Bees are harbingers of environmental change: Hamilton Spectator

Read online

We need bees more than they need us.

No matter how far the technologies of factory farming and seed-coating insecticides can take us in the quest for cheaper, more abundant crops, we need to remember that it's domesticated honey bees and their pollinating wild cousins that allow us to enjoy such bounty. 

By carrying life-giving pollen from plant to plant, they complete the life cycle for an estimated 30 per cent of the food crops we eat, including apples, berries, and almonds. 

We need to look after bees not only because our food supply depends on them, but because our health does, too. Bees are critical harbingers of environmental change, and they have historically signalled problems before they become more widespread.

Recently, the Ontario government passed legislation aimed at reversing a worrisome collapse in bee populations by curtailing — but not banning — the use of neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides linked to honey bee die-offs.

For those of us concerned about honey bee health, the new law offers reason to cheer, but hardly enough to relax.

Neonics, as they are called, operate by paralyzing and killing insects. The problem is that they don't differentiate. 

A growing number of studies have confirmed that neonicotinoids are toxic to honey bees even in relatively low levels, reducing their ability wto learn and remember navigation routes, and worsening the effects of other diseases. And when domesticated honey bees are dying, it's a pretty good bet the same thing is happening to wild pollinators as well, including bumble bees, butterflies and other insects, with effects that ripple through entire ecosystems.

Beekeepers have a long history of advocacy in Ontario, and the rest of us should be grateful for that. 

Consider the 1880s, when fruit farmers were spraying their crops with lead arsenate to kill bugs. Yes, lead; and yes, arsenic. 

(If it sounds bizarre today, we can only imagine what today's practices might sound like in 125 years.)

In the 1880s, it was beekeepers who raised the alarm. Faced with rapid bee die offs due to insecticide poisoning, they negotiated successfully with fruit growers and the province, and they managed to win concessions that were later written into law.

In 1892, the Act for the Protection of Honey Bees became the first legislation of its kind in North America, with Ontario leading the way, as it is doing again by restricting the use of neonics. 

Starting in the spring of 2016, when restrictions on the use of neonicotinoids will come into effect, Ontario will be taking an important step in restoring vital pollinator populations, but there is a long way to go still to reduce harmful farming practices. 

Threats from pesticides are one risk to bees, but habitat loss is another. Monoculture farming, which has carpeted the countryside with single crops, leaves bees with few sources of nutrient-rich pollen and nectar once the blueberries or canola are finished blooming. 

Most native pollinators can't survive on one crop. They need to forage throughout the growing season, and that takes a variety of flowers blooming at different times.

The growing dominance of monoculture crops, and associated declines in native bee populations, have forced farmers to truck in domesticated honey bees to pollinate their crops. Beekeepers, and their bees, have become itinerant labourers in the process.

Back in the 1880s, beekeepers were voices in the wilderness, and they were right. Scientists confirmed that lead arsenate-sprayed fruit posed a threat to human health in the 1910s, and the insecticide was finally banned in the 1980s. Today, beekeepers are sounding the alarm again, and we must take heed.

Until we can understand impacts that may extend far beyond our immediate understanding, it is in everyone's interest to stop using an insecticide that, as it turns out, may not even be all that effective. (A U.S. government report found that neonics brought no improvement in crop size for soybean growers; Health Canada recently projected that the effect of banning neonicotinoids would be a reduction of 1.9% in total farm revenues.)

Reducing, and eventually banning the use of neonicotinoids in the interest of pollinator health is good for bees and beekeepers, but it is also good for farmers who depend upon honey bees to pollinate their crops. Ultimately all of us depend upon honey bees for the food that we eat, something to remember the next time you take a bite of an apple or pluck a grape from the stem.


Jennifer Bonnell is an L.R. Wilson Fellow in Canadian History at McMaster University, and the author of Reclaiming The Don: An Environmental History of Toronto’s Don River Valley. Her current research explores the history of beekeeping and environmental change in the Great Lakes Region.