Facts sting bee crisis allegations

If editorials in the Toronto and Calgary mainstream media are to be believed, bee populations are about to collapse

If editorials in the Toronto and Calgary mainstream media are to be believed, bee populations are about to collapse and the planet’s food supply will soon be devastated with mass starvation soon to follow. They blame the bee crisis on the use of pesticides most notably a type called neonicotinoids (neonics). That pesticide is applied to seeds to prevent damage from a variety of pests. It is the most widely used pesticide in the world and banning it would result in reduced yields and the increased use of other more toxic pesticides.

The main allegation against neonics is that it kills bees that come into contact with the pesticide. As expected there are studies that try to make the connection, but laboratory experiments are one thing and reality in the field is another. Allegations are made of bee colony losses of up to 40 per cent with the assumption that it must be due to neonic use on crops. Indeed bee colony losses do occur and vary from year to year and region. For example, around 2000, there were significant losses due to the varroa mite killing bees. Many recent large losses are attributed to very cold winters; bees just froze to death as they are housed outside in hives. The problem is none of those mundane problems are very sexy for the big city media or overzealous donation-chasing green lobby groups.

Pesticides always seem to be the universal whipping boy in food related issues so when neonics were alleged to be one of the causes of bee losses, green lobby groups jumped on the bandwagon. Their media machines went into overdrive alleging that bee colonies were about to disappear and it was all the fault of neonics. Many implicated the Monsanto company as the evil force conspiring to rid the world of bees, which probably surprised those folks since virtually all neonics are manufactured by other companies. It would seem the urban media couldn’t resist the onslaught of bee disaster hysteria from green lobby groups and they began to write inflammatory stories and editorials.

But there is one inconvenient truth to the bee disaster story – that being there is no bee population loss crisis, certainly not in Canada. The Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists stated that the honeybee population has steadily increased since 2009. In Canada there were 611,972 colonies in 2009 and 677,824 colonies in 2013 an increase of 10.7 per cent. Even in Ontario, where much of the crisis story is centred, had an increase of almost 20,000 colonies. The Canadian Honey Council states that there isn’t a bee population crisis and that beekeepers are managing any losses quite well. They note that there are variations from time to time, but the biggest losses are attributed to not surprisingly -very cold winters. The President of the Council also states that bee numbers are increasing and it’s a positive story thanks to best management practices to cope with pests and disease. Clearly something is amiss in the city media reporting of this situation.

It would seem that those responsible for the stories about the alleged bee disaster neglected to contact folks in the actual bee and honey industry who would know the real story first hand. To be fair, agriculture is a mystery to most city journalists and they may have succumbed to the well-oiled green lobby media machines. The other reality is that today the media is subject to the competitive pressure of producing instant news. In addition, agriculture producer associations also tend to be slow in getting their side of story out in a timely fashion. By that time the issue tends to be history and the damage is done.

It should be said that there is considerable concern within agriculture about any deleterious impacts from pesticide and herbicide use. Manufacturers and growers are constantly trying to improve the products and application methods. But there are a couple of important principles that govern the use of chemicals in food production -those being – don’t kill the customer and it must be cost effective. A compromise in the issue may be to use neonics in a much more targeted approach rather the present blanket use method. But an even bigger economic threat to the North American bee and honey industry is the continuing increase in cheap honey imports from China. Considering the abysmal food safety record of that country perhaps that is where the real concern should be. Unless that potential threat is addressed bee numbers will indeed decrease drastically.