To bee or not to bee: Bees in extinction

It's no mystery what's plaguing our bees...

Credit: Ellen Ho

No, it’s not a mysterious plague decimating our bees; it’s an entirely man-made crisis. Do we have the leadership needed to address it?

For the past two years the question hasn’t changed. If anything, I’m asked more often. As I work my bees at VanDusen Botanical Gardens, folks will lean across the split-rail fence and inquire with some considerable concern in their voice, “How are the bees?”

Tourists from abroad and folks from Vancouver seem remarkably well informed. But then the problems facing honeybees have been making headlines every­where, from the New York Times to local community papers all across the continent. And people actually seem to take the plight of these insects personally, realizing, of course, that their fate is linked to ours.

They understand that something is seriously out of whack with the symbiotic relationship between bees and the plants they pollinate—a process that has gone on for tens of thousands of years, a process that until recently we have taken for granted and one that we have relied on increasingly to feed the human race.

A quick buzz on bees

Bee facts – Some quick facts about the role bees play in our ecosystem

Urban Beekeeping – Allen Garr reflects on changes with the bees and people’s perception of them

Pollinating Power – A seasonal lineup of bee attractor plants to consider planting in your garden

Six things to do for our bee friends – Learn what you can do

So I take a deep breath and I tell them, in as much detail as they want to hear. For me it is a sad story: the bees are not doing all that well. To make matters worse, and not for lack of trying, there is no end in sight. And, at least in B.C., this crisis has put the beekeeping industry at serious odds with government officials and the scientific community over just what to do about it.

If you want specifics about the state of honeybees in this corner of the world, talk to John Gibeau. He is the president of the B.C. Honey Producers Association, but, more to the point, he handles about 50 percent of all the honeybees that are used as pollinators in the Fraser Valley.

Each fall he signs contracts with farmers who grow blueberries, raspberries and cranberries, and collects a cash deposit so that each spring and early summer he will deliver beehives to their fields when those crops are in bloom.

As a result of the complex calamity that has been taking its toll on bees, for the past two years Gibeau has failed to meet his commitments. Last year he needed over 6,000 hives but he was 2,000 hives short; he ended up giving some farmers their money back. Two years ago, when those first alarming headlines began to appear, he was short by 1,000 hives. And when I spoke to him last summer, he already knew he wouldn’t be able to make his commitments for this coming spring.

The cost to agriculture in B.C., says Gibeau, is “in the millions,” to say nothing of what beekeepers are out of pocket. Some crops, like blueberries, simply can’t create much fruit without insects to help them; their pollen grains are too heavy to be carried by the wind. While there are hundreds of pollinators found in nature, including bumble bees and Osmia bees to do that work, the most common and effective insect for the mass monocultures we have taken to planting to feed us is the domestic honeybee.

Honey Bees – Life Cycle

Watch a video about the life cycle of a honey bee:
the complete metamorphosis, from the development
of the insect from egg to larva, then pupa, then adult.
Some aspects of beekeeping are also discussed.

At just under $100 million last year, blueberries are B.C.’s most lucrative fruit crop, followed by apples and cranberries. There is an irony here. It is in part people’s desire to protect their health through what they eat that has created some of the conditions that make bees sick. The increased demand for blueberries, driven by a desire to have a fruit that many believe will prolong our lives, is causing farmers to tear up hectares of other crops and replace them with blueberries. They are sought out because they contain antioxidants, which are thought to be a buffer against some types of cancer.

To produce those blueberries, more honeybees are needed at a time when the health of those little critters is in rapid decline; they are plagued by a variety of diseases, by the increased number and amount of chemicals in the environment, and by erratic climatic conditions frequently blamed on global warming.

Pressure on beekeepers to produce those colonies can lead to more and more desperate measures, which have often meant demanding more chemical solutions. SFU’s Mark Winston, a world-renowned bee scientist, says this is just making matters worse for the bees. The pressure to produce more bees and the demand for effective chemicals to treat diseases is even greater because as demand spikes, Gibeau and others are getting more money from farmers.

Twenty years ago, Alberta beekeepers who over-wintered their hives in the mild climate of the Fraser Valley were quite willing to put their hives in farmers’ blueberry fields for free, just to allow them to build up on pollen and nectar before they were hauled back to pollinate crops on the prairies.

In 1990 B.C. beekeepers were charging farmers between $45 and $65 per hive for the period the farmers’ crops were in bloom. Last spring with the increased demand for bees and the short­ages, the per-hive price jumped to between $85 and $120.[pagebreak]

Provincial apiarist Paul van Westendorp says we don’t have the colony collapse disorder (CCD) that has been devastating bees and making news all across the U.S. for the past two years, a disorder where beekeepers are finding their hives empty except for a handful of bees. But van Westendorp also notes that last year in B.C. we lost about 37 percent of all colonies over the winter, which is about the same as the numbers that were lost south of the border because of CCD. The year before that, we lost 30 percent.

So what is wrong? It certainly isn’t radiation from cell phone towers. Both van Westendorp and Winston trace the current crisis facing honeybees back to a parasitic mite that found its way first to Europe and then North America from South Asia. Its Latin name is Varroa destructor.

One theory holds that until a few decades ago the mite coexisted quite well with a cousin of our bee, the Asiatic honeybee, Apis cerana. But beekeepers lamented that Apis cerana was not as productive as the bee used in Western Europe and throughout the western hemisphere, Apis melifera. So some enterprising fellow introduced Apis melifera to eastern Russia, where at the time they were relying on the Asiatic honeybee, Apis cerana. By doing that, he also introduced Apis melifera to Varroa destructor, the parasitic mite. Apis melifera was far less able to co-exist with the parasite, which attacks every phase of the bee’s metamorphosis, from larva to adult. The results were catastrophic.

“He is convinced the solution comes in three parts: beekeepers need to be better educated about the use of chemicals, chemicals need to be more strictly controlled, and antibiotics need to be issued only by prescription.”

By the late 1980s, the parasite made its way to the east coast of the U.S. By the early ’90s it hit the Fraser Valley, and in 1993, 60 percent of all colonies were lost.

Enter the friendly chemical companies. A miticide made from a chemical called fluvalinate was introduced. It was impressed into plastic strips that could be suspended between the frames in the hives. It was considered the silver bullet—100 percent effective against the Varroa destructor mite and, better yet, it was not considered harmful to mammals.

And for more than a decade it worked as a management tool. But beekeepers were cautioned about leaving the strips in too long because the chemical would weaken, and any mites that made it through would develop a resistance. Some beekeepers ignored that warning because inserting and removing strips is labour intensive. Resistant mites developed, and hives began to succumb to the mites once more.

Van Westendorp and his staff also noticed that the mites, piercing the bodies of the bees, lowered the bees’ resistance to other diseases that were thought to be under control through the use of antibiotics. Beekeepers who noticed this increased the use of a readily available antibiotic, not only to deal with those outbreaks, but as a prophylactic against any potential infection. And, in fact, the government as recently as 15 or 20 years ago was encouraging that prophylactic use.

Sure enough, before too long, those other diseases became resistant to the antibiotic.

But back to fluvalinate: when it failed, beekeepers demanded something stronger on an “emergency basis.” After some resistance from government, what they got was cumaphos, a chemical that is considered a carcinogen and that was being smuggled across the border even before it was approved. But regardless of smuggling and the timing of its legal availability, cumaphos wore out its usefulness within two years.

Beekeepers fell back on less effective chemicals, and some tried organic solutions that were more labour intensive. The beekeeping industry, led here by John Gibeau, began demanding another chemical to control mites on an emergency basis: the neurotoxin Amitraz, which was originally developed to kill mites and ticks on cattle.

Van Westendorp has been cautioning beekeepers about it for years. It can pollute waterways, kill aquatic animals and in spite of its original purpose, it can severely damage mammals that get in its way. It was recently approved for use in all provinces except Quebec and B.C. While a move is afoot to approve Amitraz for use in B.C. at least until federal approvel expires in April 2009, the provincial authorities here, including van Westendorp and scientists including Mark Winston, are dead set against it.

A quick buzz on bees

Bee Facts – Some quick facts about the role bees play in our ecosystem

Urban Beekeeping – Allen Garr reflects on changes with the bees and people’s perception of them

Pollinating Power – A seasonal lineup of bee attractor plants to consider planting in your garden

Six Things to Do for Our Bee Friends – Learn what you can do

And once again, regulation doesn’t seem to be a deterrent: while there is no formal approval yet in B.C., at least one bee inspector reports finding this chemical being used in B.C. Gibeau is gambling that with the pressure to produce more honeybee colonies for crop pollination, the government will fold. They’ll provide “more treatment options,” and that would include Amitraz.

As you can imagine, beekeeping is just one small part of an agricultural industry where there has been an explosion of chemical solutions in the form of herbicides and pesticides. Aside from the chemicals beekeepers are subjecting their bees to, there are a whole variety of chemicals that foraging bees bump into as they make their rounds. A recent study published by Pennsylvania State University has found pesticides in pollen, honey and the wax comb in hives. In other words, honeybees now live in a kind of chemical soup.

Mark Winston wants to dial back our reliance on chemicals altogether, and cautions that “beekeepers who misuse them have caused the problem.” He is convinced the solution comes in three parts: beekeepers need to be better educated about the use of chemicals, chemicals need to be more strictly controlled, and antibiotics need to be issued only by prescription.

And the government needs to put some muscle and money into enforcement. He says it’s obvious that voluntary compliance doesn’t work: “People will not voluntarily do the right thing.” Witness the ineffectiveness of signs at Lower Mainland ferry terminals announcing “no honeybees beyond this point” in an attempt to stop the spread of mites to the Gulf Islands, Vancouver Island and up the coast. The mites are now in all those locations. The last mite-free oasis was Powell River. Mites were discovered there in 2007.

Winston says Gibeau and other beekeepers may see Amitraz as some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, but if they get their way, they “would enter a very dark tunnel from which the industry will not emerge.”

But does he see his proposal for a less chemical-dependent solution happening? While he points to New Zealand as a country that has turned the corner, he doesn’t see any evidence of it happening here.

One bit of hope comes from beekeepers and scientists such as queen breeder Liz Huxter in Grand Forks, B.C. and Leonard Foster at UBC, who are working to develop a strain of bees that is better able to resist diseases.

Meanwhile, those of us who remain in awe of the wonder of bees and their integral role in nature will continue on, avoiding the worst of chemical solutions but medicating none­theless. We know full well that in this environment doing nothing means our bees will surely perish.

This winter you will find me on some dry day kneeling before my hives at VanDusen and elsewhere wearing safety goggles, a respirator and rubber gloves while I apply a relatively benign chemical, oxalic acid, to control Varroa destructor, which is most certainly intent on attacking the bees I care for.