Canada has a new Prime Minister, one elected on the platform of change and nation-building. We also have a new Minister of Agriculture, Lawrence MacAulay.
Their election, and the shift in who holds power in this country will, I hope, reflect a change in how we examine and remediate the plight of agriculture in general and the honey bee in particular.
As a beekeeper, consumer and citizen, I have been dismayed at how farm and apiary practices have made the honey bee an agricultural orphan, and an abused one at that. It would be difficult to understate how egregiously we have used and abused this essential pollinator, this most useful insect.
In the hurly burly of 20th century modernization, we began using agricultural sprays to expand farm footprints and obviate the need for human farm labourers. Agricultural sprays equal lower production costs for farmers, but levy an extreme expense on the land, the biozone, and on the pollinators. Farmers not only apply herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers to their fields, they apply them prophylactically (as a matter of routine, not just when needed, to prevent disease and pest conditions ever arising), and they apply them as tank mixes. Mixing two or more field applications in one tank spray saves time and gasoline….but we know that many sprays, once mixed, synergize one another, making them much more toxic than the individual sprays. And unpredictable, since detailed studies of the compounds created by tank mixes have not been made.
This situation is bad enough for end consumers who eat the crops from sprayed fields, but it is catastrophic to the pollinators.
(image from http://eastvanbees.com)
Farmers are literally betting the farm that pollinators will somehow weather the combined onslaught of ever increasing monocultures, which make huge expanses of farmland pollinator wastelands, with no forage available outside brief bloom times. We are all familiar with the California almond orchards, miles and miles of a single crop, not another flower in sight. But there are other monocultures, just as large and potent: blueberries, canola, corn, soybeans, raspberries, pumpkins. Miles and miles of open land, not only devoted to single crops but with fields cleared margin to margin. No hedgerows, no trees or the weedy wildflower margins so beloved of pollinators as a year round buffet and habitat.
And that is just as well: pollinator forage close to sprayed fields is, thanks to spray drift, just a toxic banquet table.
There are well known policies to guide farmers. But they are widely ignored. Farmers have an economic incentive to farm this way: labour to mix and apply the sprays is available in the daytime, so they spray when pollinators are foraging (flowers deliver their nectar and pollen during daylight hours), and when the labour is available (even if it is windy). They apply tank mixes, they apply off-label.
How do they get away with this? Because there is no effective inspection and regulation structure set up or funded. And little public education. And a strong farm lobby.
Which brings us back to these two:
image courtesy of THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan
We need to lobby Prime Minister Trudeau, and the Minister of Agriculture, along with the Ministers of Agriculture for each Province, to revitalize the inspection mechanisms, and push pollinator friendly education and farming practice. Write them. Email them. Show up at public appearances and ask: what are you doing for pollinators?? Tell them what pollinators need, because by and large, they do not know what pollinators need.
Beekeepers also have a responsibility here. We have, thanks to our drive to do what is best for our bees, been pushing ourselves to find new ways to keep bees alive and thriving in a world now filled with bee-specific adversities and challenges.
In spite of Varroa infestations, Varroa vectored diseases, increasingly degraded and fractured forage, pesticides and agri-sprays, and increasing costs, we keep delivering bees on contract to the farmers who are bee-dependent, but who are effectively out-sourcing the whole issue of bees and pollination. They are blind to what is happening to bees, but they are entirely bee dependent.
Bee dependent. Utterly. And when they ask if we can deliver enough bees to pollinate their bee dependent crops, we say “no problem”.
Maybe we should stop saying that.
Farmers need to know just how marginal bee survival has become, particularly in bee-dense and agriculturally dense areas. Farmers have no incentive, and lots of disincentives, to change their practice to make things safer and better for bees and pollinators. We need to be honest with them: 30% (or more) winter losses from impaired bee health is not a reasonable situation for beekeepers.
And more than that, it is simply unsustainable.
Beekeepers and farmers are, incredibly, on opposite sides of the farm fence.
But so are beekeepers and beekeepers.
There are beekeepers who run stationary apiaries: the bees do not move to follow crops or nectar flows. And there are beekeepers to run migratory apiaries: bees are rented out on the pollination circuit (almonds, tree fruits, berries, vegetables, canola, soybean) and only come to rest in the winter yards.
Migratory beekeepers create problems for stationary beekeepers.
At least some of the migratory beekeeping operations, like farmers, cut labour costs by applying bee medications and mite treatments prophylactically and off-label. This drives resistance in the pests and diseases they are trying to prevent. And when they place their colonies in the farm fields, these over-treated bees compete for scarce local forage with the hives of resident stationary beekeepers (and native pollinators) and infest them with super pests and diseases.
Which brings us back to these two:
image: Andrew Vaughan / THE CANADIAN PRESS
Beekeepers need to ask for more bee inspectors and toothier regulation of pollination apiaries. We need to ask for subsidies for pollination operations so they can stay in business without adopting practices that are bad for other bees, beekeepers, and pollinators. We need to ask for better and more sustainable farm practices. We need to have land development policies that are pollinator friendly. We desperately need to push research to develop safer field sprays, and to focus on eradicating Varroa mites: not only are Varroa the single biggest threat to bee survival (including the critical wild bees), in the absence of Varroa mite pressure, bees would do much better at weathering poor agricultural policy.
There is so much to be done. We have new captains at the helm. Let them know what has to be done and why. Because they have another election to win in 4 short years.
And the bees need a win, too.