With the winter chill on the horizon, it’s easy to forget about the pesticides vs. bees debate that made headlines in the spring. The issue, though, is far from resolved. Now that the dedicated pollinators are hidden away in their hives, cleverly avoiding the incoming cold weather, it may be time to take stock of what the real problem is and how it might be solved.
Click HERE for a detailed infographic that describes many the causes bee deaths, which have risen by almost 80% in some parts of Europe.
In April this year, a two-year ban on neonicotinoids was passed by the European Union. This was the result of a lengthy argument between bee keepers and grain farmers, and was eventually put in place due to the risk the chemicals pose to bees. The battle is far from won, however, as is evidenced by the lack of a “qualified majority” in the EU’s voting results. Britain, which abstained from the vote last time, voted against in April’s ballot, whilst Germany, France and Poland voted in favour. This suggests that the decision to ban neonicotinoids was controversial, with a strong number of countries prioritising farming over the welfare of bees.
The farmers certainly aren’t giving up without a fight, especially in countries where the ban is yet to be imposed. Although beekeeper associations in Ontario and Quebec are campaigning for a neonicotinoid ban in Canada, they have been met with strong opposition from groups such as the Grain Farmers of Ontario. They claim that these pesticides are essential for their business and, in July, sent out 28,000 postcards urging members to ask their local political representatives to oppose any ban.
Barry Senft, chief executive of the group, stated that “a knee-jerk reaction shouldn’t happen until we find out more about what is actually happening from a bee-health perspective because there are other issues that affect the bee populations.”
Whilst Senft certainly has a point, supporters of the ban see it as a necessary step for the welfare of bees. Ernesto Guzman, head of the Honey Bee Research Centre at Guelph University, has stated that data points to a definitive link between neonicotinoid use and bee deaths, although he concedes that other factors are also causing problems.
The statistics certainly suggest that there are a number of causes contributing to bee deaths, as numbers are declining dramatically and in a vast range of areas. It has been estimated that bee death rates in the United States for the last five years stand at 30%, which is 50% more than the expected rate. The loss is even more serious in some areas of Europe, with almost 80% of beehives in Spain disappearing in a five year period. In England, the amount of losses has more than doubled since 2012, according to the British Beekeepers Association.
The term ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’, or CCD, was originally used to describe the sudden disappearance of worker bees but has now been adopted by activists to refer to these mass bee deaths. It is not known for certain what has caused such a dramatic decline in bee numbers, but contributing factors are thought to include viruses, parasites, extreme weather and location of hives, as well as the much-debated chemical pesticides.
Perhaps the most unpleasant and damaging of these are the parasites, specifically Varroa Destructors, which lay their eggs in beehives so that their offspring can attach themselves to the worker bees and larvae. The Swiss government has blamed its 50% decline in bee numbers largely on these parasites, which is apparently exacerbated by humans moving bees into new areas and taking the varroa mites with them.
There is no doubt that the bee population is in a critical state and that changes need to be made to prevent further decline. The only uncertainty lies in how many factors are actually contributing to this problem, and if it is possible to address all of them without causing further issues. As the infographic above shows, the extinction of bees would have a devastating effect on produce both locally and globally, but how this will be reconciled with the needs of farmers is yet to be seen.
Please help us to continue to post inspiring, practical and cutting edge features online for free by SUBSCRIBING to Permaculture - download a FREE sample issue and try before you buy. Also available as a digital subscription (for just £10) and Apple and Android devices.