Friday, 8 May 2009

Honeybee decline and facts which DEFRA tries to gloss over.

At last the mainstream media seems to have grasped the fact that bee die-offs have serious implications for humanity, and the problem isn't going away.
Martha Kearney's documentary on bbc4 last week provided a more in depth analysis than I have seen on the tv before. In the documentary,agricultural pesticides were heavily implicated as a source of the die-offs, but Martha Kearney stopped short of saying this directly. Likewise, the scientists who were interviewed seemed to be pointing to pesticides as the greatest cause of concern and even implicating them as the root of the problem, but avoided claiming this categorically. In the documentary many possible causes were explored.

Some Facts
a) In the UK last year nearly a third of honeybees were lost.
b) 40% of hives died out.
c) The European Honeybee pollinates over 90 crops. In the UK this is worth £190 million and in the US sixty times that amount.
d) The honeybee accounts for 80% of insect pollination.

In the US:-
e) One beekeeper lost 360 out of 400 hives.
f) A big commercial beekeeper lost 200 million bees.
g) 600,000 hectares of almonds in California represent 90% of income for beekeepers.
h) Beekeepers can own around 70,000 hives which are transported huge distances(around 3000 miles) across the continent.
i) Because of the decline of bees, aeroplanes are ferrying bees from Australia to California and back. Australian bees are so far unaffected by ccd.
Environmental Stressors
a) Lack of hedges and set-aside land combined with huge acreages of monocrops, means there are fewer wild plants and biodiversity for bees to feed on.( 100 years ago there were plenty of wild bees and other insects which are now largely eradicated.)
b) In the US hives are transported huge distances accross the continent, sometimes 3,000 mile trips.
c) At the National Bee Unit in York the English Government experts attribute the problem to climate change, and weather patterns. In unseasonal weather the bees will not forage. Viruses which spread at an alarming rate become resistant to chemical treatment.
d) Pests (such as varroa mites) viruses, bacteria and fungi.
e) Genetic narrowing of the species through breeding of bees that are more docile and produce good honey yields, but are more susceptible to pests and disease.

All the above developments are helping to compound what has become a critical situation of colony collapse disorder and massive bee die-offs.Environmentalists, conservationists,ecologists, and many scientists have been expressing their concern for a long time over the lack of biodiversity caused by intensive agriculture.Despite this in 2007 the European Commission decided to abolish set-aside land so that every last strip of land could be used for intensive crop production. Scares over food shortages were exploited to push for the expansion of more intensively farmed agricultural land, and to push for the introduction of genetically modified crops which had previously been banned in Europe. Now, just over a year later we are literally reaping what we have sown,- the extermination of the main crop pollinators-bees.
Although no single event by itself can be identified as a cause of the honeybee decline, scientists agree that something is weakening the bees resilience, and immunity to diseases.
Conflicting Theories.
But scientists seem to be promoting two conflicting theories. On the one hand they say that pesticides are not the single culprit of bee deaths. Something, or a combination of things, is making bees weak and more vulnerable to pathogens which are killing them.( Pathogens are found in dead bees, but in healthy bees too)Alternatively they are saying that bees are subjected more than ever before to contamination by pesticides on food crops. At Penn State University in the US, Maryanne Frazier points out that bees are at risk from a whole cocktail of pesticides.There's no doubt that lack of wild plants and adequate food has a significant impact on bees, and unseasonal weather also effects how they survive, but these elements cannot explain the following:-
Some commercial apiarists in the USA have monitored and described the care of their bees in the months leading up to the wipe-out of their bee colonies. These bee keepers went to great lengths to make sure the bees had adequate nutrition over the winter period. One beekeeper transported thousands of hives a distance of hundreds of miles to spend the winter away from any risk of contamination from already effected bees. The following Spring his bees had disappeared with only a small number of dead bees around the hives.This demonstrates there is no link between the husbandry of individual beekeepers and the death of colonies, or between weather conditions and the bee deaths.. This seems to put pesticides at the top of the list again. Maryanne Frazier (Penn State University) wonders whether "the whole toxic soup is having a long-term effect to push bees over the edge?" Marryanne collected bee samples from a number of beekeepers and found pesticides in every class that are currently being used-insecticides,fungicides and herbicides.In one bee she found 25 different agro chemicals.
This research so far, makes it difficult to understand how pesticides can be dismissed as not being the source of colony collapse disorder, or honeybee decline. Research scientists have no idea what the pesticides in combination (the toxic soup or cocktail effect) are doing to bees, or to anything else for that matter. Given the number of pesticides found in bees, it would take many more years of research to analyze the interraction of the different compounds and their effect on bees and how they effect the immune system of bees.One of the most damaging group of pesticides seem to be the 'neonicotinoids' (nicotine based). They are systemic, meaning they are applied to seeds and distributed throughout the plant.Imidacloprid (sometimes called Gaucho) is a neonicotinoid which it is claimed, at low level or sub lethal doses, effects the brains of growing bees resulting in damage to their navigation system and homing instinct. For this reason the pesticides have been banned in France, Germany, Italy and Slovenia.
There is another reason to suspect that pesticides might be at the root of the bee decline. A number of beekeepers in Britain and America have reported that when their bees are put into or near to farmland where there are treated crops, their bee colonies have died. By contrast when their bees have been able to forage on land or woodland which is free of pesticides, the bees remain healthy.
Mike Thurlow, a beekeeper in Britain has described the problem he has encountered since 2002. Hundreds of thousands of dead bees were found around the hives, they weren't disappearing. Mr Thurlow complained that there is a lack of wild flowers for bees to feed on, and consequently his bees are struggling.He went on to describe the difference he saw when his hives were put in farmland. When bees came back from pollination they were divided three ways-one lot into a wood(lime trees) and the other two lots in intensive agricultural areas, where the colonies collapsed.
This account is echoed in the experience of urban beekeepers. In cities there is more food for the bees in parks and small gardens with there diversity of plants.
I think A.Jarvis of the Independent newspaper provides some apt comments on this issue. Referring to systemic pesticides he writes ...."They're supposed to be discriminatory-in the same hopeless way, smart bombs are meant to be-but,like the smart bombs, they're actually pretty dumb. In fact, they're probably worse for the bees than the old-fashioned spray-and-be-damned kind, as they're aimed at the seeds, and the problem has become systemic. Now when the bee pollinates a plant, it picks up a cocktail of drugs along the way.........It does all seem absurb, the idea of an aeroplane ferrying bees from Australia to California and back. How did the simple practice of beekeeping become this convoluted?And how can it be reversed?...."
Finally I think it is important for us all to realize that Colorado beekeeper Tom Theobald is right when he says that "pesticide laws are routinely ignored and pesticides are not properly evaluated independently to assess the impact they might have on bees....." Orlando Clarke, an urban beekeeper says...."if you've got one creature that's so widespread accross the planet and suddenly it's coming under such an attack that it's almost being wiped out-we've got to be asking how that's feeding further up the food chain and right accross nature."


Jamblichus said...

Excellent post. I wish I had caught the documentary. The Independent also recently reported on attempts to reintroduce on a wider scale the native black bee. Such attempts to gain a broader diversity of bee types are no bad thing, but prevention would of course be infinitely preferable. Astonishing the amount of pesticides they are exposed to. Good work as usual.

Allvira said...

Awesome post. Insects, unwanted plants are some of the pests that can detriment anybody’s house, garden, etc. Implementing pest control methods at a right time is the best strategy in order to get respite from the pest attacks.