The expression "canary in the coal mine" comes to mind when reading a newly released U.S. government report on the sorry plight of honeybees.
Just as canaries once served as sentinels of a toxic situation for coal miners, the honeybee has been not-so-patiently trying to tell us something about the state of their environment -- and coincidentally ours --over the past 10 years or so.
Researchers have been searching in vain for the cause of a phenomenon called "colony collapse disorder" since it was first widely reported in 2006. They've looked at everything from diseases to parasites to genetics to microwave frequencies for an explanation for why bees are disappearing, colonies are failing to thrive and pollination rates are dropping. Overwintering losses for Canadian beekeepers can be as high as 35 per cent some years.
This is about more than honey production. Farmers rely on pollinators for up to one-third of food production.
The buzz lately is over a particular class of insecticides called neonicotinoids, which are widely used to protect seed from insects after planting. Over the protests of manufacturers, the European Union moved last week to ban these chemicals for two years because it's feared they pose a risk to honeybee populations. There is a lawsuit before U.S. courts pushing for the same.
Here in Canada, Health Canada recently issued a list of best-management practices for farmers and seed suppliers that were developed after beekeepers in Ontario and Quebec suffered high losses during the spring corn-planting season in 2012. It's believed dust from the treated seed was picked up by the bees and carried back to the hives.
"The information evaluated to date suggests that insecticides used on treated corn seeds contributed to many of the 2012 spring bee losses," says a report on the Health Canada website.
"Residues of nitro-guanidine neonicotinoid insecticides used to treat corn seed were detected in approximately 70 per cent of the dead bee samples analyzed," it says. "On a beeyard basis, these residues were detected in approximately 80 per cent of the Ontario beeyards where dead bee samples were collected and analyzed (57 out of 70 yards), and in all Quebec beeyards where dead bee samples were collected (one yard)."
Included in the Health Canada recommendations to producers is advice to avoid planting treated seed in windy conditions, avoid areas where bees are foraging and to control flowering weeds that might attract the bees before planting, so foraging bees aren't attracted to the field.
The effects of pesticides and their management are a key issue cited in this new report from the USDA and Environmental Protection Agency. "There is a need for informed and co-ordinated communication between growers and beekeepers and effective collaboration between stakeholders on practices to protect bees from pesticides," it says.
However, that report also supports the emerging consensus several factors are combining to stress bees so their resilience to pests, disease and environmental shocks is compromised.
Common parasites such as the varroa mite have become resistant to the chemicals farmers use to control them.
The commercial bee population lacks genetic diversity, which affects its ability to cope with a changeable climate.
Bees are malnourished. Monoculture farming makes it hard for them to get a balanced diet. "Bees need better forage and a variety of plants to support colony health," the report says.
"Federal and state partners should consider actions affecting land management to maximize available nutritional forage to promote and enhance good bee health and to protect bees by keeping them away from pesticide-treated fields," the authors said.
Crop farmers can't afford to shut down the pollinators. Beekeepers can't afford to lose access to farmers' fields. We need the food produced by this synergistic relationship.
Old-time coal miners knew they were in trouble when the canaries stopped singing. Likewise, the declining health and disappearance of pollinator populations is telling us something is amiss.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: email@example.com