I have some good news from the land of honey. The bees are fine. Since their overwintering problems a few years ago, when they dropped dead by the thousands, our honeybees have been happy, healthy, industrious little critters. They’re making so much honey that my husband and I can’t unload it fast enough. “Wait! wait!" I implore our friends and neighbours as I chase them down the driveway. “You can’t leave without taking some of our delicious honey.”
My husband, the beekeeper, is always fielding questions about the bee-pocalypse. People still think the honeybees are dying like flies and that evil pesticide-makers are to blame. This story has been spread by environmental groups, and by a credulous media, which always like to tell us how humans are destroying our planet. Without honeybees, there would be no apples, peaches, almonds or canola, they warn. Serves us right!
It didn’t take long for the honeybee scare to spread to wild bees as well. After all, honeybees are just a few among the 20,000 or so bee species, some of which are very useful. Without the wild bees, Discover magazine warned in 2018, “[we] stand to lose all flowers, vegetables, fruits, natural fibers, and much more. … In other words, if pollinators go, it all goes.”
Depressed yet? There’s more. The real problem is not just the bees, but the entire insect kingdom. We are witnessing a worldwide “insect apocalypse," claimed the New York Times, which warned in an article last November that “a whole insect world might be quietly going missing.” Hard on the heels of that bad news came a headline-grabbing “global scientific review” of the literature, co-authored by two scientists. They concluded that 41 per cent of the world’s insect species are declining, and that the number of insect species is falling by 2.5 per cent a year – which means that insects could vanish within a century. The annihilation of the insects, they said, threatens a “catastrophic collapse of nature’s ecosystems.”
In fact, millions of insect species haven’t even been discovered yet, as The Atlantic’s Ed Yong points out. He goes on to write that the so-called “global scientific review” was fatally flawed from the start, because the authors searched a database using the keywords “insect” and “decline.” Any good news about the bugs was bound to be overlooked.
I’ve been wary of catastrophic insect stories ever since the honeybees bounced back a few years ago. According to Statistics Canada, the honeybee population is flourishing again. The true causes of colony collapse disorder are still unknown. Perhaps the biggest culprit is thought to be the Varroa mite, a highly destructive bee pest that’s hard to get rid of. Needless to say, anti-pesticide advocacy groups do not agree. They blame a new class of pesticides called neonicotinoids (which are actually safer than the pesticides they replaced).
“The pollinator-collapse narrative has been relentless and mostly wrong,” argues science writer Jon Entine, who is determined to set the record straight. The media firestorm set off a panic in policy circles, which launched regulatory reviews to get to the bottom of things. The European Union even banned neonics entirely. But as the honeybee population bounced back, the evidence told a different story. In 2017, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that most approved uses of neonicotinoids “do not pose significant risks to bee colonies,” and Canadian regulators followed suit with a similar ruling. Now, even the Sierra Club has recanted, admitting that “honeybees are at no risk of dying off.”
So, is that the end of the story? Of course not. Alarm has switched to another charismatic insect, the monarch butterfly. Monarch populations in North America have been plummeting, although no one is quite sure why. For several summers, my husband and I didn’t see a single one. This carnage was widely attributed to the absence of milkweed, which, in theory, had been all but wiped out by modern agricultural practices. A sweeping campaign was launched to encourage people to plant milkweed in their backyards. But it turns out that, like most things in nature, it’s way more complicated than that. Although the monarchs really are in decline, no single villain is to blame.
Last summer, the monarchs returned to our backyard. This year, there seems to be more than ever. So there’s hope. As for honey, we have a basement full of it. It’s unbelievably tasty. If you drop by, we would love to give you some.