There is a lot of buzz in the media about the decline of the bee population in Canada and around the world. Bees have been disappearing at an alarming rate over the past several years and scientists and beekeepers have been racing to find out why. Colony Collapse Disorder is the term given to the sudden die-off of seemingly healthy bee colonies. This is a huge issue for Niagara, which relies heavily on agriculture and the production of the cash crops that feed the province. Pollinating insects, in particular bees, are not only a necessary part of the life cycle of many plants, but are also a necessary part of the farming industry.  Bees, in their quest for food, carry pollen from flower to flower. As a natural consequence, bees pollinate the crops that we have come to depend on: fruits, vegetables, flowers, berry and grain.  Indeed, flowers evolved for this very reason: to attract potential pollinators in the plants’ quest to reproduce. Without bees, many flowering plants would simply become extinct. Ontario’s farmers rely on bees as deeply valued partners in the production of their cash crops. Furthermore, without bees, the majority of our wildflowers would also be gone. What would Canada be without its maple trees or Ontario trilliums?

Awareness and immediate action are needed to preserve and nurture the existing bee population and other native pollinators. It is estimated that two-thirds of the food we eat is a result of insect pollination. These pollinators include bees, moths, beetles, bats, butterflies and hummingbirds, of which bees do eighty percent of the work. Imagine what would happen should our bees succumb to Colony Collapse Disorder: The beauty of the Niagara area would disappear. Its diverse and often endangered flora would quickly follow the bees into extinction. Imagine the implications for our economy: What would we do without the vegetable growers, greenhouses, market gardens, nurseries, orchards and vineyards that supply the landscaping, restaurant, beer, wine and tourism industries? The disappearance of our bees would have a far-reaching and devastating effect on tourism as well as the entire economy of the region.

The are several factors that contribute to the decline of bees:

  • Acres of flowerless landscapes due to urban development
  • Crop monocultures created by sowing a single crop, thereby reducing the diversity of flowers on which the bees feed
  • Increase in parasites and disease
  • Use of toxic herbicides, fungicides and pesticides
  • Systemic use of neonicotinoids on seeds and plants

Let’s look at two of these a little deeper. The use of modern chemicals has had a devastating effect on insect population in general. A group of pesticides called neonicotinoids (neonics) are being blamed for the drastic harm that bees have incurred in recent years. This systemic pesticide is applied to the seed and taken up by the plant as it grows. It remains in the cells of the plant and is ingested by anything that feeds on that plant. This includes pollen and nectar that is gathered by bees and is taken back to the nest to feed the members and the larvae. This poison also ends up in runoff rainwater, which bees drink, further poisoning their bodies. These neurotoxins builds up in a bee’s body over time and eventually paralyzes or kills the bee.

Since the introduction of neonicotinoids, there has been a steady increase in Colony Collapse Disorder. According to Tibor Szabo, president of the Beekeepers Association of Ontario, some beekeepers have experienced a thirty-eight to fifty-eight percent loss in their bee colonies over the past year. This alone is destructive enough to the producer, but sadly it incurs an additional burden. Foreign honeybees are now being imported in record numbers to supplement the local bee population, at a high financial cost to the farmer. We are no longer self-sufficient. “Niagara has traditionally had the lowest rate of winter loss, at around fifteen percent. This increased loss is devastating. Hives are now collapsing even in the summer, which was unheard of in the past. The bees have to work harder and harder to maintain the hives and cannot cope,” stated Szabo.

Honeybees have long fascinated Victor Unger, a veteran Niagara beekeeper for over 40 years. Growing up in Paraguay, he learned beekeeping from his father. “My father could locate wild beehives by calculating the time it would take for bees to return to their feeding spot. He would follow their flight path and capture the swarm. He knew everything about bees. When I moved to Canada in 1945, I brought my knowledge of bees with me and have continued to raise bees my entire life. I consider honey bees to be my best friends, and it breaks my heart to see how we are poisoning them, and ourselves too, with chemicals.” Victor has lost twenty-two of his forty-five hives this past winter. “I just want people to know how dire the situation is and how devastating it will be to all of us if we don’t take action immediately,” he pleaded.

Farmers who rely on bees to pollinate their crops are also losing millions of dollars due to lower yields as a result of spotty pollination. This has created a high demand for commercial beekeepers and their pollinating services. Commercial beekeepers are now providing a service that was once provided by nature. Truckloads of bees are hauled across the country where they are placed in fields and orchards during blooming season to insure the pollination of crops. When the bees’ work is done, the hives are moved on to the next flowering location. This results in increased costs to our food production.

The demand for pollination services has become so great that Niagara College is instituting a beekeeping certificate program to train skilled professionals for the industry. This pilot program is slated to begin in January of 2017. It will be a post-graduate certificate program that will train professional apiarists, managers, technicians, commercial beekeepers and commercial pollination service providers.

But there is hope! Governments and some corporations on an international level are finally taking steps to bring back the bees. In Europe, USA and Canada, regulations have been implemented to ban or phase out the use of neonics. But it is not enough; municipalities, cities and individuals must also pitch in to provide safer environments. General Mills Canada, producer of Honey Nut Cheerios, has started an awareness campaign called #bringbackthebees to get people involved. They provide up-to-date information and free packets of wild flower seeds on their website. Globally, volunteer groups, such as Friends of the Earth, are lobbying hard for changes that will protect the environment.

This year, Toronto has applied to become the first ‘BEEcity” in Canada. This designation certifies the city as a ‘pollinator friendly municipality’, which means that it is committed to providing sustainable habitats for pollinators. Toronto encourages beekeeping within its urban center, allowing hives on the roof of the York Hotel, Pearson Airport and in public green spaces. A program is in place to educate schools and the public; Toronto is taking a leadership role in supporting and rebuilding bee populations.

Locally, The Niagara Beeway project is focused on restoring biodiversity for the bee population along the Welland Canal. In addition, it monitors the health of the local bee population and encourages local citizens to participate.

Now is the time to do your part as an individual to preserve the future of our food and our beautiful Mother Earth by saving the bees. There are many things you, your friends, and your family can do to help the bees and other pollinators to thrive:

  • Educate yourself about the problem
  • Write letters to your government representatives at all levels of government requesting changes
  • Form groups to spearhead bee-friendly projects in your community
  • Create a bee-friendly habitat around your home

Become bee-savvy by learning to identify the different species; it can be fun and educational for the whole family. Don’t be afraid of bees. They tend to mind their own business and go about their work. They are non-aggressive and rarely sting unless attacked. They coexist peacefully in urban settings or home gardens.

People are probably the most familiar with honeybees; they are easily identifiable by their black and yellow striped body. Honeybees are not native to North America, but were introduced when Europeans settled here. These bees are very social and live together in a swarm. They are considered super organisms: a highly organized society with a very specific division of labour. Beekeepers build box hives to house these swarms and provide a safe environment in which to breed and raise the larvae. Besides wax, they also produce honey, royal jelly and bee pollen; these have many nutritional and antibiotic properties that benefit humans.

Native bees are less well known, although there are nearly 4000 species in North America. Interestingly, they are much better pollinators than honeybees and are the only ones able to pollinate tomatoes and eggplants. For the most part, they live a solitary existence and forage and feed their young on their own. They dig underground channels to lay their eggs or build nests in decaying wood or plant stems.

Bees are not aggressive and rarely sting unless attacked; quick movements will be interpreted as hostile, so always move very slowly in and around them. Bees often get a bad rap because of their more vicious cousins:  wasps, hornets and yellow jackets, which can sting repeatedly. These little guys are usually a brighter yellow with different markings than bees. They are the ones that invite themselves to your picnics to eat your meat or sweet beverages. You’ll find their paper nests on patios, in trees, and under overhangs. It is worthwhile to learn to distinguish the ‘pests’ from the ‘good guys’. Just google ‘bees vs wasps’ and you’ll find lots of help.

Here are some ways to create a bee-friendly habitat around your house:

  • Build bee houses in and around your home. The David Suzuki Foundation has detailed instructions on how to build simple homes for bees.
  • Become an amateur beekeeper by raising bees in your backyard. You will reap the benefits of the honey the bees produce. It will take some diligence and dedication, but is a fascinating and fulfilling hobby.
  • Don’t apply pesticides to your yard. Both the birds and the bees will thank you.
  • Plant a wide variety of blooming plants, including native wildflowers and ground covers. Bees love clover and it grows easily in your lawn.
  • Source organic, heirloom and pesticide-free plants and seeds to be sure they are not contaminated with neonics.
  • Choose flowers that will bloom throughout the season in order to provide an ongoing source of food for your bees.

Together, our individual efforts could have a huge impact in a short time. Whether you live in the city or country, you can do your part to provide bee-friendly plants and habitats in and around your home and community. We can take a page from the bee’s book. By mirroring the cooperative behavior of a bee colony, everyone can play their part in working together to create a healthy future for bees and in turn for ourselves.

By Sandra Ozkur