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May 2014: The bees can’t Bayer it

May 14, 2014

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I’ve just spent three back-breaking days digging a hole. Well, when I say “digging a hole”, I mean excavating rocks and boulders from the sand which passes for soil everywhere in my garden except the raised beds. (And when I say “back-breaking”, I actually mean butt-aching, as my underutilised glutes scream in protest.)

Why would I put myself through this? Because, when I looked around my small garden, I realised something was missing. Starting in late-April, I have apple blossom for the bees. In late May, the Ceanothus flowers.

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I have never in my life seen anything as attractive to bees as this shrub.

After that, the bee-pickings are a bit slim until the blackberry flowers.

I need more bee-friendly plants in my small garden and the only way to ensure the survival of these plants is to dig a hole. I don’t mind the aching derriere, because, let’s face it, the bees need all the help they can get.

The collapse of bee populations in the past decade has been widely reported, with speculation that loss of habitat, parasites and disease have played a role. Certainly these things can affect the health of bees, but the balance of scientific research points the finger at family of insecticides called neonicotinoids (or “neonics”).

Since their commercial introduction in the 1990s, neonics have become the most widely used insecticides in the agribusiness industry. They are commonly sold in garden and DIY shops and used to coat various crop seeds (including corn, wheat, cotton, soya beans and canola),effectively turning the entire plant into an insecticide.

Early tests on the effects of neonics on bees (mostly controlled experiments in cages or greenhouses) concluded that low-dose exposure would not be sufficient to kill large number of bees. However, these studies also suggested exposure did have an impact on bee behaviour, not least their ability to learn, gather food and navigate.

Alarm bells should have been clanging deafeningly at this point, but some years would pass before this information was connected with the Colony Collapse Disorder which has wiped out hundreds of millions – if not billions – of bees in the past few years. (Environmental writer George Monbiot has described neonics as “the new DDT: a class of poisons licensed for widespread use before they had been properly tested, which are now ripping the natural world apart”.)

More recent studies did sound the alarm. For example, a 2012 study by French scientists found that as a result of exposure to the neonic thiamethoxam (manufactured by Syngenta) up to a third of honeybees fail to return to the colony after release for a day of foraging. The study would seem to confirm that neonic exposure hampers to ability of bees to navigate their way back to the colony.

A UK study published the same year, examined a colony of bumblebees exposed to a field-realistic dose of imidacloprid (manufactured by Bayer) and then allowed to forage for six weeks. At the end of this period the exposed colony was 10% smaller than would be expected of an unexposed bee colony and, more alarmingly, produced 85% fewer queens. Lest the appalling significance of this latter finding escape you, ponder this: All bumblebees, except the queens, die with the onset of winter. The survival of bumblebees depends on queens establishing new colonies in the spring.

Last year, as evidence continued to link neonic exposure to colony collapse, the EU took a science-based decision (yes, Prime Minister Harper, a science-based decision) to ban the use of the three most commonly-used neonics – thiamethoxam, imidacloprid and clothianadin (also manufactured by Bayer) – for two years, during which further research can assess the health of bee colonies.

Just this month, the Bulletin of Insectology published a second Harvard School of Public Health study linking neonic exposure to over-winter collapse of honeybee colonies. Lead scientist Chensung Lu told the Guardian: “We demonstrated that neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering ‘colony collapse disorder’ in honeybee hives that were healthy prior to the arrival of winter.” (Translation: in science-speak “highly likely” means “holy shit – do something!”)

Not surprisingly, Canadian beekeepers have been calling for a similar ban since the mass bee die-off in Ontario and Quebec during the neonic-treated corn planting season. Despite Ontario government scientists confirming the link, the best the province can come up with is the recently announced Beekeeper Financial Assistance Program. The program offers beekeepers a one-off payment of just over $100 per hive, if they lose more than 40% of their hives this year. Needless to say, Ontario beekeepers are not impressed.

So what exactly are neonic manufacturers Bayer and Syngenta (and Monsanto, a major user of neonics to coat their GMO seeds) doing about the latest environmental disaster they’ve created?

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As revealed in “Follow the Honey”, an excellent new report commissioned by Friends of the Earth and Bee Action, they are using the tobacco and oil industry playbook to deflect attention. The all-too-familiar key elements are bull shit (spin), obfuscation (deny the science) and bribery (lobbying). Oh, yes, and when all else fails, sue any government that dares to ban your product. Which is exactly how Bayer responded to the EU ban.

I dig my hole to protect the bees. The chemical industry (with government assistance) digs a money pit in which to bury them forever.

Not for the first time I wonder why the hell we’re not rioting in the streets.

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