Future Headline: Abbott’s Green Army Hand Pollinates Food Crops Because All The Bees Are Dead. Around the world, the use of a type of pesticide called neonicotinoids is on the increase, much to the dismay of beekeepers, who view ‘neonics’ as contributing to a decline in bee numbers. A worldwide reduction in bee populations poses a serious risk to the global food supply. ‘Bees are required in the pollination and reproductive process of food crops to make them viable. If we didn’t have those bees we could take a third of the food off our plate.’ SARAH COLES speaks to Melbourne beekeeper CAREY PRIEST about the implications of neonicotinoids and why Australian beekeepers need to be more like the French.
The first time I met Carey Priest I accidentally dosed him with magic mushrooms. I had just moved in to a house with a pesticide free backyard full of flowering Eucalypts, ponds and fruit trees: the perfect home for an urban beehive. Carey had a hive in our backyard and was coming around to do some maintenance. He had kindly offered to teach myself and two friends about beekeeping. It was hot in the sunshine and I wanted to make the beekeeper a nice drink. There was a calamondin tree in the backyard laden with citrus so I thought I would make a variation on honey and lemon. I sweetened the tea with a jar I found in the cupboard that I thought was a jar of honeyed walnuts. It turns out I made tea for Carey, two friends and myself with honey containing psilocybe cubensis and we spent the afternoon beekeeping. Yes, I was tripping, but not as much as I felt I was last week after reading ‘Neonicotinoids and the Health of the Honeybee in Australia’, a 2014 report put out by the Australian Government.
I wanted to hear what a beekeeper had to say about neonicotinoids so I paid Carey a visit. Carey is a tall, wild eyed man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of topics including but not limited to: plants, bread, motor mechanics and bees. Of his youth he admits, ‘I was a motorcycle mechanic, living at home in the Eastern suburbs of Melbourne, white boy trash, didn’t have many world experiences, pretty close minded and susceptible to things like racism and homophobia.’ All this changed when Carey heard a conversation about permaculture around a campfire and somebody told him about WWOOFing, ‘I was like Whoa! Is that really possible, you can go and learn something, have a good time and it doesn’t cost you anything!’ In his early twenties Carey started to get involved in environmental activism, ‘My very first protest that I ever went to was the S11 protest in 2000,’ and gardening. Carey became a beekeeper six years ago because he was getting room and board in exchange for work on a farm that he calls ‘the last bastion of pre-urban development’ and there was a wild bee colony there that he had to take care of. Carey attended a beekeeper’s meeting. At that first meeting Carey won a queen bee in a raffle and had three days (the time it takes the Queen to eat her way out of the box she came in) to get a hive. ‘The beekeeping community is very supportive,’ says Carey, adding, ‘I found some gloves and crappy smoker in the shed.’ When I ask Carey why there is a renewed interest in beekeeping he says, ‘The worldwide decline in bee populations is pretty drastic.’
‘Growers of canola, forage brassicas, pasture and summer crops can now take advantage of a new breakthrough in insect control following the recent registration of an innovative insecticidal seed treatment. Bayer CropScience product manager Andrew Gourlay said that Poncho Plus, developed by Bayer, offers a much broader spectrum of control than existing insecticidal treatments…’ – Southern Farmer newspaper, 1 May 2015
Neonicotinoids like those found in Poncho Plus are applied to the seed or the soil. When neonicotinoids are used the plant takes up the poison into its tissue. ‘The whole plant becomes toxic,’ Carey says. The amount of chemicals that find their way into the pollen and nectar that bees feed on isn’t enough to kill them outright but peer reviewed studies have linked neonicotinoids to bee mortality. Carey thinks that neonicotinoids are worse that the pesticides that preceded them because their effects aren’t immediately obvious, ‘If a bee goes and forages where RoundUp has just been sprayed they will cark it…There is a very , very direct causal link,’ whereas the effects of neonicotinoids are more ‘insidious’ and ‘harder to trace. The [Neonic] flows in to the hive in small quantities and slowly builds up.’ Beekeepers are concerned about this sub lethal, cumulative effect of neonicotinoids. Carey says, ‘We haven’t dedicated the time to understanding the cumulative or cross multiplying effects.’
In late 2006 bee colonies around the world started disappearing. Carey describes Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) as, ‘Bees disappear en masse, like a ghost town, without a trace.’ Beekeepers have blamed neonicotinoids for the collapse of bee populations because the chemicals wreck their navigation and weaken their immune systems. Carey agrees, ‘If you reduce their ability to protect themselves from various parasites, viruses and so on, and then you completely screw with their ability to navigate that might give you the end result of Colony Collapse Disorder.’
I don’t entirely trust the 2014 report the Australian Government commissioned in to neonicotinoids. I performed a cursory check of the Advisory Board of the group that authored the report, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority (APVMA) and within minutes had come up with a link between the APVMA and Syngenta, an agricultural chemicals company. Selwyn Snell is on the Advisory Board of the APVMA and was formerly the CEO of Syngenta KK Ltd Japan and Crop Care Australasia, both companies peddling neonicotinoids. Syngenta is the very same company that Canadian beekeepers filed a lawsuit against over bee deaths allegedly caused by neonicotinoids in 2014. Mr Snell may have had no say in the report, but I’m pointing out his curriculum vitae in order to draw attention to the links between the Australian government and the pesticide companies that manufacture the neonicotinoids that they are tasked with investigating.
Meanwhile across the globe, the European Union has partially banned the use of neonicotinoids until further studies have been carried out. While only a partial ban, Carey thinks the Australian government should impose similar restrictions here, or better yet, take its cues from French beekeepers who forced a top down response from their government. He says the French beekeepers ‘[W]ere up in arms and got active enough and vocal enough to lobby the politicians to put a partial ban in place.’ The French beekeepers have been kicking up a stink for some time. In a 2012 article I wrote, ‘Last Friday French beekeepers occupied the site of agrochemical giant Monsanto in Monbequi demanding an end to genetically modified corn in France…Approximately 20 beekeepers hiding in a van were brought onto the site where Monsanto carries out corn growing experiments. The protestors pretended to be a delivery truck and once admitted opened the gates to dozens of other beekeepers. Some protestors brought two hives and smokers into the building before calling the Minister of Ecology by telephone.’ When I ask Carey how come Australian beekeepers don’t smoke out Barnaby Joyce’s office he sighs, ‘Veiled interests in the halls of power.’
After the interview Carey makes me a kefir crepe and we talk about my plans to get bees this year. Carey thinks Antipodean beekeepers need to be more like their French counterparts. My Grandfather’s middle name was Lefevre and I’m not the former CEO of a pesticide company so there’s hope for me yet. ‘Viva la revolucion,’ says Carey as he hands me the crepe.
Australian Government, Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority, 2014, Neonicotinoids and the Health of Honeybees in Australia, APVMA, Canberra. http://archive.apvma.gov.au/news_media/chemicals/bee_and_neonicotinoids.php
‘Growers of canola, forage brassicas, pasture and summer crops…’- 2015, ‘New pest control released,’ Southern Farmer, 1 May.
CBC News, ‘Canadian beekeepers sue Bayer and Syngenta over neonicotinoid pesticides,’ CBC News, September 3. Available at: < http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/canadian-beekeepers-sue-bayer-and-syngenta-over-neonicotinoid-pesticides-1.2754441>
http://www.cropcare.com.au/Products I typed in ‘imidacloprid’ in to ingredients and voila!
Coles, S 2012 ‘French beekeepers occupy Monsanto,’ Dolphin Lettuce Tomato, 1 December. Available at: https://dolphinlettucetomato.wordpress.com/2012/01/12/french-beekeepers-occupy-monsanto/
Full disclosure: Carey Priest works for Very Edible Gardens, the permaculture business started by a backer of this project, Adam Grubb.
Thanks to Robert Redpath from Bee Sustainable who gave me my first ever beekeeping lesson.
All The Bees Are Dead was originally published on Beacon Reader, a crowdfunded journalism website.
In 2015 I crowd-funded a book Rooted: Antipodean Food Politics through Beacon Reader, of which All The Bees Are Dead is part. A big thank you to the people who supported the project. Unfortunately, Beacon Reader closed down in September 2016.