Photo © Craig Mackintosh
It’s score one for the bees. Last week the European Union banned neonicotinoid pesticides for a two-year period beginning early next year.
Key findings cited evidence of the role neonics play in destroying bee populations. The ban is specifically for flowering crops as neonics penetrate plants from treated seed through to affecting flower nectar and pollen, which bees and other non-target insects feed on. Bees in particular have a high acute toxicity to the systemic pesticides. It impairs their nervous systems, resulting in disorientation, navigational problems and coupled with damaged memory, affects their ability to forage. Neonic pesticides can also be retained in the soil profile for lengthy periods.
Neonicotinoids have the ability to travel to the furthest regions of the plant, accumulating at higher concentrations within the plant than levels originally sprayed…. (see PDF Where Have All the Bees Gone).
Accordingly, the Precautionary Principle has been applied by the EU, which states:
If there are reasonable scientific grounds for believing that a new product may not be safe, it should not be used until there is convincing evidence that the risks are small and outweighed by the benefits… Several recent publications suggest that exposure to different classes of neonicotinoids even at very low doses reduces the fitness of bees. — EFSA
Surprisingly, eight countries including Britain opposed the move, despite the alarming decline in their bee numbers and arguing it would impact on food production from accruing pest damage. Four countries abstained.
A vital part of a complex ecosystem, bees have significant and far-reaching effects on our food supplies. They sustain biodiversity by pollinating both agricultural crops and non-cultivated plants. Next time you do the weekly shopping have a look in your shopping trolley. Bees can take credit for a hefty percentage of the items in it and an even greater percentage of crop pollination, where most are insect pollinated. Purchases of meat, dairy, fruit and vegetables would be obvious casualties from continuing bee health crises and favourites such as coffee, tea, chocolate and nuts would soon be affected.
Declining bee colony health has increased markedly in the northern hemisphere over the last ten years (colony collapse disorder) and is now in evidence worldwide. The economic costs, let alone the ecological outcomes, demand a monitoring of bee stocks and hive health on a global basis.
The nightmare dilemma of having to pollinate crops mechanically, by hand, or finding alternate methods, are unthinkable.
While it is still legal to use these pesticides in Australia, where they are used to treat pasture seed and agricultural crops, there is a problem keeping hives at pollinating purpose strength.
Currently in Australia the demand has never been higher for bee pollination but until more control on the use of neonicotinoids is established, available bee numbers are unlikely to improve.
However, it seems likely there is not one, but a number of possible causes for declining bee health globally.
Intensive production systems with frequent hive disturbance and supplemental feeding have weakened the immune systems of the bees and led to a decline in hive health. Additionally, the spread of viruses, disease and invasive species, plus the loss of habitat and plant food sources attributed to climate change have affected bees dramatically. In a double hit they are virtually being poisoned and starved.
Increasing attention on the plight of pollinators and bees in particular, has seen a rise in natural bee keeping methods and alternate systems such as Warre and Sun hives, where hive health and pollination functions are viewed as paramount and honey production the happy legacy of a healthy colony.
Hive design can now mimic internally the dimensions and volume of wild nests. Together with minimal intervention and allowing the bees to follow natural behaviours, letting bees be… the colony is far better equipped to deal with adverse conditions.
Paris and Tokyo amongst other cities responded to alarming declines in their bee populations with citywide bans on the use of neonicotinoids many years ago and have recorded some dramatic increases in honey production in urban areas in comparison to rural ones.
In London last year a news program reported on the culmination of an urban meadow project, created to entice bee populations back to the city. The meadows were sited in a disused industrial area and it was odd to hear birds singing and the sounds of a natural environment in a city centre. A solitary bee was tenderly released into the field of clovers, daisies, herbs, old-fashioned wildflowers and flowering weeds. Reporters and researchers alike held their breath as the bee hovered, then made a beeline for a patch of red clover. Back slapping and "go bee" went all round.
As permaculture practitioners, working with natural systems rather than against nature is elemental. We can help pollinators with organic farming methods including GM seed free cultivation and employing crop rotation including green covers that favour pollinators such as clovers, and using no chemicals. Ensuring a thriving biodiversity of plants, animals and insects exist in ‘islands’ and verges of bush, flowers and native vegetation provides a range of habitats and forage for a whole cross section of pollinators, when erratic weather patterns affect the flowering times of usual bee foods.
Similarly for urban dwellers, providing a flowering smorgasbord throughout the main foraging seasons is important, as bees put away honey supplies from peak summer ‘honey flows’ for the cold winter months to sustain the colony. Also, honey storage acts as a thermal ‘dome’ to keep the bees warm. Bees will fly kilometres to forage so even window boxes and patio pots with bee friendly flowers help. Australian companies take note, in London, bee friendly flower ‘bombs’ are available at checkouts in whole food supermarkets, as well as in nurseries and hardware stores, plus they have a ‘bee plant’ labeling system in retail nurseries.
In urban areas interest in bee keeping and awareness of their predicament is increasing. There are opportunities to plant a wider range of nectary forage for our city bees in our homes and gardens, parks, sports grounds, community and roof gardens and public spaces. Diverse and sequential flowering plantings help bees sustain the colony through the colder months and then again in spring when they build up colony numbers, even when their traditional flowering food sources are changeable.
Rooftop beehives have been popular worldwide for some time and utilized by adventurous restaurants. Apart from tasting and smelling amazing, the advantages of consuming raw unfiltered honey have not even been fully explored, although the anti bacterial properties of honey are well known.
In urban spaces, nectary plants can be native or exotic and range from herbs and flowering annuals through to shrubs and trees, as long as they provide pollen and nectar. Surely, this is an excellent basis for street tree selection and increasing the urban forest cover as well?
Ways to help:
- No insecticides in the garden, they kill pests and beneficial insects. Use biological and companion planting control methods instead.
- Keep a patch of wild garden with bee friendly forage.
- Buy organic plants and seeds to ensure they are not treated with pesticides.
- Make your own compost and ‘chop and drop’ mulch.
- Buy chemical free unfiltered honey from local producers
- Investigate becoming a beekeeper through apiarist groups.
In domestic gardens and homes:
- A range of nectar rich flowering plants to cover all seasons is optimal.
- Plant bee friendly plants in drifts, or clumps.
- Mix natives and exotics climate specific to your location
- Plant brightly coloured flowers, especially ’hot’ colours, whites and yellows
- Asteraceae family (daisies) and other open and cup shaped flowers
- Bees also need moisture (gravel and water in saucer so they don’t drown), shelter from winds and sunny locations.
A few Bee Forage Plants:
See “Bee Friendly a Planting Guide” by Mark Leech.
Published by RIRDC Australian Government 2012
In Britain and Europe:
- Poppies Borage
- Nasturtiums Catmint
- Cornflowers Lemon balm
- Zinnias Marjoram
- Sunflowers Mint
- Lavender Thyme
- Foxgloves Rosemary
- Apiarists Association in your local area
- National Association of Crop Pollination Association (Inc)
Seeley, T.D. 2010. Honeybee Democracy. Princeton University Press, Princeton.