Parliament questions pesticide ban, mites hit hives, and almond-CCD theory

September 20, 2013

From: Guardian

This week: a potential conflict of interests in Britain, mites decimate bees, and a peek at the new film More Than Honey

Alison Benjamin, Amanda Holpuch and Ruth Spencer

Stories about the declining bee population and its effects on the environment trickle through the news cycle nearly every day. To keep track of the latest bee news and make sense of the issues, we’re highlighting the major bee stories each week, with analysis from the Guardian’s Alison Benjamin, co-author of A World Without Bees, Bees in the City: The Urban Beekeepers’ Handbook and Keeping Bees and Making Honey.

Bee declines: MPs attack government for opposing pesticide ban

What happened:
The UK government said it rejects the science behind the EU moratorium on some neonicotinoids – though it will implement the ban.

Members of the British parliament’s environmental audit committee, including Chairwoman Joan Walley, have criticized the government for its refusal to accept “the great weight of scientific evidence that points to the need for the ban”.

The committee released a report in April that said the government was relying on “fundamentally flawed” studies in its attempts to block the proposed restrictions.

Key quote:

Instead of defending these pesticides and their manufacturers, ministers should help farmers reduce their use and develop techniques to maintain yields,’ said Sandra Bell, Friends of the Earth campaigner.

Why it matters:
The British government has failed to accept scientific evidence that pollinators face unacceptable risk from using those neonicitinoids the EU has voted to ban for two years. This could mean it will fund research to address the apparent shortcomings, which could in turn affect the decision to review the pesticide ban in 2015. There could therefore be an even stronger case to ban them, or government-funded research could be used to defend these pesticides – some of which are manufactured by Syngenta, a massive company which is partially British-owned.

Honey bee treatment ‘applied in wrong way’

What happened:
Experts in the UK say honey bee populations are being allowed to collapse because current treatments like oxalic acid are often applied in quantities too low to be effective, or so high that it harms the bees as well as parasites.

Key quote:

Now researchers have found that when applied as a vapour rather than a solution, and at a particular dosage, [oxalic acid] can remove virtually all traces of varroa from hives without any harmful outcomes for bees. Because the treatment is simple and cheap, costing about 10p and taking 10 minutes to apply, it could present an effective and affordable solution to the crisis affecting Britain’s bees, it was claimed.

Why it matters:
The varroa mite is a big problem for our Western honey bee. It jumped species from the eastern honey bee, with which it coexists, but our honey bee has not had millions of years of evolution to adapt accordingly. The mite feeds on our bees, weakening their immune system and spreading potentially lethal viruses which can deform the bees wings and reduce their life span. Beekeepers use a variety of methods to try and reduce the number of varroa in the hive, but the mite is endemic. Sussex University’s research suggests there is a better way to administer oxalic acid, than the method beekepeers currently use, meaning we may have a better way to reduce our high bee mortality.

Experts downplay almond stress as cause of bee die-offs

What happened:
A Daily Caller columnist asserted last week that stress from travel and the timing of the almond harvest is largely responsible for recent bee deaths in California. But beekeepers and other experts attribute the high mortality rate to a variety of causes, according to this article in the Capital Press.

Key quote:

Randy Oliver, a beekeeper and nationally-known biologist from Grass Valley, Calif., maintains that weather issues have added up to a perfect storm for bees.
‘There are certainly stresses incurred by the very large-scale beekeepers in readying bees for almond production,’ he told the Capital Press in an email. ‘The huge holding yards used by some contribute to colony stress and transmissions of pathogens. But those stresses are not inherent in the act of pollination, but rather due to their choice of logistics,’ he said.

Why it matters:
The Egyptians are thought to be the first migratory beekeepers, transporting hives down the Nile to pollinate their crops. But they wouldn’t have done it on the industrial scale practiced by today’s US commercial bee farmers. It’s true, these farmers have been trucking millions of bee colonies into California every February to pollinate 80% of the worlds almonds for years, and long before colony collapse disorder emerged.

But farmers are also trucking bees for days and then expecting them to work very hard in the almond groves when it’s still cold, where there’s little nutritious food and they come into contact with bee-toxic chemicals. This won’t do the insects any good, especially if they are already weak from varroa-spread viruses and held in huge holding yards where pathogens can easily spread. The industrialised pollination practices, which make many commercial beekeepers and almond growers rich, has to be contributing to the high annual honeybee death toll in the US.

Bee bonus:

The film More Than Honey used mini-helicopters and high-speed cameras to capture extraordinary footage of the inflight mating of a virgin queen bee Link to video: Queen bee’s wedding flightThe documentary More Than Honey has opened in the UK and is showing in limited release in the US. Here’s what Alison has to say about the film:

Swiss filmmaker, Markus Imhoof’s intelligent and probing wakeup call about why honey bees are dying has just been released in the UK. It contains amazing never-before-seen footage of a queen bee mating in flight. To film the honey bees, Imhoof explains that they used high speed cameras and endoscope lens, like the one used for operations on humans, and slowed down three times the normal tempo.

Sometimes mini-helicopters were used to film the bees flying. For the queen’s wedding flight they worked for more than 10 days to capture 36 seconds. The film tells the story of different beekeepers, from the US bee farmer who says his grandfather would turn in his grave if he saw his industrialised conveyor belt method of beekeeping, to the old school Swiss apiarist whose stunning Alpine setting can’t save his inbreed bees. Imhoof’s solution; the bees are working it out for themselves. I’m not so sure, but go see the film and make up your own mind.

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