To appreciate a beekeeper’s concern over the recent and marked declines in honeybee colonies, you must go back…way back, to when you learned that bees seek nectar from flowers to make honey, which feeds them in the winter months.
You might recall that while sipping the life-affirming nectar from a flower, the bee is also collecting grains of pollen (or the plant’s male reproductive cells) on its body. The pollen is then transported to another flower as the bee continues the search for more gooey nectar goodness. So begins the circle of life. Bees need plants, plants need bees, and we need them both (plants = air, water, food, medicine). Voila!
Nature’s story is a beautiful one, and black and white enough for us all to agree that the mortality rate of bees is something we ought to pay close attention to. However, the plot of this story thickens when you consider the man-made factors that are impacting bee health.
Our Actions, Our Results
Like any good long-term relationship, plants and bees have grown together. Their co-evolutionary interconnectedness is known as plant-pollinator mutualism. Over the course of millions of years, flowers became more attractive and accessible, and bees got better at getting at the nectar with straw-like mouth parts.
Then, about 10,000 years ago, we arrived on the scene. Evidence of apiculture (beekeeping) dates back to Egyptian times, or 4,500 years ago. As beekeepers, our relationship with the beneficial insect was symbiotic: we gave them a place to live, they gave us honey, wax, and plant life.
Today, the story of our bond with bees must be viewed at a systems level. Because, as it turns out, our use of pesticides and synthetic fertility practices is not without consequence to our fuzzy friends.
The buzz on bees since 2006 has been Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), after the marked loss of honeybee colonies at a rate of 30-90 percent of hives in the United States. Studies suggest CCD might be a warning that agrochemical practices are in fact anti-ecological. Of particular concern are neonicotinoids, which coats the seed. When the plant grows, all parts of the plant-such as pollen-are toxic to insects (including pollinators).
Health Canada’s Fall 2014 Update on Neonicotinoid Pesticides and Bee Health report revealed “The weight of evidence indicated that exposure to neonicotinoids during the corn and soybean planting period contributed to bee mortalities in 2012 and 2013…These bee incidents were similar to reports from Europe where planting of treated corn seed also resulted in bee mortalities.”
The European Union has since banned the use of neonicotinoids outright, while the province of Ontario instituted an 80% reduction in the chemical’s use by 2017 and has committed to an action plan for pollinator health.
According to Vic MacDonald, former president of the Capital Beekeepers Association and owner of Bees Inc., neonicotinoid pesticides demand more intensive study considering that what a bee ingests, we ingest.
“Very little attention and research is devoted to the adjuvants present in these formulations, such as slow release chemicals and adhesive/absorptive enhancers. Our bodies are merely the containers in which the new compounds are reformulated. Has the honey bee become the warning canary in a gas-filled coal mine?”
Public Education for Pollinator Health
Documentary films discussing the systemic implications of agrochemicals and celebrating the magic of pollination, like Vanishing of the Bees, and Queen of the Sun: What are the bees telling us? are well worth the watch. Beekeepers are a particularly passionate pack, and both adults and children will find the subject matter relatable.
Here at home in British Columbia, movements to protect and preserve habitat and bring public awareness to some of the bigger-picture issues that threaten beneficial insects are gaining traction.
“We need biodiversity on Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) land and land adjacent to ALR to create better habitat for pollinators,” says Nancy Holmes, project lead with the University of British Columbia Okanagan (UBCO) campus’s Bee Central project.
Bee Central is part of a larger partnership between UBCO, the City of Kelowna, and Emily Carr University of Art & Design, which aims to deliver a “pollinator pasture” on the site of a centrally located city heritage site.
“The Brent’s Grist Mill’s site in Kelowna will be a huge stretch of land for bees to forage on. To engage the public we are marrying art with pollinator programs that help people get closer to bees to understand the importance of their work,” says Holmes.
Backyard or urban beekeeping is also growing in popularity, but before you start a hive, check your area bylaws. Each municipality has area-specific beekeeping regulations.
To support pollinators you can always “plant flowers, and more flowers and the right kind of flowers,” says Master Gardener and long-time Kamloops Food Policy Council contributor Elaine Sedgman. Bees only see yellow, blues, purples, and whites, so consider colour when choosing your flowers and make sure the variety hasn’t been bred to be pollenless. Sedgman suggests yarrow, dill, sweet alyssum, and blue salvia as good sources of high-quality pollen and nectar for bees.
“Think of an insect, how would they see your plantings from above?” says Sedgman. “Plant flowers in big clumps of the same colour. Alternatively, set up a big pot of flowering herbs. Leave accessible water around your garden and make sure you put rocks in the bottom of the dish, so they do not drown.”
Given the controversy around neonicotinoids you’ll also want to ensure the plants you’re buying to attract beneficial insects like bees are not treated with the chemical. Friends of the Earth Canada offers a comprehensive list of major retailers and their position on the issue, from Home Depot and Rona to Loblaws and Canadian Tire (foecanada.org/en/retailer-actions-on-neonicotinoids/).
The organization’s Bee Cause campaign aims to raise retailer awareness of the harmful effects of neonicotinoids. So if you are really buzzing after reading this article you might download the form letter from their website and submit it to your local garden centre. Our purchasing power can put an end to the procurement of plants treated with neonicotinoids.
In closing, we wanted to say there’s a new narrative emerging. It’s about us as we find our way back to childlike appreciation for the building blocks of life that surround us-because the survival of bees, pollinators, and beneficial insects is an indication of our own health on the planet.