G&M: Pesticides, pollination & the bees' needs

The massive, worldwide die-off of honeybees has been one of the biggest environmental scares of this new century. The possible extinction of the planet’s most prolific pollinator is more than a bit terrifying, which is why the story has been making headlines. But a closer look reveals that so-called colony collapse disorder, while a real threat, is being remarkably well managed.

The Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists has done an excellent job of monitoring wintering losses since colony collapse disorder first came to light in Europe and the U.S. in 2006. Its annual reports since then show that the average national winter mortality rate, which peaked at 35 per cent in 2007-2008, has been slowly declining. It is still not where it should be, but the trend is good. Part of the reason has been the better management of the pest originally thought to be the major cause of colony collapse disorder: the parasitic Varroa destructor mite. Diligent beekeepers are reducing the mites’ impact with pesticides and other tools.

The other main culprit is thought to be various neonicotinoid pesticides used by corn, soybean and canola growers, as well as by flower growers. Scientists who reviewed more than 800 studies said in June that “neonics” are “a key factor in the decline of bees.” Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency has declared that the current uses of neonics in corn and soybean production “are not sustainable” and wants to see them better managed. This month, the Ontario government implemented a licensing system in hopes of controlling use and limiting damage.

The European Union, meanwhile, has imposed a two-year ban on three types of neonicotinoid pesticides – enough time to see whether their absence improves bee-colony health. Washington is under pressure to take a similar step. But it’s worth noting that there was more honey produced by more honeybees in more colonies across Canada in 2013 than there was in 2009. U.S. honey production rose 5 per cent in 2013. And according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the “long-term cryopreservation of honeybee semen has been successfully developed,” which can’t hurt.

Eight years after colony collapse disorder was identified, governments, scientists and beekeepers have been making steady progress against it. There is more work and research to be done, but the outlook is hopeful.

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