Pollinators called vital for food production

An apiculturist says a drive for higher yields has reduced pollinator diversity. | File photo

A British Columbia bee expert is warning about the dangers of a continuing decline of pollinators, including honeybees.

Commercial honeybee colonies are critical to helping fruit growers attain the quantity and quality of fruit they need.

“In modern agriculture, there is no question, the growers can simply not operate if they don’t have access to bees. They would be in serious trouble,” said apiculturist Paul van Westendorp of B.C.’s Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Fisheries.

“If there is a steady and persistent decline in the overall abundance of pollinating insects, the productivity of these crops becomes uneconomical and the effect would be no fruit or less fruit.

“Basically, if we were to take the pollinators out, if all the honeybees and other bees were eliminated, then we face ecological collapse.”

He added consumer demands in the last 20 years to have a variety high quality fruits at an affordable price has pushed growers to go with higher yielding varieties.

This has increased grower reliance on honeybees, a non-native species to North America.

“Let’s not kid ourselves — agriculture is a drive towards reduced biodiversity, not enhanced biodiversity,” he said.

“We have a tendency to eliminate, to destroy, to spray, to pull out, to mow down and burn off anything we don’t place a monetary value to. That is a grave concern.”

Van Westendorp said if growers and beekeepers worked more closely together they could prevent issues including the use of pesticides, some of which can kill entire colonies.

“But not all pesticides are the same. Beekeepers should be primarily concerned if there is an insecticidal spray versus a herbicide because a herbicide doesn’t affect bees that much,” said van Westendorp. “Insecticides in general pose a much greater risk, of course, to insects because that’s what they’re designed to do, to kill insects, but also to mammals and to humans.

“It’s important to beekeepers to differentiate between what actually is being applied but also some growers often have a very rudimentary understanding of what pollination is all about, that is not totally understood.”

He added part of the problem with honeybee numbers is this province’s reliance on bees from the prairie provinces, when beekeepers used to bring their colonies to winter in southern B.C.

Those keepers found they had far less loss of bees during the milder winters in southern B.C., and they cashed in by leasing out hives to the skyrocketing blueberry industry.

“Then research in the ’80s showed that bees don’t do very well when they are placed in blueberries for two or three weeks and then the shine of getting bee pollination contracts waned quite a bit,” said van Westendorp, who described the Fraser Valley’s bee shortage as acute.

He estimated there are just under 60,000 managed colonies in B.C. and of those, only a quarter are doing commercial pollination.

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