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Daily News Blog

14
May

General Release of Honey Bees Threatens Wild Native Bee Populations and Ecosystems

(Beyond Pesticides, May 14, 2021) In a prime example of cart-before-the-horse, greenwashing, or perhaps “beewashing,” a British company has badly missed the mark in its latest attempt to market a product while “doing good” and generating goodwill with customers. As The Guardian reports, Marks & Spencer, the giant United Kingdom (UK) retailer, is releasing 30 million managed honey bees into rural British landscapes in what the company is promoting as an effort to support biodiversity and the beekeeping sector. However, according to experts and environmental advocates, unleashing that many honey bees may well actually harm both wild native bees and honey bees themselves. Critics of the move say this means that wild bees will likely face fiercer competition for already inadequate food sources. Beyond Pesticides adds that these honey bees have been dispatched to the same pesticide-contaminated habitats in which existing bee populations of all kinds face harmful exposures — exacerbating issues surrounding pollinator decline rather than solving them.

Marks & Spencer’s Twitter marketing promotes the project in this way: “Did you know that bees contribute to a third of the food we eat? At M&S, we’re introducing more than 30 million bees to our Select Farms to help protect the future of these all-important pollinators and the planet.” The plan behind the hype is that M&S, having placed some 1,000 hives on 25 farms, will soon have a new product — “single-estate honey” — to market to consumers who may think this is a “virtuous” product.

In its blog, M&S adds to the cachet by noting that the bees are housed in “cedar beehives, many made in the 1930s, with plenty of nectar nearby.” It adds, “Because we’ll be harvesting honey from different farms with natural biodiversity, each crop will have its own unique flavour. Better yet, the hives do good for the environment, since bees are natural pollinators and allow nature to do its work. Our work with honey bees is only part of the story, though — as part of our Farming with Nature project, we’re encouraging pollinator diversity and promoting natural habitats across our farms.”

In fact, M&S is unlikely to be doing either of those things: managed honey bees do not contribute to biodiversity (see more below), and at least some of the “natural” habitats the company claims to promote through this effort are likely subject to the use of pesticides in one or more forms. Though the UK has acted more protectively than the U.S., neonicotinoid pesticides continue to show up in UK honey despite a partial ban.

Worldwide, 75% of crops depend on pollination by insects or other creatures. In the UK, honey bees are responsible for pollination of roughly a third of crop production; however, wild pollinators supply critical services that contribute to pollination and productivity. Honey bees are one of more than 270 species of bee in the UK — many of which are in significant decline. According to recent research, a steep global drop in bee species has been chronicled: approximately 25% fewer species were reported from 2006 through 2015 than was the case prior to 1990.

Reaction in the UK advocate community to the M&S announcement has been swift and scathing. Gill Perkins, chief executive of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, commented: “This is greenwashing or beewashing at its most blatant.” Matt Shardlow, head of the conservation group Buglife, says, “They are actually ending up doing something that may damage the environment. There are not enough wild flowers to support the populations we’ve got. It’s about creating a better countryside for pollinators, not chucking more pollinators out into the countryside.”

Siting 30 million European honey bees across the M&S host farms is, according to ecologist Steven Falk, “not natural at all — it’s farming,” adding that the company has gotten this “horribly wrong. . . . There’s growing evidence if you saturate the landscape with honeybees, it has a profound impact and puts pressure on the wild pollinators.” This view is supported by 2019 French research demonstrating that the global spread of the European honey bee via managed bee farming/leasing pits wild native bee populations against the “intruders,” resulting in bee biodiversity losses.

In addition, managed honey bees tend to pollinate a narrow range of plants with “showy” flowers. Native wild pollinators pick up a lot of the slack, and are, according to researchers, twice as effective as honey bees in the pollination of certain crops, such as strawberries, tomatoes, almonds, coffee, and oilseed rape. The Guardian reports that this is because honey bees collect “damper” pollen that adheres to their bodies, whereas wild pollinators tend to collect drier pollen that is more liberally shed onto flowers. Introducing millions of managed honey bees can alter ecosystems and habitats because of their selective pollination habits, according to Mr. Shardlow of Buglife.

M&S’s honey bee project might be regarded, at best, as evidence of the company’s poor knowledge and/or poor judgment. Indeed, University of Sussex Professor Dave Goulson, PhD had this to say on Twitter: “Just adding more honeybees is not the answer to declining pollinator numbers! Come on @marksandspencer, do your homework.” Beyond Pesticides asserts that a far better gesture would have been investments in ridding the British countryside of pesticides that harm pollinators, restoring native habitats, and installing and supporting widespread, appropriate foodstocks (plants) for pollinators, such as bumblebees, red mason bees, and hoverflies.

Marks & Spencer defends its bee program, saying it is only one facet of its Farming with Nature project, which the company says is expected to boost pollinator diversity. A M&S spokesperson commented: “It is designed to help our Select Farmers become more resilient to the biggest environmental challenges they face and champion the uptake of nature-friendly farming practices. We are committed to sustainable farming that safeguards wild pollinators, including bumblebees and solitary bees, so we have placed our honeybee hives in very carefully selected areas, in small groups and more than two miles apart to avoid over-populating a particular area. None of our honeybees are imported. We’re discussing how to develop the project with the Bumblebee Conservation Trust and we’re also in conversation with Buglife — we’re hoping to work closely with them to nurture all British pollinators.”

The bigger picture that M&S appears to be missing is this: changes to one or more elements of an ecosystem can easily upset ecological balance and ecosystem function. The introduction of many millions of honey bees could be such a destabilizing element. Beyond Pesticides has covered the significant and additive stress on wild bees from both food scarcity and pesticide exposure. Predicted increased competition for appropriate food sources, on the part of wild bees and other native pollinators, is one expected impact of the M&S honey bee project.

Pesticide use is also a harmful stressor on wild (and all) bee populations, as well as on other wildlife, and is at least a partial cause of bee and other pollinator declines. Adding all those managed honey bees to 25 farm ecosystems does little to improve the lot of any bees; it does mean that millions more bees, both honey bees and wild bees, may be exposed to toxic pesticides, causing more devastation to bee populations.

Bringing more pollinators to live on or near pesticide-contaminated “killing fields” — or attracting them via planting food-source plants — does not address the base problem, which is pesticide use in land management. Pesticides are used on agricultural fields, and on seeds and crops grown in them; residues from spraying can drift to other areas and settle on soil and vegetation (including pollinator food sources), and contaminated water runoff can end up in drainage ditches and waterways that are favored by some flowering species. These chemicals are also used in non-agricultural areas for turf management, such as in public parks, greenspaces, golf courses, and other recreation or open spaces that may have pollinator-friendly vegetation (whether intentionally planted or “volunteer”). Direct exposures to pesticides, and/or indirect exposures through feeding from contaminated plants, exacerbate the negative impacts of these chemicals on pollinator populations. Opportunities for pollinator exposure to chemical pesticides can be rife.

Beyond Pesticides captured the bigger picture well in its introduction to its 2017 annual Pesticide Forum, Healthy Hives, Healthy Lives, Healthy Land: “Complex biological communities support life. With this understanding, we advocate for practices and policies that are sustainable and regenerative, create resiliency, and nurture healthy interactive organisms in the web of life. We rely on the best independent scientific knowledge available, recognize uncertainties when they arise, and choose the path that is most protective of health and the environment. The decline of pollinators is a clarion call to action, as it reflects a regulatory system that is out of touch with the effects of turning habitat into pesticide-laden killing fields, poisoning our waterways, and destroying ecological balance.”

Beyond Pesticides has written that “Pollinators are a bellwether for environmental stress as individuals and as colonies.” Pesticides play a role in the so-called insect apocalypse, in colony collapse disorder, and in plunges in insect biodiversity, all of which signal that ecosystems and their species are in dire shape. Fundamental to changing this trajectory is the elimination of chemical dependency in all land management‚ through a rapid transition to organic practices. Organic regenerative agriculture and organic land management practices not only proscribe the use of toxic chemicals, but also, nurture healthy ecosystems and robust biodiversity.

Protection of species — whether bees, other pollinators, or wildlife — cannot be achieved without correction of the underlying agricultural and land management dependency on pesticides. Ultimately, the widespread adoption of organic management systems is necessary to protect biodiverse ecosystems and their inhabitants.

Meet with beekeepers, scientists, and advocates at the upcoming Cultivating Healthy Communities Forum, starting May 24 and 25, and running every subsequent Tuesday until June 15. Registration options are available for every budget, including a no-cost option. See here for a complete program and schedule of events.

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/16/marks-spencer-honeybee-project-threat-biodiversity-conservationists-aoe

All unattributed positions and opinions in this piece are those of Beyond Pesticides.

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