23 Oct 2009

Agri-chemical companies are both breeding and killing bees

This blog title was the title of an article by Tom Levitt in The Ecologist last week - see it in full here.

Photos: New exhibition with the preview this evening and below Stroud's Jehanne Mehta's poem and more submissions to the 350 beehouses made earlier today at Guidepost Trust in Stroud - crucial to helping our wild native bees - see earlier blogs on that like here

I was interested to learn in the article that companies like Syngenta don’t just make the chemicals that have been blamed for the decline in bees but they also breed the bees that are being used as a replacement for wild pollinators.

The new documentary, ‘Vanishing of the Bees’ is now out in UK cinemas - and it tells the story how neonicotinoid pesticides weaken the honeybee populations and lead to more disease and possible collapse of colonies (see here my previous post with link to the petition on those pesticides). Sadly the agri-chemical companies don't seem to be interested in researching the risks - instead as the article shows they are more interested in developing the multi-million dollar industry breeding bees in captivity. Factory-reared bees are used by farmers to pollinate soft fruits and other crops - but they are ignoring the dangerous threat they pose to native bees. Here is what Tom Levitt has to say:

Pollination experts have identified three main risks

If the factory-farmed bees are better at food collecting they can out-compete local bees and establish themselves as a dominant species. They can also inter-breed and gradually dilute native gene-pools. But most significantly, they can act as a vector for diseases by the shared use of flowers to collect pollen.
The manufacturers say the bees are used in polytunnel production systems for soft fruits and vegetables like strawberries and peppers, and as such are only ever released in an enclosed area. However, ecologist and pollinator expert Dr Claire Carvell from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH), says that even in these circumstances bees do escape and mix with the native population and as such, ‘the large-scale commercialisation of bumblebees poses a risk.’

Disease outbreak

Dr Carvell points out that Japan has previously banned the import of bees because of the threat of disease. A batch of queen bees from Australia in 2007 was found to have been affected by the nosema parasite. The United States provides an even more worrying example of what can go wrong when we mass-produce and ship bees around the world. In 2004, the US relaxed laws on importing bees and allowed farmers to bring in bumblebees from Australia to use on almond crops. Many scientists believe that these bees brought in a disease - Israeli acute paralysis virus (IAPV) - which subsequently spread to the native bee population and contributed to a sudden and catastrophic collapse in honeybee numbers.

Import ban
The UK Government department responsible for wildlife, Defra, claims the industry is small and that, 'all bumblebee imports already need to receive a health certificate from the exporting country so they don’t spread disease, and we work with industry on the risks to native species and safeguards.' Bumblebee Conservation Trust (BCT) director Dr Ben Darvill says the industry is far from small and that the UK imports upwards of 50,000 bee colonies every year - equating to millions of bees. As well as Syngenta Bioline, the other major companies involved in the UK market are Koppert and Biobest. Dr Darvill says the sector lacks proper controls and that to minimise the risk of disease spreading, Defra should ban imports. ‘The problem comes when you move bees over a scale of countries. You are moving genes and species to countries where they have not been. We’re in favour of breeding in the same country rather than a global hub. There is no good reason in the UK why we couldn’t produce our own,’ he says.

Helping wild bees Some argue that the very presence of a bee-breeding industry indicates a misguided focus away from increasing the native, wild bee population, and towards selling a product. ‘We don’t know whether the pollination service works or whether it is just clever marketing,’ says Dr Darvill. ‘It may be that just looking after your hedgerows will bring you more native bees and instead of relying on a factory to produce your bees. Getting a wild pollination service from a synthetic pollinator seems very odd.’

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