Toronto Star: Oslo's lesson- Bee friendly or bee dead

The bees in Oslo, Norway, are faring and flying a bit more breezily these days, thanks to a new “bee highway” in the Norwegian capital.

Through a chain of rooftop gardens, back yards, office tower balconies, parks and even cemeteries, the “highway” is a corridor of care to help protect endangered pollinators amid Norway’s largest city.

Where once only grass or patio stones confronted bees and butterflies seeking food and shelter, now marigolds, sun-flowers, and other nectar-laden flora, planted by a varied assortment of volunteers from state employees to school children to office workers, greet the peregrinating pollinators.

For Agnes Lyche Melvaer, head of the Bybi, the environmental group spearheading the project, the bee highway is an attempt to accommodate rather than ignore these vital, non-taxpaying yet absolutely essential members of our urban ecosystem.

As Albert Einstein once remarked, if the bees disappear, the human family would follow close behind.

Einstein had it right. If the bee population collapses, so does most of our food production. According to a recent report on bee health issued by the Canadian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, approximately a third of the human diet comes directly or indirectly from insect-pollinated plants, with the annual value of bee pollination in Canada an estimated $2 billion. The majority of flowering plants require pollination to reproduce, and bees are responsible for about 70 per cent of that pollination. 

Moreover, the report notes that the contribution of bees worldwide to human food production stands at an estimated $200 billion.

Yet the bees are in trouble, both at home and abroad. Although the number of honeybee colonies in Canada has increased over the past 20 years, annual overwinter colony losses in Canada have been above 10 per cent to 15 per cent since 2006-2007. And in the winter of 2013-2014, losses in Canada soared to 25 per cent.

In the U.S., the bee outlook is also alarming. According to the U.S.-based Global Research, 30 per cent of the U.S. bee population has disappeared in the past six years and nearly a third of all bee colonies in the U.S. have perished. And the rate of bee de-population is growing each year, with 42 per cent more in 2013 than the previous year.

While many factors may be contributing to bee decline, including parasites, mites, harsh winters, and overarching climate change, many researchers increasingly point to pesticide use as a primary culprit.

As Eric Atkins of the Globe and Mail has reported, a group of 29 scientists known as the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides vetted more than 800 scientific studies and found that the systemic pesticides neonicotinoids, or neonics, a nicotine-based pesticide that coats seeds and infuses all parts of a crop as it matures, are “a key factor in the decline of bees.”

Such a conclusion jibes with that of Health Canada’s Pest Management Regulator Agency, which claimed last September that bee die-offs in Quebec and Ontario were caused by corn laced with neonicotoids, averring that the use of neonic-dipped corn and soybeans was “unsustainable.” In Ontario, almost 100 per cent of corn seed and 60 per cent of soybean seed sold are treated with neonicotinoid insecticides.

In addition, Geraldine Wright, an insect neuroethologist at Newcastle University, found in a recent co-authored study that the bees actually seem to prefer neonic-tainted nectar to untreated food sources, giving support to additional research suggesting that neonics may be addictive for bees just as cigarettes are addictive for humans.

Unfortunately, health hazard warning labels on nicotine use cannot be affixed to bee balms.

Though contested, research pointing to the pernicious implications of neonics prompted the European Commission in 2013 to ban three of such pesticides, and Ontario last month instituted regulations involving the use of neonics.

While the Oslo “safe passage” corridor is a spirited and inspiring civil initiative, and a winsome public-private ecological partnership, it represents only a small slice of the solution to the collapse facing bee populations globally. As the promising moves by the European Commission and the Ontario government restricting and regulating potentially baleful pesticides suggest, large-scale government initiatives and policy are essential to addressing the global bee crisis.

After all, no one wants to prove Einstein’s bee theory to be true.

Stephen Bede Scharper, co-editor of The Natural City, teaches anthropology and environment at the University of Toronto Mississauga.