Watch the video above: Unlocking the mystery of what’s killing bees.
TORONTO – With a study released on Wednesday supporting the widely held believe that neonicotinoid pesticides (NNI) are contributing to bee losses around the world, there are some beekeepers who are surprisingly not calling for an all-out ban of the pesticides.
“We’ve talked to a lot of people over the last two years,” said Dan Davidson, president of the Ontario Beekeepers’ Association. “What we’ve learned is that there’s some need for insecticide when growing crops. Now…we’re really trying to get the usage just down to where it’s needed.”
But, he added, “Winter loss was tremendous again this year.”
One beekeeper, he noted, who had 8,000 colonies, lost nearly 6,000 this winter. Though the numbers aren’t in, Davidson expects about 40 per cent of the colonies to be lost in Ontario.
John Bennett, of the Sierra Club believes that the pesticide is overused on seeds. The evidence is clear, he said, that it is harming our environment and insect populations and that there should be a complete ban.
“We think there’s enough evidence there that justifies government in removing them from the market,” Bennett said. “Right now the government is looking for unequivocal evidence that these things cause problems before they do anything to change the rules, but that’s backwards.”
“It’s more common sense, than anything. If you make a plant poisonous, I mean, the pollinators are going to suffer. It’s common sense.”
Davidson knows that the winter loss isn’t only due to NNIs.
“We had our worst winter loss. I think it was my second-worst ever, the worst in over 10 years. And some of it has to do with weather, some of it has to do with other factors. But some if it has to do with them eating poisonous food over the winter. And that’s what we really need to get fixed.”
Just how prevalent are NNIs on crops?
About 100 per cent of corn and canola seeds are covered in it. The use on soya beans is somewhere betweeen 50 to 60 per cent.
Bees are very important to crop production around the world. It is believed that they pollinate roughly 3/4 of crops grown globally.
“So clearly, we can’t afford to lose our pollinators,” said Dave Goulson, a professor of biology at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom, and a “bee professor.”
The concern, Goulson said, is the possibility that eventually there will be falling crop yields, globally, which would in turn lead to higher food prices.
“So there’s a good reason to be worried,” he said.
Pierre Petelle, vice president of chemistry at CropLife (which represents developers and manufacturers of pesticides), feels that NNIs are getting all the blame when other causes for colony collapse disorder – the widespread decline of bees – have been cited.
“Not only does this group of scientists blame bee decline on these products, they’re blaming just about any global issue on this: fish, birds, amphibians,” Petelle said. “I mean these products are, according to them, responsible for everything negative in the environment, which is just completely astonishing really.”
Petelle said that many studies aren’t using the amount of neonics present in the crops themselves.
Madeleine Chagnon, a researcher on honey bees and an adjunct professor at the Université de Québec à Montréal, who led the current review released Wednesday said that about four or five years ago a group of scientists got together to do a meta-analysis – that is a review of existing peer-reviewed papers – to determine if there was indeed a link between pesticides and the decline of bee populations as well as detrimental effects on other insects.
“We ask for immediate attention from the government…we, as scientists are showing you that this product is very toxic on the environment,” Chagnon said.
“There are a number of factors that cause these winter losses, and beekeepers will admit to that, whether it’s a long, cold winter like we’ve had this past winter, mite pressures, disease pressures, all kinds of things,” he said.
But Goulson said that the issue of colony collapse disorder is a bit more complicated. There are three things that he believes all scientists will agree are contributing to the bee losses.
One is that bees don’t have enough flowers, or have a monotonous diet, in particular in North America. Another is disease, such as the varroa mite, a non-native mite that spreads quickly. Then there are the neonics.
“These three things don’t act in isolation,” Goulson said.
“It’s a bit like saying if a man who’s overweight and does no exercise and smokes, dies of a heart attack, what killed him?”
In that same way, neonics are believed to knock out the bees’ immune system. If a bee is bitten by a varroa mite, it can’t fight off any disease and dies.
“The ultimate cause could have been that it was poisoned first and that knocked out its immune system,” Goulson said. “So it’s very hard to disentangle all of these things.”
“But what we do know is that the levels of neonictinoids that they are exposed to if they feed on flowering crop or wild flowers that are growing nearby…is enough to do them harm.”
So, getting rid of the pesticide would help the bees.
“We can’t easily get rid of the varroa mite or the diseases…but we can give bees more food by squeezing more flowers into more farm areas. And we could try to reduce the amount of pesticides they’re exposed to particularly the really toxic ones like neonicotinoids.”
Davidson believes that a more appropriate use of NNIs or insecticides would be to spray areas only where there’s evidence of mites or insects that kill crops. But Petelle said that isn’t an option.
“The science of soil insects just isn’t there,” Petelle said. “Understanding how to sample every field is so unique, even parts of fields could have high levels of soil insects and the other parts not have it.”
The good news for beekeepers is that the class of insecticides is under re-evaluation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Pesticides and Pest Management Canada.
Asked if he felt confident that it would get approval, Petelle said, “We’re confident that these products can be used safely. So yeah, we’re confident that the science will demonstrate that.”
Chagnon said that she hopes the recent consensus from the group will help to motivate governments to look at the data.
“This is not sustainable.”