Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Vancouver Island Bees - what's happening?

The hardest workers on the farm are in crisis and need our help. They work tirelessly with their family to ensure our crops are pollinated. They are responsible for one out of every three bites of food that we eat. They also give us a natural sweetener as a bonus, wax for candles, an array of bright and fragrant flowers. Yet, worldwide, in just the last few years, bees have been disappearing. Nobody seems to know why, yet a flurry of collaborative research is just starting to reveal what has become a perfect storm of events that have pushed these hard working creatures too far. Imagine working from dawn to dusk all season, and have weather, malnutrition, chemicals, parasites and fatigue drive you to such a stressful state that the viruses, bacteria and fungi overwhelm your weakened immune system. Being a social creature, you will leave the hive if ill to prevent infecting the rest of the hive.
These scenarios are debated around the world, and networks of scientists and beekeepers are trying to unravel the mystery and have described the syndrome as “colony collapse disorder”. Not all bee losses are due to this relatively new disorder, which complicates the problem. Apiculturalists agree that the art of beekeeping needs much more help from science to understand more about the nutritional needs of bees and how to keep a healthy colony and manage disease. Only recently has the genome of bees been sequenced, revealing few genes for the immune system and the detoxification system, which would help them deal with chemicals.
The global catastrophe is not isolated to honeybees. All pollinators have been reported as declining, which has very far reaching effects that scientists and farmers are just starting to understand. Worldwide there are 20,000 bee species, with 4,000 in North America. Yesterday I sat next to a flower pot and watched as a bumblebee and a very tiny bee both landed and inspected the flower within minutes of each other. The honeybee came to North America from the Old Country, along with fruit and nut trees. With the expansion of agriculture the honey bees have increased in importance since many crops rely on them, and natural pollinators are not sufficient in numbers to pollinate the wide variety and volume of fruit and nut trees, berries and vegetables that farmers produce. Not all pollinators are bees, either. Hummingbirds, butterflies and bats are also pollinators. Even man can pollinate – in at least one province in China, the absence of bees due to over use of pesticides has resulted in human-pollination of pear trees.
This spring, losses of 90% of the honey bee colonies were reported on Vancouver Island. The mid island was mainly affected, primarily in the commercial hives. The south island appeared to do better, as did the Gulf Islands. The two previous years also had unusually high losses on Vancouver Island, along with other regions of Canada. Island beekeepers attributed this to the virroa mite from illegally imported bees to the island, which caused a loss of bees and reduced productivity of the hives. Since 1990 the Bee Act had designated Vancouver Island as a quarantine zone because of its low disease rate and isolation. To prevent the introduction of diseases and other parasites, importation of bees from mainland BC and the rest of Canada was restricted. This quarantine was recently lifted after the heavy bee losses were disclosed and an affected commercial beekeeper challenged the Act. Local beekeepers from Cowichan and the Capital Region were informed of this without prior consultation and are requesting that the Minister of Agriculture reconsider and allow for beekeepers to present an alternative solution that would modify restrictions to cautiously introduce new stock to Vancouver Island. The BC Chief Veterinary officer, Dr. Paul Kitching, has stated that the Act was not really effective anyway given that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency had the authority to allow bees to come into Canada from other parts of the world. A mid-island commercial beekeeper has already received a shipment of bees from New Zealand to replenish his hives. NDP Agriculture Critic Lana Popham attended the beekeepers meeting and has supported their cause to request consultation and reconsideration by the government (http://www.islandbees.ca/) .
Politics and bureaucracy aside, we can all help by providing habitat for our pollinating friends and being extremely careful with pesticides or avoiding them altogether. One apiculturalist encourages growing meadows instead of manicured lawns. When you consider that the average gas powered lawn mower produces air pollution equal to forty three cars, that might not be such a bad thing.
Barbara Johnstone Grimmer

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