The planet’s honeybees are dying off in unprecedented numbers. But just what exactly is causing the deaths has beekeepers and farmers sifting through research and sometimes reaching contradictory conclusions.
By Maurice Crossfield
Though not native to North America, the diminutive honeybee has become an important aspect of this continent’s agriculture and biodiversity. And now this species is facing some serious threats.
Apis mellifera is also known as the western honeybee and European honeybee. Native to Europe, Asia and Africa, it was first brought to North America in the early 1600s. Then with the development of box and removable frame hives, smokers and the honey extractor in the 1800s, honey harvesting became more than an occasional sweet treat and emerged as legitimate agriculture.
There are 28 subspecies of the honeybee, with variations developing over time, based on local conditions as the bees spread around the globe. Some, like Africanized honeybees (often referred to as killer bees), are highly aggressive and unsuitable for tending by humans. For the most part, the common honeybees that we come into contact with are docile and only sting when they feel threatened.
In 2006, there was a dramatic increase in honeybee-colony collapse, known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). Beekeepers were reporting losses of 40 percent or more as a result of CCD. There were even widespread reports of empty hives, with not even a bee carcass in sight. Before long, research began to emerge that pointed the finger at everything from the spread of the varroa mite and fungal infections to electromagnetic radiation and the use of neonicotinoid pesticides.
Neonicotinoids are a class of pesticides similar to nicotine. They bond to receptors in the central nervous systems of insects. Because they bond more strongly to insect neurons than mammal neurons, their effect on humans is much less. Initially, it was thought that pollinators, of which bees are the most common, were not adversely affected.
The popularity of neonics has been nothing short of meteoric: Imidacloprid was the first such product to hit the market in 1985, and by the 1990s it was in widespread use. Now the most-used insecticide in the world, Imidacloprid is primarily used to treat seeds before planting; consequently, the resulting plants are infused with the insecticide. Today, neonics are registered for use in over 120 countries and represent 24 percent of the global pesticide market.
The rise in CCD has resulted in a war of research and rhetoric, with beekeepers calling for bans while crop farmers predict doom and gloom if prevented from using their preferred class of pest control.
In Canada, the battleground has been Ontario, where over half of all commercial crops are treated with neonics, and where in the winter of 2013–14, 58 percent of bee colonies died off, according to one report. Prior to the progressive ban enacted by the Ontario government in 2015, 60 percent of soybeans and virtually all corn grown in the province had been treated with neonics. By the time the ban is in full effect in 2017, overall levels will be reduced by 80 percent.
In the lead up to the ban, a group representing several Ontario farming organizations took out a full-page ad in several major newspapers. The ad claimed that bee colonies and honey production in the province are, in fact, thriving. The farm group claimed the ban would strip farmers of a “vital pest-management tool.”
“It’s an impassioned debate on both sides,” says Kevin Beagle, a lavender farmer and beekeeper in Dundas, Ontario, not far from Hamilton. “But I find that the research by those in favour of the ban is more plausible.”
As an example, he quotes the farm group, which claims bee colony numbers are increasing. Beagle says that’s primarily because more queens have been raised to replace the ones that have died off.
He also points out that many of the arguments made by the crop farm group sound similar to the rhetoric used in the 1960s, when DDT was being banned. But in the end, crop farming continued to be viable, and the farmers got on with their lives.
Beagle, who can sell as much lavender honey as he can produce as a small-scale beekeeper, says the truth behind CCD may be somewhere in the middle.
“Everybody agrees that the biggest problem facing bees are the varroa mites,” he says. “But neonics are a problem that can be addressed, whereas the mite is a much more difficult thing to overcome.”
Varroa destructor is a mite that attacks honeybees and weakens them by sucking their hemolymph, the honeybee equivalent to blood. In the process, the bee is weakened and contracts viruses such as deformed wing virus. Unfortunately, mite treatments have had very limited success.
In his own case, Beagle says that over the last four years, annual hive losses in his operation have been between 50 and 60 percent. That’s far above the 15- to 20-percent figure he was told to expect when he began keeping bees six years ago.
Samples of dead bees from his hives, sent to the University of Guelph, revealed the presence of neonic pesticides commonly used in his area, where a lot of cash-crop farms operate. His hives have not been impacted by the varroa mite.
“This isn’t just extinguishing bees—it’s also extinguishing beekeepers,” says Beagle. “If you can’t make money off it, then people won’t keep bees.”
One increasingly popular theory is that the neonics don’t kill the bees outright; however, the pesticides weaken the bees to the point where they can’t survive severe winters. Bees aren’t dying in the summer and may seem healthy and active, but come April, when beekeepers open the hives for the season, things are strangely silent.
“Both sides of the neonics argument would be better served by lowering the levels of hysteria, politics, etc., and let impartial science come up with the conclusions,” Beagle says. “I am 100 percent convinced that neonics contribute to bee death. That being said, there are other problems facing the honey industry.”
Neonicotinoids may also be having a wider impact. A group of 29 scientists forming the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides has reviewed 800 scientific papers on neonics, reaching the conclusion that “significant damage” was being done to pollinators, worms, snails and possibly even birds.
There are also some additional confusing factors, including that the problem is primarily a southern Quebec and Ontario problem. According to a Health Canada report, “Despite the wide use pattern of neonicotinoid pesticides, other areas of Canada have not reported bee mortality incidents related to neonicotinoids, with the exception of a few cases of foliar spray application to a crop while bees were foraging (which is contrary to label directions). In western Canada, for example, the majority of canola seed is treated with neonicotinoids and yet beekeepers are not reporting any adverse effects.”
The bigger picture will likely become clearer within the next few years. Europe is in the midst of a two-year ban, while the Ontario ban is coming into effect.
“There is going to be lots of data to work with,” Beagle says. “So if it turns out that it should be reversed, there will be plenty of time to do so. I think the data that comes out of the EU ban will be really, really significant as far as future policy for governments across North America.”
“We in North America are just one more data point in a global problem,” he adds. “This is something that’s going to remain topical for some time to come.”
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Apis mellifera by the numbers
Domesticated honeybees sure put up some impressive statistics.
Number of Canadian beekeepers: 7,000
Number of bee colonies in Canada: 600,000
Number of bees per colony: 20,000 to 60,000
Leading production region: The Prairies, with 475,000 hives (and 80% of the national crop total)
Production per hive: Can exceed 45 kilos (100 pounds)
Canadian annual crop: 34 million kg (75 million pounds)
Estimated value to pollinated crops: $2 billion annually
Distance bees from a single hive will travel to collect enough pollen and nectar to produce 1 kilo of honey: 145,000 km (90,000 miles)