By Heather Clay
Without honey bees, humans would be restricted to a very bland diet. One third of our food is pollinated by these amazing little creatures as they transfer pollen from male anthers to female stigma and initiate the production of fruit or seeds. Without bees for pollination, our food sources would be limited to wind pollinated plants such as wheat, rice, corn, or oats. There would be no fruit, nuts or seeds and no alfalfa or canola to feed beef and chickens.
Bees are in trouble around the world for a variety of reasons. It has been a perfect storm of poor nutrition, diseases, pests, pesticides and climate change. A recent study showed goldernrod, which is an important source of pollen and nectar for bees, has lost 30 per cent of its protein content since 1842. The loss correlates precisely with rising carbon dioxide levels in our atmosphere, a direct result of human industrial activity. Climate change may have consequences that we never anticipated.
Over the past decade, beekeepers have experienced increasingly higher losses of their honey bee colonies. Average winter loss of honey bee colonies has been as high as 58 per cent in Ontario during 2013/14. This is on top of unreported summer and fall losses. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently released the results of its annual honey bee health survey. While winter mortality across the U.S. continues to be around 23 per cent, a new and alarming trend is being reported. Summer mortality of bee colonies was more than 27 per cent.
“In the absence of pesticide kills, 10 per cent summer mortality would be unbelievably high and 27 per cent is off the charts,” said respected bee expert Dr. Gard Otis, with the University of Guelph.
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.
Neonics are highly toxic neurotoxins that kill insects but are less harmful to mammals. Only a tiny amount is required for the treatment of a plant. Indeed, this is a selling feature of products with active ingredients such as imidacloprid, thiamethoxam, or chlothianidin. Because a lower quantity of the active ingredient is required, it appears that they are more environmentally friendly than the less toxic older pesticides. 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 bees’ gut bacteria, making it more susceptible to stress and other diseases.
Ontario has introduced a plan to reduce the use of neonics by 80 per cent. While beekeepers are losing colonies at unsustainable numbers, grain farmers are fighting back against pesticide restrictions by sending photos of wire worms and caterpillars via Twitter to push their argument that they need neonics. 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 provincial apiarist for New Brunswick, CEO of the Canadian Honey Council and recently founded the Urban Bee Network, www.urbanbeenetwork.ca. This article is the second in a series of articles about bees supported by SENS (Sustainable Environmental Network Society). For more information, to become a member or volunteer, please contact Julia at 250-542-0892, or see wwwsensociety.org.