Multinational chemical company Bayer is fighting harder and harder to protect its insecticide business in the face of global opposition. Neonicotinoid pesticides are suspected of harming bees, whose pollinating many farmers rely on to sustain their crops, and the company is desperately trying to prevent critical newspaper ads being published in Germany in advance of its annual shareholder meeting this week.
Researchers are trying to determine the effect of these substances on bees. They are popular with farmers because they are entirely safe for humans. The problem, researchers suspect, is that bees are actually attracted to plants treated with neonic in the same way that humans like nicotine in cigarettes. And even if lab studies show that honey bees are relatively unaffected by the pesticides, there are thousands of other species of bees that are more vulnerable, including some wild species that are on their way to extinction.
Even though bumble bees are the poster bees for climate change campaigns because they are furry and “cute,” it is honey bees that are the subject of much of the research. Bumble bees live in much smaller colonies of around 500 insects, nesting underground in abandoned burrows or in fields. They can be supported by gardeners planting bee-friendly [http://www.beefriendly.ca]flowering plants in their gardens and avoiding pesticides for domestic use. These days there are fewer fields left to a varied crop of wildflowers, necessary to bee health.
The other issue with research into bees and their problems is that some of the science is funded by the very companies in whose interests it is to show that neonic pesticides are not responsible for the deaths of the bees. Bee Informed, a project of Bayer, has done research into colony collapse, finding that bees are now dying more in the summer, which should be a good time for them. Scientists in the program blame the Varroa destructor mite, which invades bee colonies with fatal results, and poor nutrition.
What can we do to help? Boycotts and lawsuits targeting chemical companies like Bayer are one tactic, but bees don’t care about money. Allowing our grass verges and fallow areas to sprout wildflowers is more useful. Many communities have stopped spraying herbicides on their public areas, and this is sure to encourage bees to feel at home.
In Ontario, rural fruit orchards are a perfect environment for bees and we must hope that they are allowed to flourish. The season for blossoms is about a week, and when it is disrupted by cold, frost and strong winds, both the bees and the eventual crops will suffer. In his blog, one experienced apple farmer shared just a few of the problems that he faces in addition to climate change: powdery mildew, fire blight, mites, apple maggots, and black rot all threaten his crops. Missing pollinators will only add to his troubles. And, farms are always at risk as well from housing developments, which, ironically, often seem to spring up on the most fertile land.
Finally, although we don’t yet know exactly what effect these will have on bees, we must be wary of genetically modified seeds. When we alter the chemical structure of a plant, we are bound to affect those insects that feed on its nectar. The other big multinational chemical company, Monsanto, has a particular interest in this kind of science. And, unsurprisingly, it is now involved in lawsuits to defend its Franken-science. The US state of Vermont passed legislation requiring companies to identify GMO ingredients on food labels. Monsanto is suing, claiming that the law violates its First Amendment right to free speech by requiring it to “say” things it doesn’t want to through its food labels. This one will buzzzz for quite some time….