Monday, February 15, 2010

Protecting the honeybees

It’s happened before of course. Our greed has wiped out vast herds of bison, swarms of passenger pigeons, teeming fish in the oceans, and mussels in our rivers. Now we have turned on the billions of honeybees that provide us with so much of our food through the simple act of pollinating fruits, berries, nuts, and vegetables. As humans, we have a symbiotic relationship with bees (through foods from plants), so it is critical that we protect them.

In the pursuit of higher yields, industrial agriculture is now so dependent on the pollinating powers of honeybees that continued precipitous decline in bee populations threatens our very food system. It is hard to imagine a world with way pricier and scarcer coffee and tea, orange juice with our morning breakfast. Nor can we begin to envisage the impact of much-reduced production of apples, oranges, lemons, grapes, peaches, cherries, melons, nuts, squash, beans, carrots, sunflowers and yes, honey. Just one pollinator, the Western honeybee, tends over 130 food crops.

Bees are now bred to perform on an industrial scale, to help produce astounding harvests of all these crops. In the U.S, fruit farmers pay commercial beekeepers to truck bees thousands of miles to pollinate their crops. In the face of disastrous declines in bee populations they have been replenishing with stocks from Australia. In China, in the province of Sichuan, pear trees have been pollinated by hand after the overuse of pesticides in the 1980's wiped out the honeybee population. Is this the road we are heading down?

Around five years ago, honeybee populations started going into a tailspin, a trend that continues now. Why so precipitous? Although the bees had been in a slow decline for years, something happened between 2005 and 2006 that changed everything: a sharp and catastrophic collapse of bee colonies in dozens of countries simultaneously. This was unlike anything seen before, even by the oldest beekeepers in the U.S, Canada and Europe. In the USA, approximately one third of all hives have collapsed over the last two years. These losses are account for the loss of around 800,000 colonies in 2007 and a staggering 1 million colonies in 2008.

The European Parliament voted late in 2009 for tougher controls on bee-toxic chemicals. Hoping to avert a growing catastrophe, it has approved the creation of bee "recovery zones" across Europe. Intended to boost plummeting bee numbers – as well as stave off further agricultural losses – the measure garnered the support of an overwhelming majority of members when they voted on the measure. The recovery zones will provide bees places to buzz that teem with a diversity of plants rich in nectar and pollen, as well as free of pesticides.

In another significant stand, the Co-operative Group, which owns 25,000 hectares of farmland in Britain, recently banned the use of neonicotinoid pesticides on all its farms to protect honeybees. Simon Press, senior technical manager at the Co-op group said: "We believe that the recent losses in bee populations need definitive action, and as a result are temporarily prohibiting the eight neonicotinoid pesticides until we have evidence that refutes their involvement in the decline."

Movement to stem drastic honeybee population declines in North America has been much slower. Now, in light of the mounting evidence that new seed chemical coatings are deadly to bees, Sierra Club has been urging the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to ban the use of specific chemical treatments to protect our bees and crops until it obtains scientific evidence that sublethal effects do not cause harm to America's critically important honey bees.

At issue are neonicotinoids being used in a new way - as seed coatings. For years, farmers have been spraying neonicotinoids onto their crops to stop insect infestation. Now huge agribusiness corporations have acquired patents to coat their proprietary corn seeds with these neonicotinoids. These “neonics” are extremely persistent. They enter the plant and are present in pollen and on droplets of water on leaves. As plantings have grown larger, the need for concentrated pollinators at bloom time has grown. Any changes in their health, abundance and diversity will influence the health, abundance and diversity of the prevailing plant species. This is a mutual dependency as bees rely on a steady nectar source and pollen source throughout the year to build up their hive.

The State of California has required that almost all 282 nicotinyl pesticide products be immediately re-evaluated because of toxic concentrations in pollen and nectar, and high residual concentrations in soil. Unfortunately, the EPA is moving too slowly to take action to suspend nicotinyl pesticides.

Kevin Hansen and Krista Keenan have just released a new documentary film called Nicotine Bees, on these catastrophic die-offs of the honeybee. They filmed across the US, in Germany, in Canada, and in India. To Kevin Hansen, neonicotinoids are implicated as the most important factor in the bee die-offs. He thinks the situation is grave, worsening, and has very direct explanations - contrary to earlier reports.

The Sierra Club is urging the American public to view Nicotine Bees. They suggest showing the 45-minute film at organizational meetings, home parties, classrooms and community events. To purchase the video or request a screening, see

After viewing this documentary, you are invited to add your voice to demands to protect our pollinators. Contact EPA's Steve Owens at <> or call him at 1-202-564-2902 to request a suspension of the neonicotinoid seed coatings until independent scientists verify safety.

Another documentary film, The Vanishing of the Bees, warns that if our favourite foods and flowers such as broccoli, cherries, onions, melons, cucumbers and sunflowers do not get pollinated, our diets will consist of lots of rice, wheat and corn, which happen to be the main crops that the chemical giants have huge financial stakes in. It can be no coincidence that the commercial beekeepers who isolated their hives from the crops being sprayed with chemicals have reported no bee losses. Similarly, the organic and biodynamic beekeepers who work on diversified systems of food production and improving the immune systems of their bees have not suffered significant losses in their hives.

Beekeepers have been meeting with representatives of pesticide companies in an effort to re-focus how new pesticides are tested for harm to honeybees. Registration requirements for most new chemicals don’t require those tests to determine the long term effects of pesticides that adults eat or store to feed to their young later. It’s already known that some of the newer nicotine pesticides are deadly to adult bees if sprayed directly, and now it is suspected that, when taken back to the hive and stored in nectar and pollen, they are causing problems later.

Beekeeper Kim Flottum notes “… honey bees that pollinated, flew by, or even thought about crops sprayed with the new systemic nicotine pesticides did worse than honey bees that did not come in contact, fly by or even think about them. At first it seemed to be mostly eastern bees that were having this trouble, but when beekeepers actually looked, it is obvious that bees and nicotine don’t mix anywhere on the map. Nicotine Bees is pretty damning in its presentation and accusations, but it’s probably not the whole story yet. Still, it is becoming increasingly clear that these chemicals, either by themselves or as a contributing factor, are causing all sorts of hell for honey bees everywhere they are. And you can be pretty well assured that if honey bees are at risk, so are all the rest of the pollinators out there. All of them.”

David Hackenberg, former president of the American Beekeeping Federation, has been urging the U.S. regulatory agencies to suspend these seed treatments. "Look at what's time based. The massive bee decimation started when regulatory agencies rubber stamped the use of neonicotinoid spraying and coating," he said.

Honeybees have lived successfully on the planet for 20 million years before the arrival of humans up until this point in time. Bees are the ultimate selfless workers that have provided humanity with the miracle of honey; the full implications of its contribution to medicine are still emerging.

As individuals, we can help the honeybee. Apart from working to ban indiscriminate spraying of pesticides and promoting organic agriculture, we can plant native flowers, trees and shrubs that are bee-friendly in our gardens. We can learn about beekeeping and start hives going in our own backyards. We can grow, buy and eat food that supports local, organic and small-scale agricultural practices and producers. When we take care of the honeybee, we take care of ourselves.