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Plight of the bumblebee

Banning neonicotinoids alone will not solve the bee crisis

Plight of the bumblebee

On June 1, over 200 scientists signed an open letter calling for the restriction of neonicotinoid pesticides. The letter comes just over a month after the European Union (EU) banned the outdoor use of several neonicotinoids. Professor Dave Goulson of the University of Sussex, the lead signatory, directs the letter to policymakers around the world in hopes that it will motivate them to follow suit.  

Years of evidence link neonicotinoids to colony collapse disorder (CCD), a phenomenon where the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear. Worker bees are exposed to this neurotoxin when they pollinate crops.

When reports of large-scale CCD events in bees began to crop up in the mid-2000s, the cause was unknown. Several studies that linked neonicotinoids to CCD were published in the years that followed, however, there was a lack of consensus in the scientific community over the significance of the threat. This was due to doubt and speculation as to whether laboratory studies could be extended to the real world.

In 2015, scientists from Sweden published two landmark papers that presented irrefutable evidence. By exposing bees to neonicotinoids in a controlled outdoor farm, the scientists demonstrated that neonicotinoids posed a threat to bees in a real-world scenario, and not just a laboratory one.  

Neonicotinoids are the largest used class of pesticide in the world and are used to combat pests like aphids and grubs. As such, alternative pest control methods are needed following a ban. Ontario, which is the only region outside the EU to regulate the pesticide, is attempting to take a non-chemical approach to neonicotinoid alternatives. If Ontario farmers wish to purchase neonicotinoid-treated seeds, they will need to first, demonstrate a true pest problem, and second, take a course in integrated pest management (IPM).

IPM advocates the use of chemical-free alternatives over pesticides and has been proven effective for several crops and forest systems. However, Ontario farmers are only required to implement IPM if they wish to use a regulated pesticide. All unregulated pesticides are still fair game.  

As such, we must be wary of ‘regrettable substitutions.’ This term describes instances where the substitute for a toxic substance is just as, or even more, toxic than the substance being replaced. Unfortunately, regrettable substitutions are not uncommon and run the chemistry gamut from flame retardants in children’s pajamas to the protective fluorinated coating in your raincoat. Most industrial chemicals have very little toxicity information available, and companies tend to act hastily when replacing banned materials. For example, although BPS was introduced as an alternative to BPA, a toxic additive in plastic products, studies later revealed that BPS was no less toxic than BPA itself.

History shows that banning just a single chemical does not necessarily solve the problem. If Ontario — and the rest of the world — wants to curb CCD in bees, they need to invest in green chemistry research. Green chemistry, which is a set of principles that aim to reduce or eliminate hazardous substances when designing, manufacturing, or applying chemical products, is an appropriate next-step in the neonicotinoid ban. Whether it involves the development of a new, safer pesticide, or research into the toxicity of existing compounds, green chemistry could prevent a regrettable substitution.

While IPM is an effective approach that should continue to be implemented, it does not stop the pesticide industry from developing new chemicals. If we do not fight chemistry with chemistry, we run the risk of playing chemical whack-a-mole. It would be foolish to ignore the lessons learned from similar scenarios: to let the story of neonicotinoids become one of regrettable substitution is inexcusable.

T.O. Bee or not T.O. Bee

Toronto to take a step closer to becoming Canada’s first ‘Bee City’

T.O. Bee or not T.O. Bee

Home to over 300 species of bees, Toronto is considered a bee hot spot in southern Ontario. Protecting our native bee populations benefits the resilient pollinator community in and around the city, while simultaneously preserving biodiversity.

Over the years certain honey bee and native bee populations have declined in North America, which has had various economic and ecological consequences. The decline of the honey bee population driven by Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has motivated much of our discourse surrounding bee conservation. 

James Thomson, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Toronto explains that while the commercial beekeeping industry has always been affected by winter losses, CCD “seemed to have different hallmarks in that it [is] presented as an absconding of the bees from the hives. So you came in and instead of finding dead ones, you found [that] they were gone.” 

“Real CCD is probably a subset of winter losses, but the terms have basically been conflated and most winter losses seem to be talked about… as a pathology,” added professor Thomson

For beekeepers, CCD means having to order and build up replacement colonies in the spring, but it is not the kind of ecosystem collapse that it is portrayed to be. What is more worrying is the decline observed among native bee populations.

At this point, their population trends are not well characterized, but certain species of the bumble bee, including Bombus affinus (rusty-patched bumble bee), which used to be very common, are now critically endangered. Other species of bumble bees, however, appear to be doing fine.

“In my view, those declines are much worse than Colony Collapse Disorder because we’ve had an animal that was part of the natural system –— [unlike honey bees] it wasn’t just brought in as an agricultural tool from the Old World — it was doing well until very recently [and] then suddenly it crashed,” he continued.

The fact that several of these declining species are closely related suggests there is a genetic component to susceptibility. One possible cause is pathogen spillover, which occurs when a pathogen such as Nosema bombi (a microsporidian) becomes established in commercial bumble bee populations and is subsequently transmitted to wild bees. 

Toronto has played an active role in creating sustainable habitats for its pollinators. Existing initiatives include maintaining pollinator-friendly habitats in the Don Valley Brickworks, the Franklin Children’s garden and High Park’s Black Oak Savannah, and native species plantings on private and public land.

Professor Thomson says it’s “hard to imagine how [native species plantings] could go really wrong. But anything you plant is going to help some species more than others. For example, the Ceratina bees nest inside sumac stems so if you want more Ceratina you plant more sumac. But sumac isn’t particularly good for other species… ” The bottom line is that ecosystems with minimal human disturbance tend to support a higher diversity of flora and fauna, as well as bees.

The ‘Bee City’ certification is viewed as the next logical step, which, according to the Bee City website, “endorses a set of commitments… for creating sustainable habitats for pollinators.” The program was first implemented in 2012. Since then, 15 American cities have been certified. A successful application to Bee City Canada would result in habitat protection and increased awareness regarding pollinator biodiversity and food production. 

Dr. Scott MacIvor, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of biological science at U of T Scarborough hopes that the Bee City designation will “build upon the world-renowned research and best practices already ongoing and in development in our region. It would also promote the plight of wild bee declines and encourage all citizens to find ways to support our native bees.” 

As for honey bees, MacIvor hopes that “the Bee City Canada endeavour will be focused on the plight of our native species not a non-native that requires no ‘help’ in Toronto. Honey bees are useful in agricultural landscapes but keeping them in the city contributes to competition with our native species and could undermine biodiversity.”

Honey bee colonies comprise between 20,000 and 50,000 individual bees, which can forage over one kilometre from their hives. “As a first approximation, if you have a honeybee feeding on a native flower, that basically means the food that the honeybee fed on is not there for a native bee to feed on,” says Thomson. As a result, honey bee hives can actually contribute to decreased pollinator biodiversity. 

When asked about any safety concerns associated with robust native bee populations, he responded that in general, “you really have to rile [a colony] up to get a real defensive reaction. So I would say for native bees, essentially, there are no likely dangers.”

Honey bee colonies also appear fairly innocuous given that the provincial requirement mandates only 30 metres between the hive and property line. It is important to note that many of the nastiest stings come from yellow jacket wasps (genus Vespula), which are similar in appearance to bees, but are biologically and taxonomically distinct.

Regardless of your opinion of bees, they remain an important part of our ecosystem. With the Bee City designation, Toronto may be able to find ways to balance its urban ecosystem. 

What’s the buzz?

Student beekeeping club welcomes new worker bees

What’s the buzz?

You may or may not have been aware that the U of T community is buzzing with a significant bee population — as well as a human one. The presence of our fuzzy friends, however, is no reason for alarm. The bees are maintained by the U of T Bees Education Enthusiast Society (U of T B.E.E.S.), a student club whose goal is to educate students and the community on beekeeping practices and the crucial role that bees have in a healthy ecosystem. U of T B.E.E.S. currently manages four hives on top of the Faculty Club building and three hives on the roof of Trinity College.

“[U of T B.E.E.S.] provides an opportunity to educate communities outside of [the] U of T student body,” says Naomi Alon, the U of T B.E.E.S president. “Having that open outreach allows for U of T to establish themselves as more than a postsecondary school and more of a part of [the] Toronto community.” The new Worker BEES program by U of T B.E.E.S. is an opportunity for more students to attend workshops, speeches, and meetings held by The Urban Toronto Beekeepers Association. The club also hosts lip balm making tutorials, documentary viewings, and hive tours during the warmer seasons.

“[Worker BEES] gives access for young people to look into a whole new industry and problems in ecosystems and agriculture and it is also a networking opportunity” says hive manager officer, Theri Reichlin. Spring and summer are when the U of T B.E.E.S. are the busiest. Training begins for new students on the basics of urban beekeeping, such as hive maintenance and honey extraction.

Although the U of T B.E.E.S. is a light-hearted group where students can share their love of bees, the meetings also emphasize the importance that bees play in the environment and the agricultural district. There is speculation that a type of insecticide called neonicotinoid is to blame for the mass decline in the bee population in North America. This is known as colony collapse disorder, when most of the worker bees of a colony disappear.

Alon says that “it is in [our] best interest to acknowledge the role that bees play as a keystone species in the ecosystem.” Bees play an integral, niche role as pollinators in food production and security in North America. It was noted at the last U of T B.E.E.S. annual meeting that the decline of bee population is not only an environmental issue, but also an economic and agricultural issue.

U of T B.E.E.S. is among one of the first urban beekeeping student clubs in Canada. During the peak seasons in the summer, there can range between 60,000 and 80,000 bees per rooftop colony. Alon’s favourite aspect of the club is that it provides “an opportunity to learn about food production and how bees are an integral component to agriculture.” For more information on becoming more involved with the U of T B.E.E.S, you can visit their website.