Pollinators are vital for a thriving agricultural sector. One third of the crops we consume depend to some extent on insect pollination for reproduction, including almonds, apples, berries, cucumbers, melons and many more. In fact, the total economic value of insect pollination worldwide is estimated to be more than $200 billion and accounts for around 10 percent of agricultural production.
Bees, butterflies, beetles and other insects are natural pollinators that play a role in agriculture but honey bees are arguably the most important. Keeping these hard-working insects healthy is essential not only to grow crops but also to ensure farmers can turn a profit and ultimately, help feed the world.
Reports of honey bee losses across the Northern Hemisphere, especially in parts of Europe and North America, have therefore been met with concern among all agricultural stakeholders. The crop protection industry recognizes the vital role that pollinators play in global food production. As a result, it has committed significant resources to investigating the causes of honey bee decline and helping farmers reduce their potential impact on all pollinators through good stewardship practices.
Causes of Concern
Scientists have not attributed honey bee decline to any one cause. Numerous factors affect honey bee health, including pests and diseases, management practices, weather, environmental conditions, agricultural practices, and availability and quality of food sources.
But it is the neonicotinoid class of crop protection products, widely used as seed treatments as well as for foliar applications, which are most popularly cited in the media for honey bee loss. Introduced 20 years ago, neonicotinoids are a family of insecticides chemically similar to nicotine that protect emerging plants from various pests. They are now the world’s most widely used insecticide class. Campaigners argue that exposure to seed treatments is killing bees and this has led the European Union to restrict the use of certain neonicotinoids. Others recognize that while it is important to reduce the exposure of bees to seed treatment dust, these treated seeds are a key part of agricultural production and provide significant benefits.
Seeds treated with neonicotinoids prior to planting have reduced the amount of crop protection product spraying required for healthy crops. All neonicotinoids have been extensively tested to ensure that, when used properly, only target pests are impacted. Numerous field studies and real life examples show that bee health is not related to the use of seed treatments. For example, in Switzerland, the rate of honey bee loss is the same at altitudes above 1,000 metres – where no crops are grown and no neonicotinoids are used – to the lowlands where neonicotinoids are used on intensive cropping. Meanwhile, in Australia, where neonicotinoids are used widely, the honey bee population has remained stable.
Still, the crop protection industry remains committed to reducing the potential risk posed to bees and other pollinators arising from the dust created during planting of treated seeds. As such, it continues to improve seed applications and planting technology to reduce the potential for such exposure and it promotes good stewardship among farmers.
Sweet on Stewardship
While very stringent regulatory safeguards are in place to ensure that crop protection products do not pose unacceptable risks to wildlife, good stewardship practices by the crop protection industry, farmers and beekeepers are necessary to help protect the health of pollinators. The industry is committed to educating farmers on best practices to minimize any risks to these beneficial insects. Farmers can improve and protect pollinator habitats in a variety of ways. Also beekeepers should monitor their colonies and protect them from mites and disease.
For decades, the crop protection industry, government agencies, universities and beekeeper organizations have promoted good stewardship practices among farmers to protect pollinators. Such practices include following instructions on crop protection product labels, only using genuine products, avoiding use of certain products during the activity of pollinators in the crop or under windy conditions, varying the timing of applications and planting flowers at field borders. Moreover, the use of modern applicators, such as nozzles that create spray droplets less affected by wind, help keep crop protection products only where intended. With treated seed, farmers can minimize dust by carefully pouring seed out of bags, using properly calibrated and specialized seeding machinery, avoiding seed spillage, properly disposing of unused seed and bags, and regularly cleaning seed equipment. These and other practices can minimize or eliminate any risks to pollinators posed by crop protection products.
Another important way to protect pollinators is for farmers and beekeepers to communicate. Farmers can inform beekeepers when they are going to apply crop protection products to their fields so hives can be moved. Similarly, communication among all parties involved in protecting pollinators is critical. The crop protection industry is actively coordinating with organizations such as the Honey Bee Health Coalition and Project Apism. These organizations aim to improve honey bee health through outreach, education and research.
Bite the Varroa Mite
The parasitic mite Varroa destructor has emerged as one of the most important reasons for further research. Varroa infestation weakens bee colonies, spreads among them and makes bees susceptible to bacterial and viral infections. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency identified the Varroa mite as “the major factor underlying colony loss in the U.S. and other countries.”
Bee pathologist Denis Anderson agrees: “This [Varroa] is the most dangerous threat that we have of bees around the world.”
The crop protection industry has committed significant resources to researching Varroa mites and developing new crop protection products to help protect beehives from them.
Honey Bees Abuzz
In spite of the threats to honey bee health, and notwithstanding recent overwintering losses of honey bees in Europe and North America, population figures for 2013-14 have suggested an upturn in honey bee fortunes.
The honey bee research network COLOSS looked at nearly 400,000 bee colonies from 21 countries in Europe and the Mediterranean and found 2013-14 colony losses to be 9 percent – the lowest level since COLOSS started collecting data in 2007.
In Canada and the U.S., overwintering honey bee losses have also declined this year, despite both countries experiencing a long, cold winter. Excluding Ontario, where losses were higher than normal, overwintering losses in Canada were down to 19.6 percent compared to an average of up to 40 percent. In the U.S., overall mortality dropped to an average of 23 percent compared to 30.5 percent for the 2012-13 winter.
While these latest global figures cannot be described as a genuine trend – that would require consistent declines over many years – they at least demonstrate the difficulty to draw simple conclusions of cause and effect on pollinator health. It is also important to note that whatever the latest figures say on pollinator health, the crop protection industry is clear: it will continue to do all it can to ensure these busy pollinators can maintain their vital service to agriculture.