For hundreds of years, miners toiling deep in the earth have taken small birds with them. If the air got bad, the canary died and the miners knew they had to get out fast or perish. Today we use the expression “a canary in the mine” to indicate an early warning. Honeybees are that warning species for people.
In mid-September, we had a honeybee warning right here in South Minneapolis. First-year beekeeper Katherine Sill came home one day and saw thousands and thousands of bees on the pathway, some dead and some convulsing in their death throes. Katherine immediately phoned her bee mentor, Jenny Werner of the University of Minnesota Bee Squad. At almost the same time, neighboring beekeeper Mark Lucas was on the phone as well, having noticed that his bees were shaking on the edge of the hive and falling to the ground, dead. “They just come spilling out of the hive like they’re drunk,” said Lucas. The Bee Squad immediately got on the phone to warn Erin Rupp and Kristy Allen, co-owners of the Beez Kneez, a bee education company based in the Seward neighborhood, that their hive at Blake School in the Kenwood neighborhood might also be in danger.
It was. Katherine Sill estimates that two-thirds of her hive died. About a third of the Beez Kneez hive died. Some bees survived in each hive but, since bees need big populations to warm each other during cold Minnesota winters, it is likely that all three hives may be completely wiped out by spring, frozen to death.
In a way, it was a lucky tragedy, since the incident was investigated by both entomologists (insect scientists) at the university as well as scientists from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Independently, they found the insecticide fipronil, which is commonly sprayed on building foundations as well as in flower gardens—easy for bees to take home to their hives. It is legal and readily available.
Why a lucky tragedy, you ask? Because it is a very rare case where massive urban hive die-offs are discovered as the bees are actually dying, in time to figure out what killed them. There are lots of documented cases of bees killed by pesticides in rural areas, but this time is was a proven case in the city. We know what killed the bees and how it killed them. Worst of all, we know that the bees died from a cosmetic rather than agricultural application, and we now have proof that a completely optional use of pesticides on city flowers can kill as much as a massive spray with a crop-duster over a farmer’s field. Now we know.
Concern about insecticides—not just fipronil—led the Minneapolis Tree Advisory Commission to invite well-known insect scientist Vera Krischik to address them last month. The commission advises the park board regarding tree issues, one of which is Emerald Ash Borer (EAB), an invasive insect from Asia, typically treated with systemic insecticides, classed with names like neonicotinoids, emamectin benzoate and neem-derived products.
There are more than 40,000 public ash trees on Minneapolis public land alone, in parks and along our boulevards. Despite the treatment, every single one of these trees is going to die. They cannot be saved. The “treatment” costs between $100 and $400 per year per tree (depending on tree size), and it will kill the EAB that is in a tree that is infested but looks healthy. But you have to apply the stuff every year. When you stop the treatment, the EAB comes back and will kill the tree. So these treatments do prolong the life of our ash trees, but are the treatments themselves dangerous? Entomologist Vera Krischik studies these things, studies the chemicals, and she came to let us know what the science says so far.
My take-away: The treatments are dangerous to pollinators. And indirectly to us as humans. The problem is with flowering plants. Once neonicotinoids get into the flowers, the pollinators ingest them and often take them back to the hives. Even at doses so low that bees don’t immediately die, it affects their nervous systems. They wander off and forget how to get back. They forget to get pollen for the hive. They stagger around and die. There have been some 15 scientific papers documenting the sub-lethal effects of neonics, including navigation and memory problems that eventually cause bee death. It isn’t the only factor causing the tragic colony collapse syndrome that has led to a huge worldwide decline in bee populations, including the loss of half the honeybees in the U.S. during the last year alone. But it is pretty clearly one of the causes, which is why the European Union has just banned all neonic use for the next two years, attempting to see if removing this fatal factor will be enough to restore their bee population.
It is complete folly to spray this stuff on flowers, on flowering trees like lindens (basswood) as well as on plants around the base of trees. So “soil drenches” are pretty directly dangerous. Tree injections are a bit less so, especially on seedless ash trees like those we have planted on our boulevards. But some 100 insects depend on the ash trees for food, including honeybees in the early spring. The neonics don’t just kill bees; they also kill butterflies, woodpeckers, and hummingbirds directly, and a host of other birds that starve to death when we kill off their insect food supply.
A third of our human food is pollinated by insects. Without the pollinators, we would not have most fruits and many vegetables. It is not the slightest exaggeration to say that a die-off of pollinators also foretells a human die-off as well. With a world population of 7 billion, predicted to increase to 9 billion in a few years, many already hungry, it is hard to imagine that everyone will have enough to survive with a third less food. So honeybees are the canaries in our mine.
This is a lot of doom and gloom, as my wife would say, but there is actually quite a lot that you can do to save our pollinators, to save ourselves.
First, don’t “treat” that ash tree with any systemic insecticide. I’m truly sorry, but that tree is going to die. There is no good that can come from killing pollinators in the process. It is legal to treat the trees if you use a registered pesticide company; that’s state law, so far. It is even legal to “treat” a boulevard ash tree at this point, although you must have the company notify the parks department. But don’t. Just don’t, if you like bees and butterflies and hummingbirds, or even if you just like to eat.
Second, call your parks commissioner and ask that they change policy regarding insecticide use on public land. They are already doing a great job in a difficult situation, removing park ash trees as soon as they can and replacing them with other tree species. But we really should not allow systemic pesticide treatment on boulevard ash trees either. The Minneapolis parks commissioners have pretty full control over boulevard trees, so they can stop insecticide use for EAB there at any point they want. Call 3-1-1 and get your parks commissioner’s number and give them a call. I can tell you with complete certainty that they would rather respond to you as a citizen than respond to pressure from pesticide applicators who want to get your money for “treating” the tree.
Third, the State of Minnesota currently does not allow the City of Minneapolis to control pesticide application on private land, but that could change. Call your council member and ask them to put local control of pesticide use on the legislative lobbying shopping list. The entire state of New York has banned most of these systemic pesticides for non-agricultural use and Minneapolis could also, if the state made local control legal. And if we can’t get an outright ban on use of these poisons, at least we could ask that spray information be made public, so we can know which neighbors we should be talking to. Again, call 3-1-1 for your City Council member’s name and number.
Fourth, inform yourself. Beez Kneez in the Seward neighborhood has a couple of movies coming up, with a bit of discussion. At 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec.10, they will be showing the movie “More than Honey.” Also at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 14, they will be showing “The Vanishing of the Bees.” Both are at their wonderful little honey processing facility at 2204 Minnehaha Ave. Come in through the 22nd Street door, just left of Spokes.
Let’s see what we can do here. Wouldn’t it be great if we could create a little urban oasis for the pollinators, and maybe for ourselves as well?