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To bee or not to bee?

THAT TWIST ON SHAKESPEARE'S existential question is being answered, tragically, in the negative. Bees are dying in droves. And since, as Greenpeace's Rex Weyler points out, "Seventy out of the top 100 human food crops, which supply about 90 percent of the world's nutrition, are pollinated by bees," (1) that means we're in deep trouble too. That's what's at issue in a recent report being dubbed the 21st century's Silent Spring--a publication bearing the far less catchy title of "Worldwide Integrated Assessment of the Impact of Systemic Pesticides on Biodiversity and Eco-systems." (2) Issued in June by a group of 29 independent scientists from four continents who sifted through some 800 peer-reviewed papers, the meta study confirms mounting evidence of a causal link between the use of neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics) and the massive die-offs documented in recent years of both domesticated and wild bees. (3)

Introduced in the late 1990s, neonics are a class of insecticide considered less toxic to humans and mammals than earlier generations of pesticides. They are easy to use, especially in the form of pretreated seeds which allow farmers to forego crop dusting. As a neonic-treated seed grows, the toxin is absorbed by every part of the plant--roots, flowers, pollen, nectar ... The poison can even remain in the soil, making its way from there into random plants. Now the most widely used class of insecticide in the world, neonics represent a vast, lucrative market for some of the world's major chemical companies including Monsanto, Bayer, Dow and Syngenta.

Successive studies have suggested a variety of adverse impacts on bees, including the disruption of their learningand memory functions, which impedes their ability to forage and navigate successfully. This is believed to be implicated in what has been termed "colony collapse disorder" in domesticated honeybees. Research has also shown neonics to have a deleterious effect on other animals necessary to healthy ecosystems, such as earthworms, butterflies and birds.

The case against neonics is not undisputed, of course. The chemical industry and many farmers contest the charge which has implications for their profits and productivity. And there are fears as well of a return to older classes of pesticides such as organophosphates, which are even more toxic to bees as well as to humans and wildlife. But severe restrictions on the use of neonics, such as the two-year ban imposed by the European Union last year, increasingly appear essential to protect pollinators, coupled with the expansion of ecological farming techniques that reduce reliance on pesticides in favour of preventive pest-management practices. As Joni Mitchell pleaded, "Give me spots on my apples. But leave me the birds and the bees."

Taking arms against a sea of troubles

On the heels of the latest bad news about the bees came yet another major report about the collapse of the oceans, this one produced by the Global Ocean Commission, focusing on the high seas. (4) The report warns straight off that the combination of ocean acidification, warming and the expansion of dead zone--phenomena attributed to climate change-- could render 60 percent of ocean species extinct by 2050. And it acknowledges that "with respect to the impact of climate change on the global ocean and the conservation of marine biodiversity, the policy debate is fragmented and there is as yet no clear agreement on the appropriate forum in which to address the issues, let alone on the policy goals to be achieved." The report puts forward a series of proposals for combating ocean degradation and stimulating recovery including curbing overfishing, introducing better safety standards for offshore oil and gas exploration, and reducing marine pollution in the form of plastic waste--laudable enough goals but likely too little too late.

Undoubtedly there will be more research, more reports. At some point, further study of the problem becomes an excuse for doing nothing. The canaries in the mineshaft have by now all perished, yet we persist in digging deeper.

(1) Rex Weyler, "Worldwide Honey Bee Collapse: A Lesson in Ecology," Ecowatch, June 11, 2013


(3) See for example: Carey Gillam, "Bees crucial to many crops still dying at worrisome rate: USDA," Reuters online, May 15, 2014

(4) _www_uploads/reports/GOC+Full+Report.pdf

ANDREA LEVY A CD editor for the last 15 years and now a coordinating editor, Andrea is a Montreal-based historian, translator, journalist and activist.
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Title Annotation:EcoSIDE; massive die-offs of bees
Author:Levy, Andrea
Publication:Canadian Dimension
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jul 1, 2014
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