Last year, my husband's honeybees – the ones he keeps with friends of his – ran into trouble. Only one hive survived the winter. The Bee Boyz, as they call themselves, were devastated. They wondered if they'd made some fatal amateur mistake. But far more experienced apiarists were almost wiped out too. One of our neighbours lost 200 out of 230 hives.
By then, everyone had heard of colony collapse disorder. Bees were dying everywhere – but why? There were lots of theories, but fewer facts. Some bees, the ones trucked up and down the United States to pollinate almonds and other commercial crops, seemed to be dying of overwork. Some people blamed the blood-sucking varroa mite. There was also a new culprit with an unpronounceable name: a new class of insecticide known as neonicotinoids. Neonics, as they're also known, are supposed to be much safer and more effective than the older ones.
All through last summer, everyone swapped speculation with the neighbours about what was ailing the bees. A lot of people blamed neonics. My husband wasn't sure. "Bees are very complex organisms," he said. Last fall, for the first time since the Bee Boyz had been together, there was no honey harvest.
Since then, I've learned that there are few things more political than bees. The great bee die-off has provoked shouting matches between beekeepers and farmers, between environmental groups and agribusinesses, and among scientists on all sides who call each other's research flawed and pathetic.
The media have fuelled the panic with stories about "Beemageddon" and "a crisis point for crops." Environmental advocacy groups have leaped to the conclusion that if bees are dying, people must be to blame. The Guardian newspaper, a bastion of left-wing eco-thought in Britain, refers to neonics as "killer nerve agents." More than 330,000 people have signed a British petition demanding that the insecticide be banned. The European Commission, always nervous about the supposed perils of GMO crops and other suspicious frankentechnology, slapped a two-year ban on neonics. The Sierra Club, the David Suzuki Foundation and other environmental groups want Canada to ban them, too.
But others aren't so sure. The U.S. Agriculture Department, the Environmental Protection Agency, Britain's environmental agency and many scientists maintain that neonics rank very low on the list of bee-killing bad guys. They say the biggest problem is the blood-sucking bee mite. Top bee researcher May Berenbaum, of the University of Illinois, told Associated Press that she was "extremely dubious" that a ban on neonics would have any effect on bee health.
Canada, meanwhile, has been waffling. The federal government's Pest Management Regulatory Agency has blamed neonics for recent bee deaths in Ontario and Quebec. It says extreme weather conditions caused the dust from newly planted corn fields to waft onto nearby foraging bees, and has mandated new measures to control the problem. This precaution has not mollified the activists, who warn that neonics are a new DDT in the making.
The Beemageddon story line has another problem.
In spite of some unusually high local die-offs, the overall bee population doesn't actually seem to be falling. The United States has more honeybee colonies than it did in 2006, when colony collapse disorder struck hard. In Canada, the number of bee colonies fell a bit between 2012 and 2013, but was still way up from what it was in 2009. The same goes for honey production. Go figure. And in Western Canada, where most of the honey comes from canola and most of the canola is treated with neonics, the bees are fine.
The bees aren't the only insects causing panic these days. Monarch butterflies are endangered too, and their population decline is clearly real. As usual, there seem to be a bunch of reasons, ranging from habitat loss to severe weather conditions. But everyone agrees that the main reason is their loss of food supply: milkweed. Milkweed is where the monarchs lay their eggs, and it's the only food that monarch larvae eat. In the past few years, milkweed has been all but eradicated along their migratory path to Mexico.
What happened? Well, here comes the ironic part. Millions of acres of former conservation land across the U.S Midwest were plowed under to grow herbicide-resistant corn for ethanol, which by law must be added to gasoline. Ethanol prices have tripled, and the ethanol lobby is now one of the strongest in America. So much for protecting the environment.
Fortunately, nature is resilient. Even Chip Taylor, the ecologist who founded Monarch Watch, doesn't think the butterflies will disappear entirely. Schemes are afoot to replant some of the milkweed that's been destroyed. And if there is any justice, the stupidly misguided and vastly destructive ethanol program will be killed.
Whatever the truth turns out to be about neonics, there's no doubt that some new technologies do real harm to the environment. Yet I'm optimistic that we can find a balance – even if we don't always get it right the first time. When DDT was first used in North America, it killed a lot of bird life. But then we learned. Used properly, it's a lifesaver. And the birds came back.
A few weeks ago, the bee inspector came around and took a look at the Bee Boyz's lone remaining hive. He pronounced it healthy. So the Boyz got some nukes and started up again. (A nuke is a Queen with a small posse of attendants.) The new hives have grown amazingly fast, and things are really buzzing. Every week or two, they get together in their bee suits down by the honey shack, and dream of glory at the Royal Winter Fair, just like the old days.
And there's lots of milkweed in our meadow this year. I just saw a monarch a couple of days ago. Maybe there's hope.