Remember all the news stories a couple of years ago about mysterious honey bee deaths? The story may have fallen out of the headlines for a while, but it wasn't because the bees are all right. Far from it, unfortunately; in fact, while we haven't been paying attention, the crisis has been getting worse.
The cause of the deaths remains somewhat of a mystery. A new term was coined to describe what happens — 'colony collapse disorder' (CCD) — referring to the sudden death of disappearance of workers bees from their hives, causing the entire colony to die. The term itself was first used in 2006, but researchers have traced the first occurrences of the phenomenon back to more than 140 years ago.
There are a number of suspects in the rise of bee deaths in recent years, most popularly the widespread introduction of GMO (genetically-modified organism) crops and the pesticides that come with them. The pesticides under suspicion are called neonicotinoids, which are chemically related to nicotine (as the name suggests) and were developed by companies like Shell and Bayer over the past 30 years. These became the treatment of choice for many crops, such as corn, soybeans and cotton, because the seeds can be treated prior to planting. This reduced the need for old-fashioned crop dusting by putting the pesticide right where it's needed, and the pesticides themselves were less dangerous to mammals (like us).
The tricky thing about pointing the finger directly at neonicotinoids is they've only been in wide use for about 10 years. That's certainly enough time to kill a lot of bees, if they're responsible, and there's certainly been a tremendous increase in stories about bee deaths in that time; especially over the past couple of years.
In the past month alone we've heard about 50,000 dead in an Oregon parking lot (attributed to the pesticide Safari, which is, indeed, a neonicotinoid, and some misinformed landscapers). Close on the heels of that was new of an even larger disaster out of Elmwood, Ontario, where apiarist Dave Schuit reported losing more than 600 hives, amounting to more than 37 millions bees, in the last year alone.
That seems to be some damning evidence, and in light of these trends, the Ontario government today announced that it's forming a new 'cross-industry working group' to get to the bottom of what's killing the bees.
Oregon has already imposed a short-term ban on the pesticides while the state investigates what's going on. The European Union recently imposed more stringent sanctions on the pesticides, calling for a two year ban. on their use. The EU's decision was in part based on studies from France, the UK, and the Netherlands, squarely implicating neonicotinoids in CCD.
So what's the hold up on this side of the Pond?
Well, even in Europe, not everyone agrees that a ban is the right solution. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) in the UK was skeptical that the evidence was strong enough to single out these particular pesticides and farmers in Europe remain widely opposed to the ban, as they stand to lose billions in crops. Farmers and biologists alike are also concerned pesticides replacing the banned ones will be even worse.
It's a difficult problem, one we can't necessarily afford to wait around on.
Bees play a part in producing the world's food supply — an estimated 75% of our crops would suffer with them, and roughly 90% of flowering plants worldwide rely on some kind of animal intervention to reproduce.
As far as the pesticides go, well... remember how CCD has been tracked back 140 years, and neonicotinoids have only been around about a decade? It seems clear this a multi-part problem that will need a multi-part solution.
Other candidates for the smoking gun are a parasitic mite, Varroa destructor, that has been found in destroyed colonies, and bacterial diseases such as American foulbrood and European foulbrood. Another piece of the puzzle lies in the environment, where bees — like many creatures — face habitat loss and other stressors like lack of pollen diversity and just plain bad food sources.
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I don't know about you, but all of this seems pretty bleak to me. So, what can we actually do to help?
A small, but important, step you can take at home is to make your property more bee-friendly. Bees need quality pollen, and the more diverse their sources, the better. There are a lot of flowers you can plant at home that will attract the insects. For instance, the little buzzers love sunflowers and cosmos, both of which I hear make a good addition to any summer garden. Bushes like honeysuckle and sumac are popular, too.
If you're not much of a green thumb, or you only have a small patio or balcony to work with, bees enjoy certain easy-to-grow herbs, as well. Sage, mint, thyme and coriander are all good choices that will benefit both the bees' diets, and your own dishes too.
(Photos courtesy: Reuters/Andrew Winning, Wikimedia Commons)
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