[The essay below by Cam Fitzgerald, a frequent contributor to Ricks Picks, is a stark reminder that humanity could soon be facing problems even more serious than the collapse of the global economy. The alarming die-off of honey bees and other cross-pollinators may presage nothing less than the devastation of food supplies around the world. A beekeeper himself, Cam warns that, unlike global warming, which is happening slowly, the death of bee colonies has been so precipitous that a solution needs to be found and implemented as quickly as possible, lest the food chain suffer catastrophic damage. Although a pesticide called Clothianidin is suspected, we don’t have time for endless political debate, he warns. Time is running out, and that is why I would urge readers to spread awareness of the problem by disseminating this commentary as far and wide as possible. RA]
Rick has invited me to contribute an article discussing my views of how the world will look in the coming years. I am afraid I have very, very bad news for everyone though. My story is not science-fiction nor is it conjecture and yet it has drawn me to a very sad conclusion following events over the past few years. The issue that follows has ramifications that may even suggest the eventual collapse of society itself.
Let me explain. In the latter part of the 1800’s a novel new chemical was developed called DDT. This synthetic chemical’s true calling and use was not realized, though, until sometime around the Second World War when a Swiss chemist named Paul Hermann Mueller first discovered its properties as an effective insecticide. He won the Nobel Prize for his efforts. The chemical found widespread use in agriculture and in the control of malaria-bearing mosquitoes, and for decades was one of the major means of pest control on crops. But our birds of prey were dying off in America as a result and there were strong suspicions that agricultural chemicals were to blame.
Evidence slowly mounted over a period of years to prove that the thin, crumbly shells of eggs laid by eagles and other raptors highest up on the food chain were the result of DDT contamination. A decade of environmental activism armed with a growing body of scientific studies led to significant political pressures before the chemical was finally (and permanently) banned from use in the United States.
And just in the nick of time too. The Peregrine Falcon, as a result of DDT poisoning that was accumulating in the birds bodies, had come within a feather of joining the list of extinct birds in North America. In California, the numbers of Peregrines known to exist barely exceeded ten nesting pairs in the year of the ban. The American eagle itself was on the endangered list, and a long list of predator raptors were close to joining the chorus of the condemned. The year was 1972.
Flash forward to today. The new enemy is also an insecticide. This time it has a much more ominous overtone, however, because this time the ultimate victim at the top of the food chain is you and I, and the endgame may well terminate with a global famine and bitter wars over agricultural croplands that support grains.
No, we will not be poisoned directly by this chemical, but we could face serious food shortages and the loss of critical crops that will spell the end of the good times as we now know them. I only wish this were an urban myth. Most of you likely have no idea how close we already are to a cataclysmic failure of agricultural production brought on by the use of these chemicals. Judge for yourselves and read on.
The name of this chemical is a little more complicated this time around, and those suffering the worst effects are not nearly so warm and cuddly to most people as birds are, but the outcome of its use could potentially prove devastating. Commercially, this product is called Clothianidin. It is known as a neonicotinoid to farm guys and gals, and it specializes in killing bugs on crops.
Some of the victims unfortunately, mere insects to most people, are also the primary commercial means of pollination for crop production across the globe, responsible for doing the hard work that enables farms to produce 35% of all the foods we eat. I am talking about bees, of course. And they are dying off globally in such staggering numbers each and every year that the food chain itself will soon become seriously compromised if solutions are not found, and quickly.
70% Hive Failure Rate
Just two months back, we received the results in Saskatchewan for the winter mortality of the year 2009/2010, and the outcomes were not good — better than in the last few years, but still dismal. Over 21% of all bee colonies had not survived over-wintering. We did relatively well. On Vancouver Island almost 70% of all hive colonies failed to survive until spring. Reports out the United States, Europe and China reveal that as many as one third of all hive colonies have perished in the last few years, and it is not uncommon to hear of individual beekeepers who were completely wiped out.
I know a few beekeepers in my province and after talking to them can tell you that the news they are giving me is not positive. There is a sense of foreboding for the future. One fellow in particular has just this past week informed me he was no longer keeping bees for honey production. He related that he had suffered a near complete and total loss of all his hives two years ago. I was shocked because I knew he was a serious, full-time beekeeper with hundreds of hives.
This guy loved his work. He related how the end came about as all but a dozen of his hives were dead when he opened them up for the spring season and that it was over. He was wiped out, his business finished. There was no way he had the extra resources on hand to buy packaged live bees out of Australia or New Zealand at more than 140 dollars per colony to repopulate hundreds of dead hives.
Mite Infestation ‘Endemic’
Being a stand-up kind of guy, he is not prepared to blame Bayer Crop Sciences (the patent holder of Clothianidin) for his losses, either. He knows his bees died off suspiciously and suspects neonicotinoid pesticides which are used extensively on prairie canola fields are the root cause that weakened his colonies and allowed mites and other infection to overcome his bees. He is just not prepared to go on the record that Clothianidin might be responsible. Bayer naturally enough denies the claims made by both environmental groups and beekeepers alike.
He says point blank that he does not know what the problem is except that mites played a big role. Mite infestations are now endemic in most bee keeping operations in Canada and for that matter all around the world. These tiny bugs feast on live bee larvae in one case or infest the trachea of adults in another bringing death to colonies that are not treated. The question remains about why so many colonies became so weakened in the first place, though. There is a consensus amongst the beekeepers I talked to who are also reluctant to point fingers without more hard data. It does not help that this group has no federal or provincial representation with any muscle to back them up or help fund solutions to their problems.
Others are not so shy, though, and several European Governments have already responded by banning this substance. They are blaming Bayer directly and demanding more research to back up the claims that bees are being decimated, at least indirectly, by the extreme toxicity of this new pesticide and those in the Neonicotinoid family amongst others. My friend does not think it a coincidence that the advent of the widespread use of Neonicotinoids on Canola crops and the collapse of his honeybee population were linked in time. His practices had not changed over the many, many years he was in business but something in the environment did. But what?
Other Cross-Pollinators Dying
You may ask why we should worry about bees if there are always more available to be imported from other countries? You might imagine this is an easily cured problem that can be resolved by just deploying plenty of fresh cash. You would be wrong. You see, bees represent only a fraction of the pollinator group, and much of the important work done by these other related creatures happens beyond the oversight of commercial beekeeping operations and outside the scope of human management. They do the majority of the work in many cases and we cannot survive without them.
There is now a battle under way in the insect world and it affects a multitude more of these tiny creatures than imaginable, so the troubles go well beyond the realm of commercial bee operations. The problem is that there are no advocates for the wild pollinators that are also in steep decline. Nobody restocks them when their populations dwindle and few even notice their passing to comment on the problem. Indeed, in a recent report out of the University of Illinois released in January by the “The National Academy of Sciences” (PNAS) a group of researchers has confirmed our worst fears in reporting that 96% of four types of bumblebees in a study region that encompasses the United States have disappeared. The word devastating comes immediately to mind and extinction has become a probability in some cases.
A clear connection meanwhile has been established by researchers into the cause and effect of agricultural chemicals and the Colony Collapse Disorder that is wiping out bees in the United States but much less is known about the fate of all the other pollinators who go without representation. We do know they are also disappearing.
Insecticides ‘Too Good’
The problem seems to be that this new class of insecticides are just too good. Too affordable and effective, too. That is cold comfort to beekeepers across the country and around the globe who are now the casualties of this new chemical regime and who are folding up their operations as the extremely high losses of colonies renders their business insolvent.
Beekeepers simply cannot sustain regular bee population declines of 30, 40 and 50 percent annually and still remain viable. No bees means no honey. No honey means no beekeepers. No beekeepers means no bee business and that therefore spells disaster for crops dependant on the industry for pollination. What few people realize or even consider is that most beekeeping operations are small, family-run businesses where the trade is passed on from father to son. These are not big, deep-pocketed multinational farm corporations. Just one hard push and they are all gone. Just like that in a blink of an eye. Crisis time. And now that time is here.
In Saskatchewan there is not yet acknowledgment that we even have Colony Collapse Disorder despite the fact that losses have been in the double digits and even exceeding 35% for several years now. What we do have is hives that are under tremendous stress from “mites,” and some insist that we can overcome the issue from a management perspective alone.
Not Everyone Agrees
Not everyone agrees. Bees have always had their fair share of disease and infestations. This situation is different, though, and suggests that bee immune systems are being compromised by environmental toxicity so that they are unable to adequately fight off attackers. The historical average for over-wintering colony losses rarely exceeded 15% not so long ago and was typically only at 10%. That is a number any good beekeeper can recover from and surmount.
So we are on borrowed time and this is decidedly not an issue like global warming, for example, that suggests serious trouble at some distant unknown time in the future. The problem with the widespread losses of pollinators across the globe is an event that is happening right now today with alarming speed and ferocity and it is therefore amongst the most urgent of concerns with regard to global food security.
On March 11, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) published a report entitled Global Honey Bee Colony Disorders and Other Threats to Insects wherein it discusses the losses of pollinators across the globe. They have used some of the strongest language I have seen to date while addressing the topic.
According to that report “The increasing use of chemicals in agriculture, including systemic insecticides and those used to coat seeds, is being found to be damaging or toxic to bees. Some can, in combination, be even more potent to pollinators, a phenomenon known as the “cocktail effect.” U.N. Under-Secretary-General Achim Steiner said: “The way humanity manages or mismanages its nature-based assets, including pollinators, will in part define our collective future in the 21st Century. The fact is, that of the 100 crop species that provide 90 per cent of the world’s food, over 70 are pollinated by bees.” The report then adds ominously “….that tens of thousands of plant species could be lost in coming years unless conservation efforts are stepped up….the decline of bee populations has serious consequences for food security”.
Crops like canola, berries, nuts and almost all fruits and vegetables that people depend upon for basic sustenance and food variety could virtually disappear from store shelves over the coming years. No, I am not kidding. The question we have to ask is this: Will we as a population have sufficient time to mobilize our resources and efforts to prevent a global food calamity before it is too late or will we just collectively wither as the beekeeping industry falls apart before our very eyes? Time is very short now, and this is about to turn into a problem that crosses all borders.
Nor does it help that the vast majority of beekeepers in this country of mine for example are in their mid to late Fifties or that few newcomers want to enter the business due to its problems and risks. Most of these older guys and gals are headed for retirement already. And nobody is coming up behind them with the capital to sustain the regular heavy losses and stick with the business. So now the professionals themselves are headed for extinction.
Apiary Business Dying
The business itself may be dying. The extremely high mortality rates we see in bees are now testing the fortitude of the whole industry and rendering some weaker operations non-economic. Plenty of guys just want to sell and get out altogether. It is not worth it anymore. Does that not give anyone else cause for concern?
And this I think may the greatest threat of all. Bees may well survive into the future, but if there are not people out there placing hives where they are required as the growing seasons change and keeping our pollinators well stocked, alive and healthy then we will be looking at much lower crop yields in the future. From an economic perspective it is easy to see why there will be considerable pressure put on increasing the production of alternative crops like grains for example as these do not require the services of bees. Corn too has a stellar future as it usually succeeds at wind-blown pollination and is therefore immune to sudden bee die-off. As our diets are changed due to dwindling food varieties and poor crop yields resulting from the failure of our flowering plants to produce seasonal fruits there will be a concurrent rise in demand for alternatives. Seaweed likely has a big future.
At this moment in time we are all at risk, though, and there is a clear threat to our global population as a result of the decline of our wild and domestic pollinators. We face a probable human depopulation if bees are lost and it will be because of our arrogant and widespread use of agricultural chemicals that are relied upon to ensure higher crop yields. The threat is not just imminent, it has already arrived.
Poor Areas More Adaptable
Ironically enough the populations expected to be least affected are those representing the poorest on this planet, as they often do not practice modern farming techniques nor is pesticide use widespread for the simple reason it is not affordable. These people are further indemnified as their populations are already agrarian and the percentage of those living rurally is much greater than in North America where fewer than 2% of us live on the farm. The closer connections to farm life and the land means that poor farmers are more able to adapt to changing circumstances as they are the direct custodians of their own well being.
I do not therefore think it is an understatement to suggest that global food stocks are now at grave risk nor that the loss of bees and related pollinators is the single greatest threat the world now faces. We will almost certainly see widespread starvation over the coming decades if solutions cannot be found quickly to the ongoing pollinator disaster and if governments do not act to intervene in what is shaping up to be a worldwide calamity in the insect world.
Our own security is now on the line as the day of the bee turns to the day of the Dodo and true food scarcity becomes a reality. The good times we know of when fields of swollen crops were covering the vastness of the prairies could well become just another of the memories of days gone by. Just good old days.
Like the days when we still had bees to pollinate crops and help feed the billions who populate this world of ours. Like the days when there were still beekeepers and professional custodians of the insect world. Like the days before chemical solutions to farming damned us all in the same way DDT nearly damned the Peregrine Falcon and the American Eagle to footnotes in an Audubon textbook.
See, it really is all about food after all.
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Thanks for this well-written, thought provoking article. It`s great to see that someone is finally drawing attention to this very serious situation. We should all be concerned. Good on you Cam.