Commentary  Beeware

How a pesticide on the Macdonald campus farm is killing honeybees

The McGill Apiculture Association, located near the corn fields of the Macdonald Campus farm, lost 50 per cent of their hives in the 2011-2012 winter due to a pesticide.

Why is this happening? The necessity of honeybees is an underappreciated facet of commercial agriculture. Honeybees, among other insects, pollinate; that is, they move pollen grains from male to female parts of plants, ensuring successful fruit production worth around $215 billion per year globally. It’s estimated that one-third of all commercially grown crops are pollinated by honeybees.

Recently, this tension has produced a phenomenon with severe agricultural and food security implications called Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD). CCD has one main symptom: a sudden absence of worker bees. Only the queen and young remain in the colony, with few or no dead bees around the hive. This phenomenon was first observed in the 2006-2007 winter, when 32 per cent of all colonies were lost in the U.S.A., and since then have lost similar levels.

One of many contributory causes of CCD is the class of systemic pesticides known as neonicotinoids. Neonicotinoids coat seeds and then develop through the plant’s tissue, nectar, and pollen. Honeybees are exposed to these pesticides through contact and ingestion of pollen and nectar, their two sources of food. The pesticides then target the bees’ nervous systems, blocking the acetylcholine receptors, which causes disorientation, increased stress and mortality, and abnormal movements. These effects weaken the hive and lead to mite and parasite infestations, exacerbating the problem. It is also possible for honeybees to contaminate other colony members because nectar and pollen are stored and shared within the hive.

McGill University uses neonicotinoids on its crops at Macdonald campus. Use of these pesticides may be a breach of the environmental policy for McGill University, which states, “the McGill University community shall make every reasonable effort to: Prevent the overconsumption of energy and other resources and reduce the production of waste and the release of substances harmful to the biosphere.” McGill’s policy is very abstract, making it difficult to regulate. I am an Environmental Science student, and have never heard of this policy. I question the validity and use of this policy as an instrument of change.

Unfortunately, while some other current policies allow for the use of these pesticides, the United States’ Environmental Protection Agency’s Fate and Effects Division only explores the effects of pesticides on target insects, and does no research on how the pesticide affects other species, such as bees. However, some European countries recognize the adverse effects on bees. Germany, Italy, France, and Slovenia banned the use of the pesticides on rapeseed (canola) in the past four years, and some progress is being made in North America as well. On June 12, Health Canada released a re-evaluation notice of neonicotinoids on pollinators.

The situation is incredibly important because there has been an almost four-fold rise in agricultural production that requires animal pollination over the past fifty years. As a result, commercial apiculture is forced into migratory beekeeping in an attempt to counterbalance this inequality. Each year, hundreds of commercial beekeepers move approximately 48 billion bees around the world to pollinate crops. The almond crop in California exemplifies the interdependent relationship between honeybees and agriculture. California produces 82 per cent of the world’s almonds; in 2006, the state sold $1.5 billion worth of the crop. All of this depends on bees, but the confinement, and temperature fluctuations, shocks, and vibrations that bees endure during transportation to California are damaging. Moreover, the honeybees face malnutrition, having only one available food source, and mass conglomeration, which makes the honeybees vulnerable to any disease or parasite in the area. The numerous causes of stress from migratory beekeeping push honeybees to colony collapse disorder.

Beekeepers, too, face problems in commercial agriculture. The economics of pollination determine the scale of beekeeping: making a living off beekeeping is not realistic without migrating, so beekeepers must sacrifice their integrity, and the autonomy and humane treatment of their honeybees. This discourages beekeeping from being anything more than a hobby, pushing agriculture to depend on the unnatural and fragile method of migratory beekeeping.

Somehow, the development of commercial agriculture has belittled the importance of honeybees to the point of jeopardy. It is remarkable how completely necessary the roles of migratory pollination and pesticide use are to commercial agriculture, and yet how disastrous they are for honeybees. Managing honeybees and their livelihoods is critical to protecting our own. They play a vital yet sensitive role in the agricultural ecosystem that has underappreciated impacts on our lives.

Evan B. Henry is a honeybee and U2 Environmental Science student. He can be reached at evan.henry@mail.mcgill.ca.

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