Bees: Agriculture's 'Canary In The Coal Mine?'

Northstar Notes

Farmers today are living on the cusp of some serious agronomic and environmental issues: weed-resistant herbicides, nutrient runoff, water quality.

Published on: April 5, 2013

Science and innovation has advanced agriculture immensely for more than a century. If it hadn't, more people would still be raising and storing their own food.

Yet, with the adoption of new methods and products comes responsibility. No matter our product price or political persuasion.

Farmers today are living on the cusp of some serious agronomic and environmental issues: weed-resistant herbicides, nutrient runoff, water quality. You could add climate change if you wish. And there's one more that farmers really don't think much about yet they should: bee health.

We need bees for what they do—pollinate flowering plants. About one-third of our food supply depends on insect pollination, most of which is accomplished by bees.

We've all heard some sort of stories over the past several years about bees dying. The reasons are varied: extreme weather, disease, parasites, loss of habitat, chemical poisoning. The latter should be of concern to farmers as their chemical use on seeds and in fields are factors.

European research has looked at the impacts of pesticides used to treat seeds, such as clothianidin and imidacloprid, and considers both of them as causing serious losses in bee populations. Both chemicals belong to a class of insecticides known as neonicotinoids. These insecticides are chemically similar to nicotine and they affect the central nervous system of insects. One online report says imidacloprid, now off-patent, is the most widely used insecticide in the world. It's used on field crops, trees, gardens; it's applied as a granular or liquid on leaves, the ground or seeds. It can also be used to prevent termite damage, control fleas in pets and protection of trees from boring insects.

In January this year, the European Food Safety Authority issued a report that said that neonicotinoids, including clothianidin, pose an unacceptably high risk to bees, and that the industry-sponsored science upon which regulatory agencies' claims of safety have relied is flawed and possibly deliberately deceptive.

The report concluded: "A high acute risk to honey bees was identified from exposure via dust drift for the seed treatment uses in maize, oilseed rape and cereals. A high acute risk was also identified from exposure via residues in nectar and/or pollen."

European discussions about bee health and bee populations, similar to those in the U.S., could well be the reason for prompting major chemical companies to be more pro-active in their seed treatment stewardship efforts.

Bayer Crop Science just wrapped up a series of six meetings across the U.S. that promoted its Bee Care Program. The last meeting was held on at the University of Minnesota on the St. Paul campus.

It was interesting to hear what Bayer is doing. With its bee care outreach, it is encouraging farmers to follow CARE: Communicate with local bee owners when planting/spraying; Awareness of wind speed and direction during planting; Reduce risk to pollinators by eliminating/reducing flowering weeds in fields; Ensure treated seed is planted correctly and minimize dust.

More interesting was hearing what U-M entomologists and grad students are doing. World-renown bee scientist Marla Spivak and a team of graduate and PhD students are studying various ways the environment and chemicals affect bee health and populations. One student is working on the "Bee Squad" in the metro area. She mentors backyard beekeepers who are learning the craft. A few other students are sampling bee colonies and fields to learn more about neighboring crops and the environment. Another student is looking at the ag landscape in North Dakota where bees spend their summers. North Dakota is one of the best places to make honey. And another student is researching the impact of various levels of imidacloprid to gauge its toxicity effects on bees.

Hearing and learning more about bee health makes me wonder if bees are agriculture's "canary in the coal mine." You remember the story behind that. Decades ago, coal miners brought canaries into coal mines to serve as an early-warning signal for carbon monoxide and methane gases. The birds, being more sensitive, would become sick before the miners would. As long as the birds kept singing, the miners knew their air supply was safe. A dead canary signaled an immediate evacuation.

Yes, there are benefits to science and the proper, responsible use of chemicals on agriculture and horticultural crops. In light of what has happened to bee populations and bee health, it appears we must take greater care. We must admit that mistakes were made. And we must move quickly to correct them.

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The Buzz About The Bees
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Bees: Agriculture's 'Canary In The Coal Mine?'
Does Seed Treatment Affect Honey Bees?
Oregon Issues Temporary Pesticide Ban Following Bee Deaths
Pesticide Labels Changing To Protect Bees And Other Pollinators