Photo: Scientists work to solve mystery of dying bees

Bees are endlessly intriguing, and incredibly useful to us — and not just for honey and wax. If bees disappeared, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to grow much of what we eat. (Credit: Louise Docker via Flickr)

By David Suzuki with contributions from Ian Hanington, Communications Manager

When a swarm of bees landed on a tree in their yard a few years ago, a David Suzuki Foundation staffer and her husband became accidental beekeepers. They called an apiarist relative who came over and helped them capture the bees, build hives and round up equipment. Now they're enjoying fresh honey and wax and have developed a fascination for the amazing insects. Staff shared that wonderment when she brought honeycombs and tools to the office for an impromptu lesson on beekeeping and bee behaviour.

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Bees are endlessly intriguing, and incredibly useful to us — and not just for honey and wax. If bees disappeared, it would be difficult, if not impossible, to grow much of what we eat. Bees pollinate crops ranging from apples to zucchini. Blueberries and almonds are almost entirely dependent on them. Some experts say they're responsible for one of every three bites of food we eat. The economic value of pollination services from honeybees alone is estimated at $14 billion in the U.S. and hundreds of millions in Canada.

Bees are good pollinators because — unlike some birds and other insects that are after nectar alone — they also seek out pollen, which they use along with nectar to feed the hive. In the process, they transfer pollen from the male part of one flower to the female part of another, fertilizing plants so they can develop seed-carrying fruits. Wild bees and domesticated honeybees are both important pollinators.

In fact, research indicates wild bees may be more important for food-crop pollination than honeybees. That's in part because a single species, such as honeybees, is vulnerable to mass disease outbreaks. Wild bees also use a wider range of pollination techniques and visit more plants, and so increase chances of cross-pollination, according to an article in the Guardian.

Sadly, both wild and domesticated bees are in trouble, and that means we could be, too. Causes of phenomena such as colony collapse disorder and other declines in bee populations are not entirely understood, but scientists are getting closer to knowing why bees are dying. Ironically, much of it relates to agricultural practices. Modern methods of growing food are killing one of our biggest helpers in food production.

Wild bees also face threats from climate change and habitat loss. A recent study published in Science found half the wild bee species in the U.S. were wiped out during the 20th century. That's been partly attributed to "an increasing mismatch between when plants flowered and when bees were active, a finding consistent with climate change," according to the Guardian.

Causes of honeybee deaths are more complicated. Colony collapse disorder has wiped out millions of hives over the past decade, with pesticide use, parasites and poor nutrition eyed as likely culprits. Scientists from the University of Maryland and U.S. Department of Agriculture recently found pollen collected by honeybees was contaminated with a toxic mix of pesticides and fungicides. It appears the toxins make the bees more vulnerable to a parasite called Nosema ceranae, which is believed to cause colony collapse disorder. Pollen samples contained an average of nine different agricultural pesticides and fungicides, and as many as 21 in one case.

The European Union has imposed a two-year ban on three neonicotinoids, a class of pesticides thought to be responsible for the dramatic declines in Europe's bee populations, but only for use on "crops attractive to bees". However, according to the Maryland study's lead author, Dennis vanEngelsdorp, quoted in the online news outlet Quartz, "It's a lot more complicated than just one product, which means of course the solution does not lie in just banning one class of product."

We need to get a handle on the toxic chemicals we use to grow food. If our practices kill insects and birds that make it possible to grow crops, we're defeating their purpose and putting ourselves and the rest of nature at risk. As individuals, we can help bees. Stop using pesticides and join the call to ban the worst ones. Plant bee-friendly plants and gardens, make wild bee "houses" and learn more about our fuzzy, buzzing friends. Like our DSF staffer, you could even adopt a hive.

August 1, 2013

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May 24, 2014
3:13 PM

My theory is that the Honey Bees are dying because of the Monsanto seeds they are not used to genetic alter seeds therefore they are dying.

Sep 07, 2013
1:44 PM

What is the solution ? just stop using pesticide and GMO plants and put mosanto and the like to banrupcy. But we will prefer to all die rather than stop these earth killing practise so some bankster make more money. God are we stupid

Aug 16, 2013
12:12 PM

I am pleased to say that I have a honeybee hive which seems to be thriving, on or in the outer brick wall of our house. Not to bee disturbed.

Aug 05, 2013
7:18 AM

Although many would try to avoid the fact — neonicontinoids are the direct cause of weakening and killing bee populations which in turn gives any other maladies such as mites or viruses an “edge” further decimating bees and all pollinators. Of 350 reported hive deaths in 2 years, one Ontario beekeeper alone this year lost 600 hives and another lost 220 hive in 2012 to acute toxic poisoning which all tested positive for neonicontinoids by OMAFRA and the PMRA governement agencies. Just 4 ppb will kill a honey or bumble bee. Seeds coated in this product will render waterfowl sterile and it will kill any songbird sized bird per the Health Canada report. Facts do not lie and US agencies are denying the facts, trying to save large corporation’s bottom lines!! Is that what we want — another stall just like Global Climate Change that still doesn’t exist in many governments (small) minds. Thank you and be diligent, write your MP’s

Aug 05, 2013
4:01 AM

Also, no mention of GM crops?

Aug 03, 2013
1:23 PM

@Lucie Montpetit

Thank you very much for that link!

We take too much for granted when we introduce new technologies without a process to prove they are harmless. EMF from cellphones etc has even been implicated in effects on other man made devices too. Skepticism is encouraged by the subtleness of some of the effects, yet they can be reproduced in controlled experiments. This is something definitely worthy of some follow up but I hope it doesn’t result in one industry blaming another as it’s likely there are multiple causes of the problems being experienced by the bees.

Aug 02, 2013
11:22 AM

You forgot to mention the impact of EMF on bees. Many researches have been conductd in France, Switzerland and India on this topic.

Thank you!

L Montpetit

Aug 02, 2013
9:35 AM

Below is the result of your feedback form. It was submitted by

Russell Johnson ( on Friday, July 05, 2013 at 15:50:37

realname: Russell Johnson


message: When are you preparing to ban neonicotinoid pesticides in Canada? Please advise.

Many thanks — Russell Johnson

Hello Russell,

Our government’s top priority is to protect the health and safety of Canadians, their environment and their food supply. Health Canada will continue its diligence in ensuring that only pest control products meeting our health and environmental standards will be registered for use in Canada.

Health Canada is aware of the importance of the beekeeping industry to the production of food in Canada, as well as the issues regarding the health of bees, including the potential effects of neonicotinoid pesticides. Health Canada scientists have been working with scientists from other organizations (Universities, Agriculture and Agri-food Canada, Provincial Ministries of Agriculture and Environment, Canadian Association of Apiculturists, and other regulatory agencies in the U.S. and Europe) to determine whether neonicotinoid pesticides are contributing to pollinator declines.

The Department has initiated a re-evaluation of the neonicotinoid insecticides in collaboration with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Health Canada will closely monitor scientific information and other developments related to potential impacts of pest control products on pollinators, not only in Canada and the U.S., but also in Europe, and will take regulatory action if it is warranted. Meanwhile, we will continue to work with our stakeholders and international colleagues to further develop ways to better protect pollinators.

Robert Martin Regulatory Information Officer / Agent d’information sur la réglementation Pest Management Regulatory Agency/Agence de réglementation de la lutte antiparasitaire 2720 Riverside Drive Ottawa, ON, K1A 0K9 1-800-267-6315 (Within Canada) 613-736-3799 (Elsewhere)

Aug 01, 2013
6:53 PM

The standard here should be the most likely cause. If we discover the bees are likely dying because of chemicals, that should be it for any further monkeying around with agricultural chemicals.

There are farmers worldwide experimenting successfully with non-chemical methods and proving we don’t really need pesticides and probably never did.

We can’t do without the bees. The natural systems are much better than anything man can do.

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