Dying bees a rallying cry for citizen action

ByRob O’Flanagan

ELORA — During a public forum Wednesday, a relatively new class of pesticides with difficult to pronounce names like clothianidin, imidacloprid, and thiamethoxam were singled out as the likely culprit behind the catastrophic collapse of bee populations here and around the world.

While the scientific evidence linking these neonicotinoid pesticides with colony collapse disorder is inconclusive and in dispute, honeybee experts say the anecdotal evidence linking them is growing. Beekeepers are witnessing the effects firsthand.

About 150 people turned out for a Slow Food Wellington County event at the Elora Legion where the documentary filmThe Vanishing of the Bees was screened, and beekeepers spoke about the perplexing and potentially disastrous vanishing.

The event was organized by Chris Jess, a leader of Slow Food Wellington County, who has grown increasingly disturbed by the demise of the bee population and wants to see immediate action taken to address the problem.

As the film The Vanishing of the Bees suggests, the sudden disappearance of honeybees from colonies in North American and Europe has stumped beekeepers and is threatening food production.

So catastrophic is the problem that it is conceivable that fruit and vegetable crops could be wiped out, many attending the event said. Bees are indispensable as pollinators, and without them, forum presenters said, the food system is unsustainable.

The mass die-off began to appear in the U.S. around 2005-06, when major beekeepers started discovering their wooden hives were empty. The bees were simply gone. Since then, countless commercial beekeepers in North America have been put out of business, and many worry there won't be enough bees to pollinate fruit and vegetable operations.

The same phenomenon occurred roughly a decade earlier throughout Europe, where a tentative link has been made between neonicotinoid pesticides and colony collapse disorder, prompting a Europe-wide two-year moratorium on their use earlier this year. That decision is the subject of a legal challenge recently launched by agrochemical companies.

In a desperate search for the reason behind the problem, everything from cellphone towers and global warming, to the rapture and environmental terrorism were offered as possible causes.

It has became clear to beekeepers that something is compromising the immune and nervous system of bees, making them susceptible to an array of diseases, and disrupting there homing instincts, forum participants heard. They suspect neonicotinoid pesticides.

Beekeeper Jim Coneybeare of Coneybeare Honey near Fergus was one of the speakers at Wednesday's forum. He said something is disrupting bees' natural ability to navigate their way home. He started noticing higher bee losses in 2006, around the time the neonicotinoid pesticides started being used in his area. Winter mortality among his bees also doubled around the same time.

Coneybeare acknowledged that there are other problems such as parasites and viruses showing up in his bees. But he is convinced that the pesticides are directly linked to the devastation of the bee population.

What he is seeing now, he said, has never been seen before. His honey production levels are about one-tenth of what they should be, and he recommended a moratorium on the use of the pesticides until their effects on bees are understood.

High levels of neonicotinoid residue are showing up in puddles after heavy rain, he added. Bees are drinking from that water, as well as transporting it back to the hives. The death toll around hives after a rain shower is high, he said.

"The environment is now being loaded with neonics and other pesticides," said Coneybeare, who has been forced to move part of his beekeeping operation further north where there are very few neonicotinod-treated corn and soybean fields. He expects to see his bees fare much better in that environment.

Nathan Carey, a Grey County farmer turned honeybee activist, said it is time for citizens to "stand up for what really matters" and ensure that the ecosystem that sustains us all is able to thrive.

"That is at risk with the death of bees," he said. "We cannot lose our pollinators. This crisis sends shock waves through the whole food system."

He said the bee crisis is like a rallying cry for citizens to stand up for the environment. If the government is dragging its feet on addressing the problem it is because citizens are not demanding that government acts.

During the discussion, Judy Martin, a member of the Sierra Club of Canada, read a letter from the organization addressed to the Government of Ontario. It lambasts the new Ontario Bee Health Working Group, saying it is undemocratic and that its membership is dominated by vested interests that created the problem in the first place, namely the agrochemical companies.

Instead of implementing the kind of precautionary approach common in Europe, the province is allowing neonicotinoid use before understanding the risks, the letter indicates. The Sierra Club of Canada is calling for a moratorium on the treatment of seeds with the pesticide until further research is done into their potential risks.

One audience member, Peter Turrell, a beekeeper from Grand Valley, likened the vanishing bee problem to an environmental atom bomb. This year, he said, there has been an "alarming rise like we've never seen" in bee mortality. Something extraordinary is happening.

Turrell said the options for beekeepers are becoming very narrow. They can quit, move away to safer country or take legal action.

Rene van Acker, a professor of plant agriculture at the University of Guelph, said the decline of bees is one of a number of challenges and dilemmas stemming from the scope and scale of present day agriculture, especially the "monoculture" that has emerged in large-scale farming.

Van Acker said U of G's Ontario Agricultural College has expertise in honeybee research. Scientists at the university continue to expand their capacity in the subject area, and are contributing to the global effort to fight colony collapse disorder.

But he said it is society's growing interest in food — how it is grown, where it comes from, and how healthy it is — that is driving interest and investigation into issues like the impact of pesticides on bees.

Carey urged those present to volunteer their time and donate their resources to any one of a number of citizen-based organizations that are struggling to address a host of environmental issues.

Coneybeare told audience members to write letters and send emails to local provincial and federal representatives, urging them to address the bee problem. If citizens take the lead politicians will follow.