Flight of the honeybees’ commercial keepers — Part II

Paul Driessen Senior Policy Advisor, Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow
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Read part I here.

Having found that the global warming cri de coeur no longer loosens progressive purse strings, or stirs public anxieties, leftist groups like the Center for Food Safety and Pesticide Action Network North America have found a new cause.

As previous articles have noted, they are blaming an innovative new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids for both over-winter bee losses and “colony collapse disorder” or CCD.

Allied with several outspoken beekeepers, the activists are pressuring government regulatory agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency and Canada’s Pest Management Regulatory Agency (PMRA) to follow Europe’s lead – and ban neonics. Instead of protecting beekeepers’ livelihoods, their campaigns will likely expose bees to even greater harm.

The European Union’s decision to suspend use of a pesticide was a serious matter, but not because of the product. It was based on politics, rather than science. A shift in the party in power in France in May 2012 resulted in a new agriculture minister with an ax to grind. He banned the use of neonicotinoids in France.

“While the ban was popular politically,” British environmental commentator Richard North observed, “French farmers would be at a distinct disadvantage with the rest of Europe, if they were the only ones unable to use the pesticide. Syngenta estimated that they would lose €200 million [$278 million] per season, through lost yield and crop protection.”

So French agricultural minister Stephane Le Foll instructed his ministry to push for an EU-wide ban on all neonicotinoids. They lobbied the European Commission and European Food Safety Authority. After several votes and a misleading report on what the science shows, the European Commission delivered the French agricultural minister the ban he wanted.

The prohibition on using neonics was imposed over the strenuous objections of the UK, Germany and other EU members, who maintained that scientific evidence clearly demonstrated that the new pesticides were safe for bees, and farmers would be significantly harmed by any ban.

Now North American activists want Canada and the United States to repeat the EU mistake. They are counting on pressure group politics to work in their favor once again, because the science is increasingly against them.

A growing battery of years-long field tests have found that real-world, field-relevant exposure to neonics has no observable effects on bee colonies. Other studies have highlighted other significant insect, fungal, human, and other issues that, singly or collectively, could explain colony collapse disorder. Focusing on neonicotinoids, while ignoring these other serious problems, could easily perpetuate the colony collapse problem, while also creating many other difficulties for farmers.

Canadian bee experts have analyzed all bee death incidents reported to PMRA from 2007, when record keeping began, until 2012. They concluded that “very few of the serious bee kills involve neonicotinoid pesticides. Five times as many ‘major’ or ‘moderate’ pesticide-related bee kills were sourced to non-neonic chemicals.”

In Canada’s western provinces, almost 20 million acres of 100 percent neonic-treated canola is pollinated annually by honeybees and tiny alfalfa leaf-cutter bees. Both species thrive on the crop.

Even before Europe’s decision to ban neonicotinoids, at least two large-scale field studies of honeybees at Canadian universities and a bumblebee field study by a UK government agency had been completed. The studies found no adverse effects on bees.

Last October, a team of industry scientists published a four-year study of the effects of repeated honeybee exposure to neonic-treated corn and rapeseed (canola) pollen and nectar under field conditions in several French provinces. The study found similar mortality, foraging behavior, colony strength and weight, brood development and food storage in colonies exposed to seed-treated crops and in unexposed control colonies. This indicates low risk to bees.

At least two more major, recently completed university-run field research projects conducted under complex, costly, scientific laboratory guidelines (known as “good lab practices”) are awaiting publication. All indications to date suggest that they will find no observable adverse effects on bees at field-realistic exposures to neonicotinoids.

Beekeepers and farmers tempted to listen to the inaccurate charges that neonicotinoids are to blame for any issues they encounter need to pay attention to the fact that field studies do not show harm to bees from these pesticides. They must also consider the alternatives.

Farmers forced to operate without this class of pesticides would be forced to revert to older classes of pesticides known as organophosphates and pyrethroids. Those insecticides are much more toxic to bees. In fact, before neonicotinoidswere invented, bee casualties from widespread use of these products were so severe that the United States and Canada governments offered subsidies and reimbursements to beekeepers whose hives were impacted.

Honeybees play a vital role in pollinating key crops like almonds. This further ensures that beekeepers have allies in the effort to help bees thrive and find out what is actually impacting hives.

Project ApisM., a partnership of agro-businesses and beekeepers, has invested $2.5 million in research to enhance the health of honeybee colonies. Switzerland-based Syngenta has spent millions expanding bee habitats in Europe and North America, through Project Pollinator.

Bayer has built bee health centers in Europe and the United States, and Monsanto’s Beeologics subsidiary is developing technology to fight varroa mites.

Bee populations have fluctuated for thousands of years. Amidst the uncertainty surrounding which pest is hitting them hardest at what time, one certainty is that these resilient creatures will ultimately prevail.

Paul Driessen is senior policy analyst for the Committee For A Constructive Tomorrow (www.CFACT.org) and author of Eco-Imperialism: Green power — Black death.