Bayer CropScience: A perspective on bee health from the global view
−− Bayer 150th anniversary special news---Bee Health
Sep. 18, 2013
- Annette Schurmann
Head of the Bayer Bee Care Center
- Bayer CropScience's strategic crops: Wheat—man's main staple crop
- Bayer CropScience's strategic crops: Oilseeds --- a key source of vegetable oil and renewable energy
- Bayer CropScience's strategic crops: Soybeans --- the No. 1 protein crop
- Bayer Forward Farming: A new concept demonstrating profitable and resource-efficient food production
Bees are certainly one of the main pollinators but others, including birds, bats, beetles and butterflies, are also responsible for ensuring a good supply of fruit, vegetables and oil crops which enhance our daily diet. This is one of the reasons why there is such interest in the allegedly declining honey bee colony numbers in recent years. But are bees really dying out? In fact, the number of managed honey bee colonies worldwide is not declining, as often reported, but has been increasing steadily worldwide by 45% over the last 50 years. It’s only in Europe and North America that a real decrease in colony numbers has been seen. And recently, even in these regions, numbers of colonies have even increased in some areas. In other regions such as South America and Asia, numbers have increased as more people take up beekeeping [and are better informed and trained in apicultural practices].
So, why are bees declining in some regions but not in others? It is well known and widely reported that there are many factors which can impact honey bee health. These include parasites, viruses and other diseases, weather, nutrition deficiency and agricultural and apicultural practices. Within the scientific community, the majority agree that the Varroa mite has the most negative effect on bee health. The mite, which originated as a parasite of an Asian bee species, is not a native species in North America and Europe but was introduced through imported honey bees in 1970s and 80s, after which it has spread to almost every corner of the globe, except Australia, which is still mite-free.
Varroa mites infest beehives, causing diseases and transmitting viruses which can, amongst others,deform bees’ wings or cause paralysis. If untreated, a colony will only survive a couple of years at most before it becomes too weak to cope with overwintering and other major weather conditions such as severe drought or heat. Bayer has long recognized the impact that this parasite has on bee health and has been working for more than 25 years to develop solutions to combat this destructive mite.
Recently, some groups have been quick to point the finger at insecticides,for instance the neonicotinoid class of compounds, as a cause of honey bee losses. But are they really the cause? Blaming the nearest chemical only makes sense if the facts really stack up. We know that these crop protection products are newer, more environmentally-friendly and safer for those who use them than older chemicals and have been more thoroughly tested to meet the increasingly stringent regulatory requirements. Bayer CropScience has generated comprehensive evidence to show the products are safe to bees when they are used according to label instructions. Despite this, the European Commission has taken the decision to restrict certain compounds in this class for certain uses in Europe. Is this just a political decision or a scientific one?
Interestingly, in France, a long-time ban on neonicotinoid seed treatment in certain crops is in place and yet bee health has not improved. Compare this to New Zealand which also had bee health issues but instead tackled the Varroamite with a strict treatment regime and bee colony numbers are now showing signs of increasing. In Australia, where insecticides are used intensively in agriculture, they have some of the healthiest bees on the planet – but of course, they have no Varroa mite so far. In Canada, bee colonies foraging on canola are thriving and their numbers are increasing and this is on plants grown from seed treated with neonicotinoid compounds, so it seems something else is causing bee losses.
Promoting bee health is something Bayer is strongly committed to. The company has already established one Bayer Bee Care Center in Monheim, Germany and another is planned to open next year in North Carolina, USA. They are actively promoting the need for more bee and pollinator habitat and have established several research collaborations and bee safety stewardship initiatives. But protecting bees requires others to play their role too, by using products safely and providing pollinator-friendly habitats where bees and other pollinators can flourish.
Bees are an important part of the agricultural landscape, sure they are, but insecticides are as well. To provide a growing global population with enough, high-quality, affordable food, there needs to be a balance. Many important agricultural crops require not only pollination services provided by bees but also the protection afforded by modern crop protection products while the crops are young and vulnerable to attack by pests and disease. Food production will suffer if we remove one or the other from the balance so collaboration between all those involved is necessary to find workable and sustainable solutions. Only in this way can we ensure not only our own healthy future but one for the bees as well!