In recent years, topics relating to health of bees and other pollinators and declining numbers of honey bee colonies in certain parts of Europe and North America have caused increasing interest and concern among scientists, beekeepers, environmental and farming groups, industry and the media.
In a candid interview, Dr. Julian Little, Bayer Bee Care spokesperson, looks at some of the questions often being asked and the issues being raised.
Q: What are the challenges facing our bee populations?
A: There are a number of pressures on our bee populations – a combination of factors, including the provision of food and nesting sites, the weather, a whole plethora of viruses and other diseases is certainly taking its toll. Habitat loss, due to the need for farm land to feed a growing global population has also had its impacts, although the introduction of pollen/nectar strips on farms demonstrates that productive farming and presence of bees are absolutely compatible – take a look at some of our work on Phacelia in the UK in video 3 on flowering strips at the following link.
Q: Many of these are common to pollinators generally, are there any challenges specific to the honey bee?
A: For the honey bee, there is also the Varroa mite – a particularly nasty parasite that not only sucks the blood of the bee but also spreads these viruses – a bad combination that will frequently reduce the life of a worker bee by a third and may lead to the complete failure of a colony in bad years. In reality, there is no single reason for overall poor bee health although it is clear that the presence or absence of significant infestations of the Varroa mite, and particularly treatment-resistant Varroa, is particularly culpable in this issue.
Q: There has been a lot of criticism of the role of pesticides – especially a class of compound known as neonicotinoids; are they to blame here?
A: That’s an interesting question. Take by way of example the case of Australia. Here, imidacloprid and other neonicotinoid insecticides are widely used as seed treatments in oilseed rape and other summer crops, yet the country has the healthiest bees on the planet. As such, the country’s honey bees are often exported. What Australia does not have – at least not yet – is the Varroa mite. This observation is not lost on bee scientists. Similarly, in France, the reverse seems to be true. Neonicotinoid pesticide use has been restricted for over 10 years, yet there does not seem to have been any apparent improvement in bee health. However, France does have the Varroa mite. So remove the neonicotinoids, no apparent improvement; remove Varroa and you have healthy bees.
Q: This is fairly compelling evidence, yet some would argue that it is anecdotal; what about the science?
A:The debate surrounding the relative importance of pesticide use versus bee health issues such as Varroa looks set to continue despite a wealth of scientific information having already been provided in this area. Firstly, it is absolutely clear that if you artificially expose bees to any insecticide, the bees will be affected. This is especially true if that exposure happens in the artificial confines of a laboratory, as has been the case with most of the work on neonicotinoids published in the newspapers over the last year. While worthy, this research does not reflect the real world in which bees are not force-fed relatively high levels of insecticide in a stressful laboratory, but are out in a green environment in which they will forage on a wide range of nectar and pollen sources. Take a look at the work by UK Government scientists to see what happens when colonies of bumble bees, for example, are placed next to a field of treated oilseed rape:
Effects of neonicotinoid seed treatments on bumble bee colonies under field conditions - March 2013.
Q: What measures do you have in place to protect bees?
A:Bayer has been in the business of bee health for more than 25 years. Part of our CropScience core business depends on pollination services provided by bees and, therefore, on abundant numbers of pollinators and healthy bees. To improve bee health, we are providing solutions for Varroa and other bee health issues all around the world. We will continue to actively promote bee health, through research activities, stakeholder dialog and stewardship measures. We recently commissioned two Bee Care Centers to focus our resources on this topic – take a look at www.beecare.bayer.com for more information.
We appreciate that some people will remain uncomfortable with parts of our business, and we understand this. However, we also believe that the issue is a complex one and that bee health is unlikely to be significantly improved just by blaming the nearest chemical.