Monday, October 7, 2013

The Bees are speaking: It's time to act

By Jean Strandberg & Fawn Pattison

Bombus terrestris, the beloved bumblebee
This October, Toxic Free NC is focusing on our friends, the pollinators. Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably heard that domestic honeybee populations have plummeted in recent years. Farmers in North Carolina and across the US face a dramatic shortage of hives to pollinate their crops. Nearly half the managed beehives in NC have been lost since the mid-1980’s.

But did you know that wild pollinators are even worse off? While their populations are hard to track, biologists estimate that wild pollinators have suffered a 95% population decline in NC in the same time period. New research shows that wild pollinators are even more important to our food supply than domesticated bees. A recent study looking at 40 different crops across the globe showed that wild pollinators are twice as effective as honeybees in their pollination efforts. This is in part due to the variety of pollination techniques used by wild pollinators, as well as a tendency to cross-pollinate (honeybees usually pollinate within a single plant). 

We must act now to stop the pollinator collapse, or we will be very hungry people before long. We're already seeing the effects of fewer pollinators on the planet. Yields in crops that do not require pollination are growing at a much faster rate than those that do, and more and more farmers are finding it necessary to rent hives from around the country to ensure the success of their crops. Among crops requiring pollination are some of our favorite foods: cucumbers, almonds, blueberries, watermelon, apples, strawberries, melons and peaches all require pollination. If we fail to address the causes of these losses, we may soon have to give up many of the foods we love.

But many voices are telling us not to act. Pesticide makers argue loudly that their chemicals aren't to blame. They pay troops of scientists to create data that distract our attention from the harmful effects of agrochemicals on bees, butterflies and birds. But agrochemicals like the widely used class of insecticide, neonicotinoids, are strongly linked to declines in honey and bumblebee populations. There are plenty of other contributing factors besides pesticides, of course.

Hang around any beekeeper, and you’re sure to hear about the Varroa mite’s attack on their hives, introducing RNA viruses that disrupt hive function and can eventually lead to colony collapse. Climate change has been linked to an increasing incongruity between when bees are active and when flowers are in bloom. Pesticides, pathogens, climate change, decreased crop diversity and habitat destruction all play a part, individually, and in combination. 

But having many factors involved is no excuse to sit back and let a disaster happen. We must act now to fix what we can! The overuse of pesticides is a huge contributor to these declines. Pesticides kill beneficial insects and pollinators like bees and butterflies that are necessary to provide a healthy ecosystem where we can thrive. Pollination is required for three-quarters of global food crops, and one of the things we can do right now to conserve these essential pollinators is to use fewer pesticides.

The US Department of Agriculture, and our state Commissioner of Agriculture should be acting fast to promote farm technology that protects pollinators: More organic farming, more Integrated Pest Management, ending the use of pesticides most highly toxic to bees, and creating incentives for farmers to diversify crops and provide more pollinator habitat. The pollinator collapse is a man-made disaster, and one that we can stop if we choose to. Let's choose wisely.

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