A large commercial beekeeper in Darlington Point in the Riverina, southern NSW, has been forced to pack up and move after hundreds of beehives were devastated by pesticide-drift from nearby cotton farms. It is thought the bees died due to the spraying of neonicotinoid insecticides.
The neonicotinoids, also called neonics, have been used in the US for 12 years but they are now completely banned in France, partially banned in Europe and Canada is considering a ban. Pesticide giants such as Bayer, Syngenta and BASF sued Europe to drop the ban. Neonics are still available in Australia.
There has been a dramatic drop in bee numbers across the Middle East, Europe and the US. The US has put the bumblebee on the endangered species list for the first time.
It is not clear why the colonies collapse, as the bees simply leave the hive. The neonicotinoids imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam, affect the central nervous system of insects. It is thought the insecticides affect the learning behaviour and memory of the bees and they forget how to navigate back to the hive.
It is not clear exactly how neonics work as they do not generally kill bees, but they reduce bee performance. Even though huge numbers of bee deaths do not occur, there are sub-lethal effects that include a reduction in bee pollination, a reduced reproductive ability and poor larval development.
Harold Saxvik’s family has been keeping bees for more than 80 years, but in 2013 he lost 500 hives to insecticide spray drift he believes came from nearby cotton farms. Since then he has been moving his bees to avoid any risk, but now says it had become unworkable. Saxvik’s bees help pollinate more than a dozen other crops in the Riverina, including crucial vegetable seed for growers around Australia.
Cotton is thriving in the Southern Rivers region with a $250 million harvest expected from the Murrumbidgee, Murray and Lachlan Rivers this season. Ironically, the development of a genetically modified cotton variety, which uses far less insecticide, has led to the growth of the industry in a region previously considered too temperate.
President of the NSW Apiarist's Association Neil Bingley said the cotton industry needed to do more.
“The cotton industry thinks that we’re a small industry but when you take into account the pollination of all the other horticultural crops, we’re a major player and Cotton Australia does not have the right to drive us out,” Bingley told the ABC. He believes some cotton growers along the Murrumbidgee are still spraying up to nine times a season.
"Our biggest concern is the Fipronil. It doesn't take much of that spray at all, a light drift will kill thousands of hives," Bingley said. But in Australia these deadly pesticides are still used widely, despite a mounting body of evidence showing they severely harm bees.
Australia is home to one of the last remaining semi-healthy bee populations in the world. Honeybees pollinate human food crops worth $4–6 billion annually in Australia. Much of our pollination is done by bees — not just European honey bees but also native bees. This includes crops such as broad beans, canola, sunflowers and also lucerne, pastures and many fruit trees.
Many crops use the free pollination services provided by bees, but others, such as almonds, use commercial bees. Therefore any negative impact on the honey bee industry, either through honey production or as pollinators of Australian crops and pastures, has huge implications for Australia’s food security.
We do not yet know the full impact these chemicals will have on Australian bees, because little research is done here. The Australian government agency in charge, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA), has been dragging its feet for years.
Another problem is hives being infested with a pest called Varroa mites. Australia is considered Varroa mite-free, but recently the Asian honey bee, which carries the mite, was introduced into Australia. The bees, introduced via a ship, were first detected in Portsmith, Cairns in 2007, and are now moving south.
A more variable climate, bought on by human induced climate change, will also change the way bees behave, when they can forage and the quality of the nectar they have access to. More extreme temperatures may change plant physiology, pollen availability to bees, as well as bee physiology, its behaviour and the local environment.
Australia must consider banning these pesticides too. We use the same chemicals as the EU and we have the same reliance on bees for pollination.