We have a bee hive in our orchard that for over 30 years had supported a healthy colony of honey bees. Now, that wooden structure is empty and stands there like a tombstone in memory of the insects.
It’s not just that colony alone that has suffered. For the past few years, our fields and forests have been mostly devoid of honey bees. Where once they were abundant, I now savor their infrequent sightings.
This sort of decline isn’t unique to Eastern Niagara County. Since 2006, most apiaries across the United States have seen their bee colonies decrease by 30 to 90 percent per year. Some hives — like ours — have been totally wiped out.
Twenty-five percent had once been the maximum rate of mortality in northern states that had significant cold-weather die-offs. But, the recent deaths have been occurring everywhere and during the spring and summer when temperatures are perfect and food is plentiful.
For some time, the reasons for this frightening extirpation remained unknown, and the moniker of “colony collapse disorder” was placed upon it as a catch-all for what could be either natural or man-made causes. Those days of uncertainty are gone: It was determined over the past couple of years, by independent studies released in prominent journals like Science and Nature, that the root cause of honey bee deaths was the family of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. Last year, those findings were affirmed just across the border by Ontario’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs which discovered that 70 percent of the dead bees across the province showed exposure to neonicotinoids.
These insect nerve agents have been used in increasing abundance on corn since 2005 after entering the market in the 1990s (it is now used on most all commercial corn in the United States). That timeline of pervasiveness aligns perfectly with the sudden decline in bee populations.
Produced by Bayer, neonicotinoids are applied directly to the seed and thus become a part of the adult plant, including the nectar and pollen upon which the bees feed. The chemical doesn’t kill bees outright, but it seriously impairs their development and behavior, which accounts for the inability of the bees to feed properly (they waste away), maintain their colonies and replenish them through adequate reproduction.
Other countries are taking steps to combat this scourge. In Canada, Ontario officials have encouraged farmers to inform beekeepers when they are planting, because the dust associated with planting can carry neonicotinoids to wildflowers in adjoining hedgerows as well as lawns and pastures even a few miles away. This would allow the beekeepers to move their stock to another area when planting is underway. But, it does nothing to address the longer-termed problems associated with pollination once the plants grow.
A more powerful means of suppression is taking place in the European Union. Through 2014 and 2015, the use of three specific types of neonicotinoids will be totally banned in the EU. This 2-year moratorium will see a return to 20th century insecticides and a likely resurgence in honey bee populations.
Germany and the United Kingdom passed on the ban and will allow for the continued use of the offending compounds. That’s not any different than what is happing here in the US. Even though federal studies link neonicotinoids to colony collapse, including a report released by the USDA and EPA earlier this month, the government has no immediate plans to limit or ban the use of neonicotinoids -- a major study on the impact of neonicotinoids won’t be made available from the EPA until 2018.
2018 could likely be too late, especially if a ban is determined to be necessary; that in itself could take a few more years. American farmers (especially fruit growers whose trees need more help from bees than field crops do) — and those who consume their produce — need answers and actions now. If bees were wiped out, or something close to it, fruits and vegetables wouldn’t get the pollination they need. Estimates show that the total loss of crops would approach $15 billion per year.
Neonicotinoids are certainly proving to be a bane to the health of the environment, the economy, and the people.
Ontario’s Environmental Commissioner Gord Miller said it best: "All the science is not done, but everything that I have before me ... suggests to me that this is the biggest threat to the structure and ecological integrity of the ecosystem that I have ever encountered in my life, bigger than DDT.”
Bob Confer lives in rural Gasport where he puts honey on his Cheerios every morning. He wonders if it will be worth its weight in gold in a few years. Follow him on Twitter @bobconfer or email him at email@example.com.
From the 13 November 2014 East Niagara Post