How are the bees doing?

Last year, I wrote a controversial opinion piece to reassure my readers: bees are not going extinct. At the time, the European Union had banned neonicotinoid insecticides and it was widely reported the these new insecticides were responsible for the death of our honey bees.

To recap, in Europe and the USA, some bees have been affected with unusually high mortality rates, especially during the fall and winter. Environmentalists have predicted the disappearance of bees and widespread famine. However, in many countries, such as Canada and Australia, bees are doing quite well. In these countries, there are more bees than ever.

The high mortality rates of some bees in some countries remain a mystery but environmentalists have already concluded that the new insecticide technology must be responsible. These new insecticides became widespread about 15 years ago. Environmentalists, under the precautionary principle, would like us to reject all that is new as potentially dangerous. But let us not forget that neonicotinoid insecticides have been introduced for good reasons. For one thing, they are much less toxic to mammals (including human beings) than traditional insecticides. For another, they can be applied directly on the seeds, thus limiting the need to spray insecticides from the air… as is needed with traditional insecticides.

The evidence against the neonicotinoid insecticides is weak despite what environmentalists would like you to believe. If they are causing the decline of bees, you would expect them to affect bees wherever they are used… So why aren’t the honey bees in Australia dying? Let us look at what the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) recently concluded (February 2014):

On the basis of information available to it, the APVMA is currently of the view that the introduction of the neonicotinoids has led to an overall reduction in the risks to the agricultural environment from the application of insecticides. This view is also balanced with the advice that Australian honeybee populations are not in decline, despite the increased use of this group of insecticides in agriculture and horticulture since the mid-1990s.

Generally, researchers fail to provide support for the view that neonicotinoid insecticides are causing the death of bees…

While it is undeniable that overwintering losses of commercial honeybee colonies are higher than they were in the recent past, there is no clear indication that pesticides are the root cause of such losses. The USDA survey shed light on the pattern of honeybee losses across the United States and concluded that such losses were unrelated to the patterns of agricultural pesticide use, in general, or neonicotinoid use, in particular. While beekeepers may have difficulty diagnosing a new phenomenon such as colony collapse disorder, they are familiar with other causes of colony loss; and pesticides ranked 8th on the list of possible causes of colony loss in the USDA survey. Additionally, the epidemiological evidence from Europe shows no correlation of honeybee losses to pesticide use and indicates the presence of causal factors other than pesticides, although it is not yet possible to completely discount potential interactive effects of neonicotinoids with other stressors. Finally, the time of year when increased mortality of honeybees is the late fall and over the winter, whereas the highest pesticide use occurs in the spring and early summer. The life span of forager bees is very short (approximately 1 mo), so the bees that may be exposed to the insecticide in the spring and early summer are not the same bees that overwinter in the hive. Additionally, it has been shown that neonicotinoids do not accumulate over time in the environment, the colony, or the honeybees. Given these 2 attributes of neonicotinoids and bees, it is not possible for the chemicals to have latent effects that are expressed months after application. (Fairbrother et al., 2014)

So how are the bees doing? According to the APVMA, they are still doing well:

(…) claims of global bee disappearance are based on regional examples which are not necessarily representative of global trends. (…) Any declines in stocks of domesticated honey bees in Western Europe and the USA over the 20th century have been more than offset by strong increases in Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa. Indeed, it is reported that the number of managed honeybee hives worldwide is estimated to have increased by about 45% in the past five decades. (…) the decline seen over many decades in the USA and Western Europe, in particular, are consistent with the economic dynamics of the honey industry, which is shifting to developing countries in search of cheaper production.

In Europe a recent survey (April 2014) found that the winter mortality rate in countries where most of the bees come from was less than 10% and it is generally under 15%. To put this into perspective, it is standard in the industry to expect a mortality rate of 15%.

That is, on the whole, the bees are doing just fine. Some bees, in specific locations, have been dying at an excessively high rate. It is possible that neonicotinoid insecticides are a contributing factor… but it is almost certainly not the cause… and whatever is happening is not dramatic.

We can certainly choose to ban new technologies until they are proven safe beyond any doubt. Not long ago, schools prohibited their students from using wikipedia or, even, the web by this same kind of logic. The problem is that this assumes that humanity is currently in a sustainable stationary regime. We are not. If we stand still technologically, our civilization will collapse.

Not only do we need to let our kids use wikipedia, we need to train them as soon as possible to discover new, safer, insecticides. The last thing we want to do is fall back on ill-advised conservatism. We cannot afford it.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

8 thoughts on “How are the bees doing?”

  1. There is some localized evidence that the incorrect use (which does occur) of neo-nicotinoids during the flowering phase of trees or plants has caused mass die-offs.

    I would recommend that in general those who apply dangerous chemicals in a non approved fashion be prosecuted in such a way as to provide significant dis-incentive for breaking the law. If this proves impractical, then I would say that the chemical is too dangerous for general sale.

  2. Additionally, I draw your attention to the following government scientific report

    This clearly indicates that neo-nicotinoids are directly responsible for bee deaths, and again, what needs to be managed is any opportunity for the bees to contact the pesticide. It is clear from this report that circumstances can and do arise that cause bee – nicotinoid contact that were previously unforeseen.

  3. Sure, nc is safer than many other choices, but there are other choices nonetheless. Pyrethrins are considered safer in most respects. Perhaps the “problem” with Pyrethrin is that the west does not have an easy access to production – the best supply is in Kenya.

  4. Hi Daniel,

    As an amateur beekeeper here in Rimouski, and for my second year, my overwintering mortality rate is 0%. So, 100% of my hives are surviving to the winter.
    However, it is not the case with a beekeeper I know here. He has a average 20 to 30% overwintering mortality rate.
    My secret: not that much; I just double the insulation of my hives (I let them outside) and check to be sure that they have enough food to survive our long winters. Doing so, even my weak colonies survived!

  5. @Dominic

    There is no question that, when poorly used, neonicotinoid insecticides can kill bees.

    However, one must keep in mind that the choice is not between neonicotinoid insecticides and nothing… the choice is between neonicotinoid insecticides and the deadly stuff we sprayed from the air before… On the whole, the evidence is clear: neonicotinoid insecticides are much safer.

  6. Hi Daniel – Thanks for linking to the sources of your article. On clicking through to the “Fairbrother” link, I was able to see that this report was funded by the Bayer CropScience Ag Research Division.

    Also, the EU memo under the “recent survey” link indicates the Commission will “maintain its ban on neonicotinoids” even though “the findings show that honeybee decline is less dramatic than first thought”, because the risks to bees “for some uses” mean “the approval criteria of these pesticides were no longer satisfied”.

  7. @Annie

    Once you start rejecting arguments based on who makes them, you are rejecting the scientific spirit.

    Yes, the European Union will maintain the ban and that is what makes my post timely. Farmers in Europe will keep on using more toxic pesticides. Sadly.

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