers have experienced increasingly higher losses of their honey bee colonies. The reasons for bee mortality are complex and a single smoking gun has not been found. There is growing evidence that a new class of agricultural pesticides, called neonicotinoids (often shortened to “neonics”) is a serious risk to honey bees. These chemicals are so highly toxic to insects that only a tiny amount is required for the treatment of a plant. Indeed, this is a selling feature of products such as imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, or chlothianidin. Because a lower quantity of the active ingredient is required per hectare it appears that they are more environmentally friendly than the less toxic older pesticides. The active ingredient is applied to seeds or sprayed on the leaves of the plant. The neurotoxin spreads throughout the plant, to all parts including the pollen and nectar collected by honey bees. Neonics are persistent and last for the life of the plant. Bees are particularly sensitive to this new mode of insecticide action and die if they come in direct contact. Research also suggests that ingesting the chemical affects the bee’s gut bacteria making it more susceptible to stress and other diseases.
In Canada, Ontario beekeepers have called for a ban on neonicotinoids because honey bee mortality in corn and soybean growing areas has skyrocketed since the use of seed treatments. The cause has been attributed to exposure to contaminated dust from pesticide-treated seeds during planting. A second source of the pesticide is when the corn plant sheds pollen from its tassels. Corn is not pollinated by honey bees but it is an early source of pollen to feed young bees when other sources are not available. A third source is contamination of water from soil runoff into streams or from guttation water on plants where bees collect water.
Average winter loss of honey bee colonies has been as high as 58% in Ontario during 2013-14. This is on top of unreported summer and fall losses. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released the results of its annual honey bee health survey. While winter mortality across the US continues to be around 23%, a new and alarming trend is being reported. Summer mortality of bee colonies was over 27%. In response to this unprecedented number, Dick Rogers, former provincial apiculturist for Nova Scotia, now working for Bayer CropScience, released a statement:
This is only the third year that the USDA has reported on summer losses, so it is difficult to identify any potential trend. Summer losses are expected and common, however, because of Varroa, other disorders, queen issues, and pesticide residues in hives, especially high residues of bee protecting Varroacides. Experts have yet to agree on what’s a normal range for summer losses.”
The PR spin on the summer mortality figures is to be expected from a corporation that has a lot to lose if their lucrative neonicotinoid products are banned. Global profit from these chemicals netted the companies over $2.6 billion in 2009.
The fact is that summer mortality is not common for Canadian beekeepers. According to respected bee expert Dr. Gard Otis, University of Guelph, “In the absence of pesticide kills, 10% summer mortality would be unbelievably high and 27% is off the charts!”
Clearly, something is killing young honey bees in summer. The problem of climate change is not going away and the situation of unsustainable industrial agricultural practices is global in reach. Is there anything that can be done to assist pollinators at the local level?
Here are three important things you can do to help bees:
Reduce Pesticide Use
- Support a ban on the prophylactic use of neonicotinoid pesticides. Lobby your nursery to stop using the product on house plants and do not buy any product with the active ingredient imidacloprid.
- Support a ban on the cosmetic use of pesticides. Bees love dandelions – there is no need to poison the plants.
- Lobby for municipalities to stop spraying public areas with insecticides and herbicides.
- Reduce your use of synthetic pesticides and look for less toxic alternatives.
- Become a beekeeper, learn the joy of working with these amazing creatures, help maintain genetic diversity, and perhaps become a queen bee supplier.
- Provide undisturbed sites in your garden for pollinator shelter and nesting sites.
- Learn more about bees and beekeeping at www.urbanbeenetwork.ca.
Plant for Bees
- Plant pollinator-friendly flowering plants, shrubs, and trees. Choose species with different flowering periods and a variety of floral shapes and colours. Some great choices prepared by Barb Scharf, Hill Farm Nursery, for the Cariboo region can be found at www.urbanbeenetwork.ca.
- Encourage municipalities to plant for bees, reduce mowing, and leave wild areas for bees especially along roadsides, railways, parks, cemeteries, and public areas.
Heather Clay was CEO of the Canadian Honey Council and recently founded the Urban Bee Network, a project to provide information for small-scale beekeepers.