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Thinking of bees

Bees rank right up there with climate change these days for the volume of studies and stories that cross a farm newspaper editor’s desk.

Sometimes the two are even linked, such as the prediction that Africanized honeybees, which can be fatally aggressive, will make their way north from the southern U.S. as median temperatures rise. In fact, this year, they’ve been found in Colorado for the first time and it’s believed they survived the winter.

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Just this week, the USDA launched a livestream blog of honeybees at work in a rooftop apiary on its headquarters in Washington, D.C. But truth be told, watching bees fly in and out of a hive is about as mesmerizing as watching corn grow. No less exciting is following the Senate agriculture committee as it considers the decline of bees and possible connections to neonicotinoids.

Far more interesting is watching how this issue plays out between honey farmers and their crop-producing neighbours. On that front, it’s been gratifying to observe that for the most part, they’ve been handling this sticky affair like good neighbours should.

Of course, bees are getting all this attention because they are necessary to our survival — and we’re losing them. Bees are the prime pollinators of roughly one-third of all crops grown worldwide.

North Carolina researchers say that for a crop such as blueberries, it’s not how many bees that matter as much as how many kinds of pollinators. Their research shows that farmers gain an estimated $311 per acre of fruit for each additional bee group found in their fields.

Aside from their economic importance, disappearing bees leave us wondering if their decline is an omen, like the proverbial canary in the coal mine. After all, the phenomenon of colony collapse disorder (CCD), which causes bees to leave their hives never to return, appears to be caused by several factors related to modern farming ranging from loss of diversity, a lack of good nutrition, parasites and insecticides.

The links between bee losses and neonicotinoids appear to be getting stronger, which is why new guidelines were issued by the federal government last year and manufacturers have modified the product to reduce the risk.

Pesticide manufacturers are looking into the issue too, although their research results tend to highlight the multiplicity of issues buzzing around bee health, such as the effects of varroa mites, and a shortage of natural forage.

One of the latest studies, this one from the Harvard School of Public Health, found that exposure to two widely used neonicotinoids appears to harm honeybee colonies during the winter, particularly when it is abnormally cold.

“We demonstrated again in this study that neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering CCD in honeybee hives that were healthy prior to the arrival of winter,” said lead author Chensheng (Alex) Lu, associate professor of environmental exposure biology at HSPH.

Contrary to earlier studies that suggested exposure to neonics reduced bees’ ability to resist mites or parasites, the new study found that bees in the hives exhibiting CCD had almost identical levels of pathogen infestation as a group of control hives, most of which survived the winter.

According to these researchers, the neonics are causing some other kind of biological breakdown in bees that in turn leads to CCD. In two replicated trials, bee populations in the test hives treated with neonicotinoids showed significantly higher rates of mortality than untreated hives, particularly when it was cold.

Science, by its every nature is never conclusive, so we expect the quest for a better understanding of bee losses will continue.

But in the meantime, honey farmers and crop producers have to figure out a way to coexist in a way that doesn’t erode the mutual benefits of their codependance.

We applaud the efforts of organizations such as the Manitoba Corn Growers Association and the Manitoba Beekeeper Association in developing a series of best management practices to reduce the risk of exposing bees to pesticides.

Those practices include assessing each and every time whether an insecticide-treated seed is the right tool, or whether another strategy such as diverse crop rotation can reduce pest pressure.

If a producer is using an insecticide-treated seed, they are urged to control flowering weeds prior to planting to avoid attracting pollinators while reducing the competition for water and nutrients. As well, provide pollinator-friendly habitat away from active fields.

These BMPs aren’t onerous. Implementing them could in fact save a farmer money, as well as the neighbour’s bees. That’s a win-win.

About the author

Vice-President of Content

Laura Rance

Laura Rance is vice-president of content for Glacier FarmMedia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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