Opinionista Ivo Vegter 19 May 2015

Don’t worry, bee happy

Year after year, we’re told there’s a crisis with honey bees. Something called “Colony Collapse Disorder” is decimating bee populations, and since bees pollinate so many of our food crops, we’re all going to die. Should we panic?

Between 40% and 70% of all indigenous flowering plants in South Africa are pollinated by honey bees. No fewer than 50 South African food crops are pollinated by bees, many of them provided by commercial beekeepers. Bees are pretty important creatures, whether you like them or not. But all is not well among the bees and the flowers and the trees.

Vanishing bees,” the US National Resources Defence Council screams. “Honey bees are disappearing across the country, putting $15 billion worth of fruit, nuts and vegetables at risk.”

Honey bees, which are a critical link in US agriculture,” says the United States Department of Agriculture, “have been under serious pressure from a mystery problem: Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), which is syndrome defined as a dead colony with no adult bees or dead bee bodies but with a live queen and usually honey and immature bees still present. No scientific cause for CCD has been proven.”

A Sharp Spike in Honeybee Deaths Deepens a Worrisome Trend,” wrote the New York Times last week. “Honeybee Crisis Worsens as Summer Die-Offs Mount,” echoed the Wall Street Journal, in rare agreement with its main rival.

Decline of honey bees now a global phenomenon,” claims the United Nations, adding China, Japan and Africa to the list of regions affected by a crisis which was first seen in North America and Europe.

According to the Journal article, colony losses per year since 2010-2011 were 36%, 29%, 45%, 34% and 42%, respectively. So I charted these, to see the true extent of the calamity:


Note the frightened-looking bee, which should make the crisis comprehensible to even the youngest minds. And frightened he might well be, since those losses reduce the baseline population to less than 10% of what it used to be. That is terrifying.

To be fair, beekeepers claim that annual losses of 19% are sustainable. One assumes, therefore, that they can replenish hives by at least that much each year. Adjusting the figures, however, doesn’t make our bee much less scared. It still reduces the population to less than 40% of the baseline in 2010:


But what is this?


And what is this?


Were all these people lying? Where is the steep decline? Where is the crisis?

With tiresome frequency, when greenies cry wolf, there is no wolf. Sorry, but there is no honey bee crisis. There is something called “colony collapse disorder”, which is of concern to beekeepers, but it isn’t wiping out all the honey bees.

Campaigns by Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Pesticide Action Network and the UK’s Soil Association, however, beg to differ. And they are quick to blame the so-called bee crisis on habitat loss, intensive commercial farming and a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids. This allows them to campaign against large corporations, like Bayer and Syngenta, call for bans on pesticides, and promote small-scale organic farms over efficient commercial farms. It’s all a political charade.

As the name implies, neonicotinoids are similar to nicotine, found in tobacco leaves. Acting systemically in plants to kill insects like aphids and beetles that pierce host plants to get at the sap, neonicotinoids have become popular because they are effective, and are less toxic to the environment than organophosphate, pyrethroid or carbamate pesticides.

Says Greenpeace: “The causes of collapse merge and synergise, but we know that humanity is the perpetrator, and that the two most prominent causes appear to be pesticides and habitat loss.”

We’re always guilty, aren’t we? We’re sinners and we’re going to hell in a handbasket, unless we curb our sinful ways, take the holy sacrament of organic food, and worship Gaia, fearful and trembling.

The problem is that Greenpeace is wrong. Even if bees were dying off at a rapid clip, scientific evidence shows that the key player in colony collapse is the Varroa destructor mite, not pesticides or habitat loss. Diseases such as deformed wing virus and nosemosis also play a role, as does a protein called vitellogenin.

Conversely, the primary study that appears to link neonicotinoid pesticides with honey bee colony collapse has been widely discredited, nay, thrashed (not least by pesticide makers).

Among other problems, the “global ‘green’ rock star” who wrote the paper, Chensheng Lu, fed bees directly (rather than treating flowering crops), and used dosages that were orders of magnitude higher than bees would ordinarily receive in the wild. Clearly, this would-be toxicologist lacked familiarity with toxicology’s most basic principle, “The dose makes the poison.”

The author,” wrote Randy Oliver, a biologist and beekeper of 48 years’ experience, “knows little about bees, little about pesticides, nothing about HFCS [high-fructose corn syrup], [and] had no understanding of the distribution of systemic pesticides in plants.”

Despite the fact that colony collapse disorder is no longer a major threat, as it was in 2007 and 2008, and that no definite cause has been scientifically proven, over four million unqualified Americans, influenced by environmental propaganda, begged to differ. They signed a petition opposing the use of neonicotinoids.

In Europe, severe restrictions on neonicotinoid use has already been imposed, although the decision is subject to review, as well as to a court challenge by makers of these pesticides.

Only two years after the neonicotinoid ban was imposed, the implications are already clear. “Pests invade Europe after neonicotinoids ban, with no benefit to bee health,” wrote Rebecca Randall for the Genetic Literacy Project. She cited reports of dramatic yield declines, and in some cases the destruction of entire crops. Ironically, she showed that farmers were turning to older pesticides like pyrethroids, which had previously been phased out over their toxicity.

It should be noted that the widespread use of neonicotinoid pesticides in South Africa mysteriously poses no threat to our bee colonies. Although reported losses are similar to those worldwide, here, the hives of our African honey bees (Apis mellifera scutellata, a sub-species of the European honey bee, better known as the African killer bee) are threatened mostly by parasitic colonisation by another sub-species, the Cape honey bees (Apis mellifera capensis).

Not that any of this stops environmental activists stationed at major South African universities from producing educational material that blames bee population collapses on pesticides. Perhaps people are so quick to believe alarmist environmental propaganda because they’re taught these stories from a young age.

Among the cacophony of dire warnings from environmentalists, and the activism against agritech firms Bayer and Syngenta, credit must go to the Wilderness Foundation, a local group which approached the issue with a much more open mind. It correctly noted that pesticides are only one possible contributing factor to colony collapse, and that honey bee populations have grown in the past 40 years, albeit at less than the rate of increase of flowering crops.

Farmers ought to be careful with the application of pesticides. Of course they should. And they are, which is one of the reasons they prefer neonicotinoids. They know their business much better than you and I do. They are crucially dependent on pollinators like bees. It isn’t in their interest to kill too many bees, nor is it in the interest of pesticide makers to undermine their customers and ignore threats to pollinators. Farmers routinely interact with real-life beekeepers who, in turn, are experts in their field, and are familiar with all the diseases and environmental factors that affect bee health.

The rest of us need not panic. Even if we did know enough about the subject, our fear and alarm won’t do anything other than prompt rash “precautionary” regulations that turn out to be scientifically unjustified, and that harm our farmers.

According to the South African National Biodiversity Institute, pollination issues are not a worry for farmers. There are no pollination deficits in South Africa, and pollination management is considered to be “near optimal”.

Our honey bees are just fine. Relax. DM


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