Beehive must wake up to honey bee crisis

[NGO viewpoint, Wednesday, 25 May 2011 Sue Kedgley]
Unless we take decisive action to protect our bees, we could be faced with massive bee deaths, a horticultural industry in crisis, food shortages and escalating food prices.

The honey bee is indispensable to our horticulture, our ecology and our economy. Yet the honey bee is in crisis all around the world, with bee populations being decimated by a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder, where entire colonies of bees disappear.

In the US beekeepers have been experiencing annual losses ranging from 30 to 90% of their commercially managed hives for the past five years. And tens of thousands of bee colonies have been wiped out in Europe, Asia and the Middle East.

Similar losses in New Zealand would be disastrous for our horticultural industries that depend on bees for pollination, and so we need to take steps to protect our bees before it is too late. We cannot wait until bees are dying en masse before we act.

Colony Collapse Disorder hasn’t been detected in New Zealand yet, but there have been numerous anecdotal reports of empty beehives, poor pollination, and significant bee losses in the Canterbury and Gisborne regions. We cannot afford to be complacent, our bees are already in a fragile state, with weakened immune systems, thanks to the Varroa mite, which sneaked into New Zealand in the late 90s.

Another significant concern is that a new generation of pesticides which are implicated in bee deaths around the world, are being widely used in New Zealand.

These pesticides attack the nervous system of bees, and are known as Neonicotinoids. They began to emerge as a prime suspect of bee deaths following scientific testing of bees after a spate of honey bee deaths in France and Germany.

In 1994, 90 billion bees died when France introduced a new insecticide as a seed coating on sunflowers. Across the border in Germany tests on dead bees found a build-up of a similar pesticide. As a result France and Germany and later Italy banned the use of these Neonicotinoid pesticides to coat seeds of plants that bees are attracted to.

Further research has confirmed that these insecticides are a major factor in ‘Colony Collapse Disorder’ – along with parasites, bacteria, disease, genetically engineered crops, intensive farming and loss of bee habitats and natural feed sources. This new generation of pesticides are ‘systemic,’ and are therefore present in every part of a plant which is treated with them, including the pollen and nectar. So bees feed on them and take the residues of the pesticides back to their hives.

The use of these pesticides has increased significantly in New Zealand over the past five years, as seed companies coat seeds such as grass, rye, maize, brassica and squash seeds with Neonicotinoid pesticides. White clover in pastures is an important food for bees, yet farmers are being urged by some seed companies to treat their grass and clover seed with these insecticides. Others report that farmers are not being told the seeds they are using are coated with insecticides that are highly toxic to bees.

A number of other pesticides that are widely used in New Zealand are also toxic to bees. The US Environmental Protection Agency has identified 50, and New Zealand is still using 32 of these pesticides. They include popular home garden products, household products that are used to kill fleas, as well as agricultural sprays.

These pesticides may not be killing bees outright, but they are weakening their immune systems and making them much more susceptible to disease.

We cannot continue to use pesticides that we know are acutely toxic to bees. A smart move would be to take action to prevent a problem rather than wring our hands when the bee bodies pile up.

That’s why the Green Party has launched a petition that calls on the Government to suspend the use of Neonicotinoid pesticides until they have been reassessed for their effect on bees, and to develop a Healthy Bees strategy to protect and improve the health of our bee populations.

But instead of acting decisively, the Government is taking a wait and see approach – saying it needs ‘proof’ before it will take action to save our bees

Federated Farmers have joined the fray, dismissing global concerns about Neonicotinoids and claiming there is no need to investigate them, let alone suspend their use. They say they have been working with the seed manufacturer Bayer for two years, and seem to have bought their line that despite being toxic to bees, they are completely safe.

In our view this is utterly irresponsible. We cannot allow vested interests to capture the policy making process, and delay action until it is too late.

In response to rising concerns about the future of the bees, the European Parliament has adopted stringent regulations which will phase out the use of pesticides that are highly toxic to bees.

We must follow their lead, and maintain stringent biosecurity procedures to protect our bees from biosecurity threats. At the same time as we must reduce the poisons they are being exposed to.