The world’s bee population is declining, thereby threatening our food supply.
Agricultural academic Susan Chan spoke to county residents during a lecture hosted by the Haliburton County Farmers’ Association at the Minden Hills Community Centre on June 6.
While bees are not the only pollinators – moths, flies and certain types of beetle can also pollinate plants – bees are the most efficient.
“Because they’re fuzzy, they collect pollen on themselves,” Chan said. “They also fly from flower to flower.”
Pollination is the reproductive process in plants, whereby pollen must be moved from the male stamen of one plant to the female stigma of another.
Some plants are wind-pollinated, with the breeze doing the work.
However, it’s common for pollinators like bees to still collect pollen from these plants.
And here is where the bee may be getting into trouble.
“Bees are stubbornly going to a wind-pollinated plant called corn,” Chan said.
Cornfields are grown using pesticides.
The worst of these are a class called neonicatinoids, which affect the nerve systems of insects.
Bees are poor at detoxifying themselves and it is believed that chemicals, along with habitat loss, are contributing to their swift decline.
“If you need to have money in the equation . . . you can describe bubble bees as flying $50 bills,” Chan said, citing a study conducted by an East Coast economist, adding that bees are responsible for approximately $3 billion worth of crop pollination annually.
However, Chan looks at it in different terms.
“What does it cost not to have pollinators?” she asked, explaining the answer is reduced crop yields or, in some cases, no crop yields at all.
Some plants, like corn, can reproduce through wind fertilization and soybeans are capable of asexual reproduction.
“You’ll all be eating soybeans . . . lots of them,” Chan said, adding that pollinators are key to almost all plants humans consume. “The colourful things, the things that make food interesting, are pollinated by bees.”
Some areas of the globe have already lost their bee populations.
In some parts of Asia, insecticide use is so rampant that bees can no longer survive. In these sterile zones, pollination is carried out by hand, by people on ladders with paintbrushes full of pollen, painting pollen onto the female parts of plants.
Chan showed a picture of an Asian pear orchard where this was taking place.
“I don’t want my kids to become pollinators,” she said. “There’s lots of other things they could be doing.”
Bees are shipped back and forth across the United States, being used where they’re needed.
Almonds are grown in desert areas of California. Turns out bees don’t like almonds much and so every other kind of vegetation must be removed to get them to go after the pollen.
With the instability of this practice, Chan wagered that almonds wouldn’t be available much longer.
That same group of bees will then get shipped east to work on blueberry patches.
Many of these commercial operations have to be heavily irrigated.
This is where the importance of local farming and local food consumption come in.
“We need farmers here,” Chan said. “One day the bottom is going to fall out of all this California production. And it’s because of water. It’s in your best interest to eat food by farmers grown here.”
And the continuing loss of bees will affect meat and dairy lovers too.
After all, cows survive on plants, plants that must be pollinated.
Chemicals are responsible for a complete hierarchical breakdown inside of bee hives.
As Chan explained, within the highly organized world of bees, every one has a role.
Some exist to produce royal jelly – a secretion used to feed larvae, as well as the queen.
Some exist to clean, the caretakers of the hive.
Then there are the foragers, the bees that go out to gather pollen. It is essential for these bees to return to the hive with their plunder.
However, as Chan pointed out, once these foraging bees have ingested pesticides, their navigation systems malfunction.
Some never make it back to the hive.
Then the other bees, the ones who are supposed to be producing jelly and cleaning up, must go out and forage in their place.
Chan called it “social destruction.”
And queen bees are living shorter and shorter lifespans.
While Chan, a beekeeper, said when she started a queen bee could last up to four years, now most live only a number of months.
“You cannot afford to lose queens every three months,” she said, explaining that the raising of a new queen can take up to a month in all.
On top of this, more bees are dying during the winter than ever before.
The past two winters, there’s been an average population loss of 50 per cent.
What can people do?
Chan advised farmers to check what kind of pesticides they’re using and to make sure they are not neonicatinoids.
“You would be doing us all a big favour,” she said.
Half of the pesticides used in the province, she said, are toxic to bees.
It’s also helpful for parts of farms to be left as insecticide-free zones.
What can consumers do?
“Get to know your local farmers,” Chan said. “They’re your neighbours.”
Chan said documented evidence shows the world’s bee population has been declining during the past 30 years.
For more information on the Haliburton County Farmers’ Association, visit www.haliburtoncountyfarmersassociation.com.