“Bees do have a smell, you know, and if they don’t they should, for their feet are dusted with spices from a million flowers.”
(March 18, 2020) “Our work to save the bees started in 2014 and 2015 when we were alerted to the looming catastrophe from a group of pesticides called neonicotinoids which are widely used on corn, canola and soy crops,” says Beatrice Olivastri, CEO of Friends of the Earth Canada (FoE).
Concerns about neonicotinoids, or neonics, were first raised in Europe 10 to 15 years ago when beekeepers began reporting a decline in bee numbers and loss of bee colonies in Western Europe. In the U.K., citizen scientists collected similar data.
“Close to 75 percent of the world’s crops producing fruits and seeds for human consumption depend, at least in part, on pollinators for sustained production, yield and quality,” according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
In 2013, the European Union put a moratorium on the use of neonicotinoids on flowering crops that attract bees, and in 2018, banned their outside use entirely based on a report from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which assessed that “the high risk to both honeybees and wild bees resulted from any outdoor use [of neonicotinoids], because the pesticides contaminate soil and water. This leads to the pesticides appearing in wildflowers or succeeding crops.”
“No single cause of declining bee numbers has been identified,” says EFSA. Contributing factors have been suggested as pesticide use, starvation and poor bee nutrition, viruses, environmental changes, and attacks by pathogens and invasive species – such as the Varroa mite.
“Neonics hinder bees’ ability to fend off deadly mites,” according to a study done by the University of Guelph reported in Science News in April 2019. The new study is the “first to uncover the impact of neonicotinoid pesticides on honey bees’ ability to groom and rid themselves of deadly mites.”
Friends of the Earth Canada, part of a network of Friends of the Earth groups worldwide, have had a “laser focus on bees” in this country for the last five years, says Olivastri.
“I’ve been around this work for 42 years—and have been working on various pesticides over that time. Colleagues in the U.K. had already been working on this issue as had our counterparts in the U.S.”
“In 2015, we adapted the FoE Bee Cause campaign as developed by our UK counterpart.
“Canadians love bees. They have a deep affinity for bees.”
In 2014 and 2015, the Ontario government was also looking at issues with bees says Olivastri. There are a lot of beekeepers in Ontario, so the government was responding to their concerns, as well as concerns voiced by urban voters.
“We are an organization that works on government policy and regulation,” says Olivastri. “But in this instance, we felt we could move more quickly by working in the marketplace. Our U.S. counterparts had begun testing the presence of neonics in flowers and we worked collaboratively with them to test for the presence of neonics in flowering plants in garden centres in Canada.”
Friends of the Earth undertook four years of flower testing in garden centres across the country.
“It took some stick-to-itiveness to be able to do this. Each year we saw some shifting in the neonic levels but didn’t see major change until 2019 when the majority of big outlets such as Home Depot were neonic free. And their instructions to their supply chain are clear to remove neonics from the stock they grow. We were happy about that. It’s very important that flowering plants people buy for pollinators are neonic-free.
Most of the public’s attention—and research funding— have been focused on the classic honey bee and their hives.
A $10 million research project, led by York University bee genomics expert Amro Azyed and University of British Columbia professor Leonard Foster, was announced on October 1, 2019 to develop a new health assessment and diagnosis platform for honey bees.
“We need to think of innovative solutions to fix the bee health crisis. The current tools are just not cutting it,” said Zayed. In Canada, honey bees provide 90 million pounds of honey a year. Their pollinator activities are valued at $5.5 billion a year.
The purpose of the study is to learn what stressors are affecting the honey bee population.
“You can identify the stressors affecting a colony, not by searching for the stressor itself, but by looking for specific signatures of stress in the bee – what we call biomarkers,” explained Zayed. “The biomarker approach has a lot of potential for quickly screening stressors affecting bees before colonies decline.”
The study is supported by Ontario Genomics and Genome Canada.
“Although the world’s focus is mostly on honey bees, the vast number of the world’s pollinators are native bees,” says Olivastri. “In Canada, there are over 850 species of ground dwelling wild, native bees that provide the vast majority of pollination.”
And it is cities that can play an immediate and vital role in providing a refuge for wild, native bees, she says.
“Monoculture crops such as corn or soy with neonic-coated seeds make rural settings dangerous for bees. We’re working to get urban sites recognized as refuges for pollinators,” says Olivastri. “Beekeepers can move their hives around, but wild bees are unable to be moved in that way. There is an amazing abundance of floral resources in urban gardens but we’ve got to get past the monoculture of lawns and their chemical inputs. We hope more cities will develop and implement their strategies to support pollinators.”
Olivastri says that when she stands back and looks at the “save the bee world,” there are people, churches, local groups and others doing pollinator gardens at a community level. Then there are researchers working in universities and international organizations doing critical work in support of pollinators.
For example, the National Engineering and Science Research Council of Canada (NSERC) supported the Canadian Pollination Initiative, involving 44 researchers at 26 institutions across Canada, saying it is “critical to develop a better understanding of pollinators, the plants that they serve and how environmental factors influence pollination systems.” However, the funding was not renewed in 2018 after the first five years of work – a big loss for the scientific world.
“Being a group like ours, you need to be engaged with what communities are doing,” says Olivastri. “But we also advocate in Ottawa for system changes such as how pesticides are regulated, especially with the Pest Management Regulatory Agency.
“After spending more than 40 years in the environmental movement, I’ve learned that environmental regulation is put in place after damage is recognized. But we should not wait for Canada’s over 850 species of bees to be further damaged.” Friends of the Earth calls for a federal Act that would provide protection to pollinators.
“So why do we persevere on the Bee Cause? Some campaigns need time – they’re not quick turn arounds but require systemic change and organizational stamina. For example, we worked for 20 years on the Montreal Protocol.” The Montreal Protocol is an international treaty to protect the ozone layer by phasing out the substances responsible for ozone depletion.
“Some of it has to do with prioritizing what our supporters care about,” she says. “We have decided not to spend resources on international negotiations right now but rather focus on federal, provincial and market place opportunities to protect pollinators.”
Friends of the Earth will soon be talking about trees, flowering trees for bees, specifically. As part of a project called Let it Bee, the organization promotes a change to gardening behaviour so that gardeners leave important habitat for hibernating bees. In the spring, they ask gardeners to leave over-wintered stalks and stems in which native bees hibernate. Cutting them back too early will end up composting the native bees.
“While we continue to promote planting flowers for each of the three seasons when bees need them, we’ll be promoting planting flowering trees for bees as well – good for bees and good for combating climate change, too,” says Olivastri.
“We’re fortunate to have long-standing donors who have supported Friends of the Earth since the 1980s when we acquired them through direct mail. Many new supporters in the last five years are laser-focussed on saving the bees and expect impact from the Bee Cause. We’ve delivered for them by removing neonics from garden centre plants. We continue to advocate a ban for neonics by the federal government. And now, we believe it’s time to scale up planting flowering trees for bees as well as our climate.