Declining bee populations have been making headlines for many years and all sorts of theories about what’s causing colony collapse disorder have been put forth.
Late last month a four-year global study into declining bee populations was released and it points to pesticide use as the main culprit. And not just any pesticides. The study concluded that a specific family of insecticides called neonicotinoid pesticides, or neonics for short, cause neurological damage to bees, causing bees to lose their way, fewer queens to be born and weakening bees’ ability to fight off disease.
The irony is that these pesticides intended to improve crop yield are threatening the very foundation of our food system – the pollinators. They threaten the sustainability of our global food systems at a time when factors out of our control (severe weather) are impacting major food producing regions. Other insects help to pollinate crops but bees do the majority of the work.
As a precautionary measure some of these pesticides have been at least temporarily banned in Europe and environmental groups in North America are calling for a similar ban.
Part of the challenge in securing a ban is that manufacturing pesticides is huge business (approaching $3 billion in annual sales). Forty percent of all pesticides applied around the globe are neonics. They’re the family of pesticides used for growing corn and canola – two of the biggest crops in Canada
Many seeds, like corn, are actually coated in this pesticide so even though corn isn’t actually pollinated by bees, the crop dust drift during planting can be devastating to nearby bee populations.
As well, neonics are "systemic pesticides" that are most often applied to seeds and roots so the chemical becomes incorporated into the plants' leaves, pollen, nectar, fruit and flowers.
There are two things that environmental groups and independent scientists are concerned about with pesticides:
- This precautionary approach to pesticide use has been likened to a “just-in-case” approach to antibiotic use. It causes unnecessary damage to eco systems (the pesticides harm birds, butterflys, earthworms and other organisms).
- There is also a body of research that claims these pesticides don’t actually improve crop yield when compared to crops grown without the use of neonics.
These pesticides are also used for garden plants. Late last spring there was a big brouhaha when it was discovered that plants marketed as bee and butterfly-friendly at Home Depot, Walmart and other major chains had been treated with neonics. Home Depot has committed to eliminating neonics by late summer.
The report, produced by the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, is the work of 50 independent scientists from around the world who spent four years analyzing more than 800 peer-reviewed scientific studies.
How can you help save the bees?
- When you buy plants check the tag to see if they have been grown without pesticides.
- Buy organic corn products and canola oil. Cultivate bee and butterfly-friendly plants in your garden. (Catmint, chives, foxglove, cone flower and more),
- Send a letter or email to our government representatives asking for a ban on neonicotinoid pesticides. The David Suzuki Foundation has organized an online letter, making it easy to make your voice heard. Visit davidsuzuki.org.