Are B.C.'s bee colonies the latest to die off?

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What's happening to the bees? The fuzzy little honey-making critters are dying off like the dinosaurs, and no one knows why. In the U.S., according to a congressional report updated in June, up to 36 percent of 2.4 million bee colonies were wiped out last winter. Canadian beekeepers reported losses of one-third of this country's bees during the winter, including a 23-percent loss in British Columbia.

Scientists have dubbed this bee Armageddon "colony collapse disorder", and it's provoking worldwide alarm. CCD doesn't just mean there'll be less honey or lower chances of getting stung. The bee pandemic is "the biggest general threat to our food supply", according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

That's because one of every three bites of food we eat comes from bee-pollinated plants: peaches, blueberries, strawberries, melons, citrus fruits, apples, broccoli, squash, cucumbers–you name it. The little insects are worth $15 billion annually to U.S. farmers and $1 billion in Canada–$300 million in B.C. alone.

Pulitzer Prize–winning entomologist E.O. Wilson told the Associated Press last May that the honeybee is nature's "workhorse–and we took it for granted. We've hung our own future on a thread." If the bee collapse continues, added Kevin Hackett, head of the USDA's bee and pollination program, we'll be "stuck with grains and water".

The alarm isn't due just to the sheer number of bees lost. It's also because the cause is still a mystery almost a year after CCD hit the headlines. The finger has been pointed at everything from powerful new pesticides to genetically engineered crops, weather, mites, stress, bad nutrition, microbes, even cellphones and, you guessed it, aliens. The search for the culprit is opening a window onto the dark side of how big agribusiness gets food to our tables.

In Canada, there's another twist. Most of the Canadian beekeeping industry says the huge bee die-off here actually had nothing to do with CCD. Instead, it was simply caused by a harsh winter and an outbreak of Varroa destructor mites, a pesky little parasite that is the bane of beekeepers.

"CCD is simply not here," said Paul van Westendorp, the provincial apiculturist at the B.C. Ministry of Agriculture and Lands. Van Westendorp is the man in charge of inspecting beekeeping operations for disease control. "Up to this point, I can say with confidence that we have not experienced CCD."

Jean-Marc Le Dorze isn't so sure. His 1,200 hives at Golden Ears Apiaries in Mission, did just fine last winter. In fact, his loss was a paltry five to seven percent–less than half the 15-percent norm. "In the early spring, my bees were in the greatest condition I've seen them," he said. "Things were looking very, very good."

The trouble started in mid May, when his bees were pollinating blueberries in the Fraser Valley. The bees vanished from 30 hives. No dead bees, just bee eggs and larvae left behind in hives. "The adults weren't there. Kind of like that CCD thing–large, broad, sudden, unexplained die-off of adults. That's a telltale sign of CCD."

This wasn't the catastrophic 80- to 100-percent loss that some U.S. beekeepers had seen, but what scared Le Dorze was that he didn't know the cause. It was enough to convince him not to truck his bees to Alberta for honey production as he had planned. "I brought them all home."

Asked about Le Dorze's losses, van Westendorp acknowledged he had heard "anecdotal" reports about "CCD–like" outbreaks in B.C. He said they had occurred at "less than five" beekeeping operations. "We leave open the possibility that CCD exists in B.C.," he said. "The reason I've refrained from talking about CCD is the causes are still unknown."

But Le Dorze's losses did seem to come as a surprise to Ed Nowek. He's a 30-year veteran beekeeper in Vernon and president of the Canadian Honey Council, representing 400 to 500 beekeepers across the country. Nowek had just finished telling the Straight that none of the recent Canadian bee deaths were due to CCD. "We're calling it excessive winter losses," he said. "We're not really considering it CCD. The symptoms are different."

When told of Le Dorze's empty hives, Nowek admitted it sounds like CCD. "It's pretty interesting. It's showing symptoms similar to the U.S., yes, we could say that. I've got to give him a call, then."

In fact, Nowek's little guys also did the disappearing trick. His 12 million bees living in 200 hives at the Planet Bee honey farm had a busy season last year. Their first pollination contract was in April. Nowek trucked them to cherry and apple orchards in the Okanagan Valley, where he set them loose to move pollen from flower to flower so the crops could grow.

Next up were blueberries in May, followed by raspberries and cranberries in the Fraser Valley until July, then back to the Okanagan for honey production until August. Farmers need one to four hives to pollinate each acre, depending on the type of crop, so Nowek's tiny workers were good for 100 to 200 acres of apple trees or 50 acres of blueberry bushes.

By late summer, Nowek started seeing problems. His bees were vanishing and leaving behind empty hives. Normally, when bees die from an infestation or disease, they do so in or near their hives and leave behind lots of dead bodies. This time, there were none. There wasn't even any brood in the hives to form the next generation of bee babies.

"It was unusual," he said over the phone from his honey-products store in Vernon. "The bees were just gone."

Then came fall and winter, and Nowek lost still more bees to the usual seasonal attrition that comes with the colder weather. By last spring, he had only about one million bees left in 50 or 60 hives. A typical winter loss should have cost him just 15 percent of his hives. His loss was 70 to 75 percent since the summer.

But was it CCD? No, said Nowek. He thinks the main cause was Varroa mites, which built up earlier than expected last summer and were already decimating his hives before Nowek could apply chemical treatments to kill the pests. To make matters worse, a hot July fried the flowers that bees go to for pollen, which they need for protein.

DAVID HACKENBERG HAS little doubt why his bees disappeared. He's the Pennsylvania beekeeper who went public about CCD last November. He said he started the fall with more than seven million bees in 2,950 hives. One day in late November, 400 hives were suddenly empty. Like Le Dorze, Hackenberg didn't find any bodies, just brood in the hives. By January, 70 percent of his hives had been emptied.

"I called everybody," he said on the phone from his office at Hackenberg Apiaries in Lewisburg. "Something really weird is going on here. Bees don't go off and leave their young. But they did. We're talking about a mass exodus."

Hackenberg, 59, started beekeeping in high school and has worked with bees his entire adult life. He doesn't hesitate when asked what caused his bees to vanish: pesticides, particularly a new class of powerful chemicals called neonicotinoids (or neonics), which are an artificial form of nicotine.

"My theory–and I'm just a dumb beekeeper–is something has broken down their immune system," he said. "The only thing that's new is the increased usage of neonicotinoids. Three years ago, you started really seeing it. Now, it's everywhere. It's the pesticide of choice in this country–and yours too. You can't get away from the stuff."

Hackenberg is now refusing to put his bees on farms where neonics are used. Back in Mission, Le Dorze said he doesn't know if neonics caused his bee losses. He does say, however, that the pesticide is usually sprayed on blueberries, the crop his bees were pollinating when they vanished.

This link is fuelling controversy because neonics have become widespread, mostly through their frequent use in treating genetically engineered seeds. If neonics were to blame for CCD, it would make bees the first known species to become a casualty of the biotechnology era.

Last March, the Sierra Club called on the U.S. government to fund emergency research into the neonic connection and, if GM crops are found to be responsible for CCD, to ban the plants. "You look at what's new exposure, and this is the new exposure," said Laurel Hopwood, the group's GM campaigner, from her home office in Cleveland, Ohio.

"This is big. We're talking about the food supply."

Hackenberg's claims appear to coincide with the findings of the world's largest-ever field trial of GM crops, done for the British government in 2003. The three-year study, which involved 4,000 visits to fields and the counting of 1.5 million insects and birds, found that powerful chemicals used in conjunction with GM crops were highly harmful to bees, butterflies, and birds. Fields of biotech canola and sugar beets had dramatically fewer bees than conventional farms.

As well, a U.S. study in 2003 found that chemical use on GM crops had shot up 32 percent per acre in the previous eight years, while it had fallen on conventional farms by 30 percent.

The link between CCD and neo ­nics is one of the questions intriguing Chris Mullin, an insect toxicologist at Pennsylvania State University. He's a member of the CCD Working Group, a team of academic and government scientists leading research into the bee apocalypse. The group expects to release its long-awaited report in October and is zeroing in on two causes for CCD; pesticides and a new unnamed virus, Mullin said. "We've detected within the food of honeybees a lot of pesticides, including neonicotinoids," he said.

It's still too early to tell what specific role the neonics play in causing CCD, but Mullin said studies have shown neonics degrade the immune systems of bees, making them more susceptible to disease. The working group singled out neonics, he said, because CCD made its appearance shortly after the new chemical became widespread in genetically engineered crops in 2000 and 2001. "That's why we looked at those groups of chemicals first," he said.

Here in B.C., Paul van Westendorp is dubious. "Mullin may be 100 percent correct, but I should caution that I have seen highly speculative articles [about CCD]. I will wait until I have more substantial information," he said.

Instead, he blames CCD on the explosion of so-called migratory beekeeping. The practice has become a linchpin of corporate agriculture and involves trucking bees thousands of kilometres to pollinate up to 20 crops each year. "Honeybees have not evolved over millions of years to spend their lives on the backs of flatbed trailers," he said.

The heavy workload isn't just stressing the hell out of bees. It also doesn't give them adequate nutrition. That's because in the era of big agribusiness, each pollination site is a vast monoculture: just one type of crop, not the broad variety of plants that bees feast on naturally.

"It's the same thing as if you eat only bananas," van Westendorp said. "You will not only be sick of bananas, but you will have a few nutrition problems."

As the bee workload has soared, U.S. bee colony numbers have collapsed from 5.9 million in 1947 to 2.4 million last year, before CCD hit. "Like in any livestock production system, if you're stressing the animal, it will not only malfunction, it will become vulnerable to disease," van Westendorp said.

Canada is slightly better positioned to resist CCD, he said, because migratory beekeepers move bees shorter distances and fewer times per season.

Douglas McRory, the provincial government apiculturist in Ontario, agrees that U.S. practices are likely to blame for CCD. "They put those colonies on trucks and move them around the whole frigging country. The poor things don't know where they are half the time," he said. "Their beekeepers are doing stuff that has come back to haunt them that our guys don't do up here."

McRory also blames chemicals–not those used by farmers, but rather those used by beekeepers themselves. U.S. beekeepers indiscriminately use pesticides to control mites and other infestations, he said, and some are suspected of brewing their own chemicals to save costs. The misuse of chemicals has fostered drug resistance among some pests, he said.

"They've loaded up their beehives with so many chemicals down there–some registered, some not. They've got those bees resistant to everything known to man."

BACK IN PENNSYLVANIA, Hackenberg is frustrated by the Canadian response. "The provincial folks [in Canada] have got their heads buried in the sand," he retorted. He admitted that trucking bees around the country puts stress on the little critters: "No doubt about it; we've been beating these things around." But he said he's done it for 40 years, while CCD has only just appeared. As for the chemicals used by beekeepers, he answered: "We have beekeepers using the same mix of chemicals for years, long before this thing happened. We also have beekeepers who got CCD and didn't use any chemicals," he said.

"Something is going haywire."

The truth may be all of the above, according to Mark Winston, an SFU entomologist who has done extensive research on bees. "We're probably looking at multiple factors that came together in the past season in a perfect storm," he said on the phone from his Vancouver office.

The culprit, he said, is likely the combination of stressors from the rise of big corporate agriculture–chemicals, monoculture, and trucking bees around all season–which has made bees sitting ducks for diseases and infestations. "I don't know if a new virus would be popping up if bees weren't already stressed," he said. "It raises a fundamental question about mass agriculture. We've managed things to such an extent that it is biting back at us."