Bee population increases contrary to media reports

Is it possible to have a pollinator crisis when bee colony numbers are increasing?


According to reports in various media outlets, the answer is yes.


For example, on July 23 the Globe and Mail published an online article with the headline: Why is Canada’s bee population in rapid decline?


The story was based on a Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists (CAPA) report issued the same day, looking at the percentage of bee colonies that died or were unproductive following this winter. 


CAPA said Ontario beekeepers lost 58 percent of their colonies, much higher than the 25 percent losses across Canada.


The Globe piece said neonicoti-noids, a class of insecticides applied to corn, soybean and canola seeds, were likely responsible for the severe bees losses in 2014 and in previous years. 


The headline and the sombre tone of the article were curious because Canada’s bees are doing much better than they were in the late 2000s.


CAPA data shows that Canada’s honeybee population has steadily increased since 2009. 


Canadian beekeepers had 611,972 colonies in the fall of 2009 and 677,824 bee colonies in the fall of 2013, an increase of 10.7 percent.


In Ontario, hive numbers were 81,200 in the autumn of 2009 and 100,000 last fall. 


“I hate to say it, but I don’t know if the media has done a good job of trying to contact the people who know what the numbers really are,” said Rod Scarlett, executive director of the Canadian Honey Council.


“The Ontario Beekeepers’ Association (OBA) has done a remarkably good job of (sharing) their problems and their numbers. I think the media is focused on that Ontario mentality and thinking what happens there happens in the rest of Canada.”


The OBA has blamed neonicoti-noids for killing millions of bees in the province and has led a highly effective campaign against the seed treatments. 


However, Scarlett said there isn’t a bee population crisis and most honey producers are doing a better job of minimizing winter losses.


“There are regional variances but we seem to be managing bees and honey production quite well.”


Canadian bees were worse off in the late 2000s when varroa mites plagued honey producers, he added. 


CAPA’s data on winter losses indicates that Scarlett is correct. 


Thirty to 35 percent of Canadian bee colonies failed to survive the winter from 2006 to 2009, while losses were only15 to 28 percent between 2010 and 2014.


Medhat Nasr, CAPA president and the provincial apiculturist in Alberta, said many Canadian beekeepers have adopted best management practices to cope with the pests and diseases that compromise hive health. 


“The bee hive numbers, it is growing slowly,” he said. 


“It is a positive story, and it shows a lot of work has been done to help the industry.”


Yet numerous publications and broadcasters have produced news stories with grim outlooks, implying all bees in Canada could be dead by next week.


Stephen Strauss, Canadian Science Writers’ Association president, said journalists often look at one report or one data set when they write a story, and they don’t consider historical or broader sources of data. 


He is concerned by the absence of statistical analysis within journalism. 


“I get really (angry) that journalism schools don’t require people to (take) a statistics course,” he said. 


“Statistics are kind of fundamental to being a human being in the time we live in.”


Another issue is the media’s urgency to tweet the story three seconds before the competition when a study or report is released. 


Strauss said sometimes there is also a reluctance to tell the other side of the story. In this instance, journalists have focused on seed treatments and the need to ban neonicotinoids to save bees while ignoring the consequences of a neonicotinoid ban.


“What it means is there are more insects and they eat more (crops),” he said. “Is that the trade off? Is that what you’re willing to deal with? If I was a farmer, I’d be pissed off at this because I don’t see that argument ever put forward. The notion is that is … the farmer’s problem.”


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