Monday, July 15, 2013

A letter about the birds and bees

A Letter about the Birds and Bees

July 13, 2013
Dear Hort,

     I'm writing this aboard a train heading to Quebec. It's a gorgeous time of the year to ride the rails in Canada. Golden drifts of Black-eyed Susans brighten the side of the track, interrupted by occasional vivid orange flashes as we whip by a naturalized clump of daylilies. Pale tan giant cylinders of hay make mown farm fields look like a Magritte painting. In one area near the Kingston limestone flats I think I saw wild white phlox blooming, and every few kilometers brings a new ecozone with different flowers to enjoy. Zipping past a swamp, I saw a brilliant mound of what looked like Canada lilies growing on a bluff above the water...

   I'm on my way to Quebec City, whence a rental car and I will take a pleasant afternoon drive along the south shore of the St. Lawrence. We'll stop at Grand-Métis where my world-traveller cousin Paul [photo next email: Paul mugging it up with one of my giant heritage tomatoes] awaits us in a cabin looking out over the great river, which here partakes largely of the sea with two meter tides and fascinating tidepools just beside the deck. Tomorrow morning we will be off to celebrate Bastille Day at Les Jardins du Métis/Reford Gardens. I've brought my "Prince des Jardiniers" gardening hat from France along to shelter my balding pate from the hot July sun as we wander through the kilometers of gardens and landscapes of what is arguably Canada's finest grand garden. We have the promise of a personal tour from Alexander Reford, the gardens' owner, to look forward too, then dining at an auberge with a view of the sunset over the great river.

  But I'm visiting Grand-Métis for more than just garden tourism. I'll be giving a talk in the gardens about the birds and the bees, and if you know me you'll guess it won't be about sex, it will be about tobacco.

  Some of you may have caught my discussion with farmer and beekeeper Dave Schuit on Canada AM last week. [apologies for the ad - be patient, please!]. Dave and I were there to talk about the catastrophic losses he and other beekeepers are experiencing, as more and more of their honeybees die off over winter or during corn planting season. Dave and I agreed that although many diseases and pests are bothering the bees, the straw that breaks the camel's back is the widespread use of nicotine-based pesticides.

  Do you grow tobacco plants in your garden?   Last year I had three different species (I'm sending Nicotiana sylvestris, while the unusual blue leaves and golden tubular bells of Brazilian tree tobacco Nicotiana glauca gave foliage interest and flowers for daytime pollinators. But all tobacco species share one botanical innovation: the acutely toxic (to insects) nerve poison nicotine.
Nicotiana sylvestris
you several possible picture by separate emails you could use here). Some were sweet smelling and attracted night-flying moths, like the beautiful white

  Yes, that's right: nerve poison. The stuff is to most insects and water bugs as the horrible chemical nerve gases are to us. That's why chemists at Bayer, Monsanto, and other companies modified the structure of nicotine to make it last longer (up to years in some soils), reside permanently in the plant it is applied to, and be as toxic to bees as nerve gases are to us. These "neonicotinoid" pesticides now coat the
Two tobaccos
seeds of most commercial field crops, including corn, canola, soybeans, and even sometimes wheat. The manufacturers sell billions of dollars of product every year.

  If "neonics" (as most farmers and beekeepers call them) only killed corn rootworms, I wouldn't be talking about them in the gorgeous surroundings of Reford Gardens. But they go where they aren't meant to. Bees gather them up in pollen and in the sweet-tasting little droplets of sap young corn seedlings release at dawn. Birds eat them as they hunt for seeds that the sowing drill didn't get all the way underground. One droplet of seedling sap kills a bee, one coated kernel of corn can kill a blue jay, one grain of wheat can make a songbird sterile. Washed into streams and ponds, neonics kill the water bugs fish thrive on. And, just in case you don't care about the natural world at all, recent studies show small quantities cause abnormal development in the brains of newborn organism often used to test for possible teratogenic effects on human fetuses and infants. Mothers who smoke have children with ADHD more often than non-smokers - and nicotine is the reason. Do we want neonics in our food?

  This spring, for the first time in history, there weren't  enough honeybees to pollinate the California almond crop when the trees bloomed. The price of almonds is expected to double this winter. This summer, a landscaper was called in by a Target store in Oregon to get rid of pesky aphids in the trees around the parking lot which were shedding sticky honeydew on shoppers' cars. Problem is, a neonic pesticide was used ("knocks 'em right down"), the trees were linden trees in full bloom, and over the next day or so perhaps 50,000 dead bumblebees were found on the asphalt of the lot. Dave Schuit lost over 40% of his honey bees when neonic-treated corn was grown near his hives, and has had to sell his farm to recoup his losses (he had to choose between buying new bees or paying the mortgage, and opted for the bees).

  Some of us are old enough to remember Rachel Carson and her game-changing book Silent Spring. Dave and his fellow beekeepers in Ontario and Quebec are asking the federal government (which regulates pesticides) to follow the lead of the European Union in banning neonicotinoids before it's too late and we have silent springs, summers, and falls. We are well along this deadly path already. Numbers of birds like swallows and purple martins that depend on flying insects are down by 70-80% and still dropping. Please, will you consider writing to your M.P. and asking her or him to push the government to ban neonicotinoid pesticides to save the birds and the bees?

I close this letter with a silent prayer that future years will bring back the buzzing of the bees and the sounds of the songbirds.
Clement Kent


  1. The trouble with bees in the United States is more complex than the use of nicotine-based pesticides. Almond farm acreage has been growing steadily for the last 50 years. Even without bee losses, one would expect that, sooner or later, the bees could not meet the demand. Also, it is important to remember that commercial pollination, the way it is practiced nowadays, is stressful to bees. I do not dismiss the important role of pesticides on the current crisis, but one should consider all the aspects of the problem. You mention Rachel Carson. One reason why her arguments were so powerful was that she considered every possible angle. We must do the same.

    1. It's a privilege to get a comment from a blogger as distinguished as Beatriz Moisset. If you haven't already, check her blog at However, I have written extensively in this blog and elsewhere about other factors affecting bees; indeed Moisset in her recent blog posting on monarchs says "I haven't covered the topics you mention because I planned to do so in a future post." Substitute "past" for "future" and you have my case.

      However, and it is a very BIG however, I urge anyone interested in this issue to either look at the recent PNAS article by Di Prisco et al, titled "Neonicotinoid clothianidin adversely affects insect immunity and promotes replication of a viral pathogen in honey bees",d.cWc&cad=rja.

      This article is very well researched. It finds a new gene which responds to nicotine and nicotine-like compounds by reducing the immune response. It characterizes this gene in detail in the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and shows that it works in the same way in honey bees. Finally, it shows that doses of neonicotinoids comparable to those experienced by bees in the field raise the levels of a bee virus, in proportion to the neonic dose.

      Admittedly, the prevalence of more virulent viruses in honeybee populations is due to the role of the introduced Varroa mite, which plays see same role for bee viruses as mosquitos do for malaria or dengue fever in humans ( see excellent paper on this in Hawaiian honeybees, where the mite was introduced only recently and researchers tracked increasing virulence of viruses after mite introduction: Martin et al 2012, "Global Honey Bee Viral Landscape Altered by a Parasitic Mite" Science Vol. 336 no. 6086 pp. 1304-1306). However, Varroa mite has been in North America longer than the extensive use of neonics.

      Having considered every possible angle, I believe reducing or banning neonic use will have strong positive effects on many organisms, of which honeybees are only the most prominent. I cannot write journal length articles in my blog, especially when I have covered other topics previously. So, I maintain my call for neonic use to be reconsidered in North America.

  2. First, thanks for all the important work you do for pollinators. It is not your blog, far better balanced than most Internet posts, that frustrates me. Instead, I worry about the many exaggerations and omissions, often well intentioned, cropping up everywhere. They can be counterproductive. Take for instance the bumble bee die-off in Wilsonville, OR, mentioned in this blog.

    It is unquestionable that pesticides were the main or the only culprit in this episode. However the linden trees involved are known to produce toxic nectar that periodically causes bee die-offs. The role, if any, of toxic nectar should have been investigated. I have contacted repeatedly the people involved in these studies at the Oregon Department of Agriculture. I only got vague answers. I still don't know if they tested any bumble bees for the effects of toxic nectar. My argument is that, if there is another die-off a few years from now in the absence of neonics, the pesticide industry will grab that opportunity to make their case. We should be prepared with the facts.

    You are right that there is no need to go into great detail in a blog of this nature. Maybe, I should rather pester the Oregon Department of Agriculture one more time.