Alison McAfee | Honey Bee Hub

Neonics: The answered and unanswered questions

Neonicotinoid pesticides (neonics, for short) have been a hot topic in popular media and scientific research alike. As Randy Oliver highlighted in the July issue of American Bee Journal, the number of scientific publications including “neonicotinoid” as a keyword has increased exponentially over the last decade. Last June, two high profile research articles were published simultaneously in the prestigious journal Scienceone by Nadia Tsvetkov (who is in Amro Zayed’s lab in Ontario), and one by Ben Woodcock in the UK. They used two different methods to assess effects of neonics in field-realistic scenarios and both, unsurprisingly, reported predominantly negative effects. These investigations lay to rest the general criticism that neonic research uses unreasonably high pesticide doses, but they still don’t answer what is, in my opinion, the most critical question of all: Is there a better alternative? These publications do, however, provide valuable information on neonic toxicity in a large-scale, realistic setting.

An on-going problem in pesticide research is that it’s very difficult to know exactly how much pesticide an average honey bee colony is exposed to, despite knowing the dose and timing of crop applications. Weather, attractiveness of crops, surrounding forage sources, duration of exposure, and environmental persistence of the pesticide – among other factors – can all affect how high of a dose the honey bees receive. Tsvetkov et al. carefully calculated the abundance of neonics in 55 colonies located near neonic-treated corn fields in Ontario and Quebec. The in-hive abundance of neonics varied between 0 and 20 parts-per-billion between May and September, usually peaking shortly after corn planting. They also measured many other agrochemicals, including miticides, fungicides, herbicides and other pesticides, which can help researchers design future experiments on these compounds at real-life doses.

Tsvetkov et al. used the neonic abundance information to design a tightly controlled experiment aimed at deciphering the controversial question of the pesticide’s biological effects on colonies (e.g. impacts on social immunity and queen longevity). I was initially surprised to read that the researchers dosed their colonies by using neonic-impregnated pollen patties instead of exposing them passively in the field, as they did to determine the in-hive pesticide abundance in the first place. However, I suspect that they chose the pollen-patty method because it allows the dose to be precisely controlled over time while still being field-realistic. They found that the treated colonies had reduced worker and queen longevity as well as deterioration of hygienic behavior – one important form of social disease resistance. All three of these results are consistent with previous research on this class of pesticides, the main difference being the scale and undeniably realistic setting.

Woodcock’s experiment was slightly different – he opted to use the most realistic exposure method of them all: passive exposure by placing colonies in neonic-treated oilseed rape fields. The scale of this experiment was even more massive than Tsvetkov’s, with 33 field sites in the UK, Germany and Hungary, and three bee species (Apis mellifera, Bombus terrestris and Osmia bicornis – a solitary species) examined. They measured a whole suite of colony parameters, including worker population, abundance of all brood stages, food stores, winter survival, hive weights, and others. Most of the measured parameters did not change significantly between the treated and untreated colonies; however, some key parameters did: honey bee worker population and overwintering survival, as well as B. terrestris queen production and O. bicornis egg production.

Importantly, these metrics were not significant across all countries. Colonies in Germany were largely unaffected, whereas UK and Hungarian colonies suffered. In fact, the only significant effects on the German colonies were positive – in other words, the colonies located in neonic-treated rape fields did better than the control colonies. It’s not clear whether this is because of differences in land use management, climate or some other factor, but it does suggest that there could be ways to use neonics that does not harm bees – domestic or otherwise.

I think one of the most interesting findings in these two papers is that, counterintuitively, the neonic residues found in the colonies appeared not to come from the crop that was actually being treated. Tsvetkov analyzed the pollen sources in colonies that tested positive for neonics, and found that pollen from the treated crop (corn) was only found in a small fraction of samples. Rather, the pesticides seem to come from surrounding wildflower forage, which picked up the neonics due to their proximity and shared water sources. Similarly, Woodcock found that the most abundant neonic in the colonies was one that wasn’t even applied to the rape fields where the colonies were located.

All these findings are interesting and informative, but a question continues to burn on my mind. If we were to switch to another type of pesticide, would that be any better for bees? To date, there has been no controlled experiment demonstrating that there are effective, safer neonic alternatives. This means that although most evidence suggests neonics are harmful, as it stands we have nothing else to turn to and it’s not practical (or even desirable, arguably) for all farms to go organic. Now, we need a route forward – hopefully, such a comparison will be the next big bee Science paper.


Hives for Humanity: Bringing new life to marginalized communities

Walking along East Hastings in Vancouver, my stomach turns at the blunt contrast between poverty and luxury. It never gets easier to see. Homeless people sit, heads bowed to cardboard change cups, kitty corner to L’Abattoir – a classy, French-inspired West coast restaurant. Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside is one of the most marginalized communities in the country, notorious for homelessness, sex work, drug use and mental illness. Those who live there face incredibly challenging socio-economic barriers, yet their capacity for generosity and understanding has inspired a Canadian mother-daughter team to grow roots there. Sarah and Julia Common are using beehives as a hub to bring life and color back to Hastings. In June 2012, Hives for Humanity was born.

Starting with a single beehive, their first therapeutic apiary resides to this day in the Hastings Folk Garden – right beside the supervised injection site, where people with chronic drug addictions can go to safely use. From day one, innate curiosity about the charismatic honey bees drew people in. “I never forgot that day when Sarah came to check the hives at our building and invited me to come over and join the group,” Gafar Yousif recalls. He lives just one block from the Folk Garden in the Lux housing complex for homeless people, which itself is home to another therapeutic apiary.

Hives for Humanity uses therapeutic apiaries and gardens as a channel to transfer core values – respect, self-worth, inclusivity, education, trust, and opportunity – to at-risk community members, while giving them transferable employment skills where possible. Sarah and Julia began organizing beekeeping mentorship programs, apiculture workshops, and other activities around the culture of the beehive, all operating near East Hastings. It is the epitome of Mark Winston’s “bee time.” Sarah reminisces on the early days, when she and her mother were first getting things started. “The community response was inspiring. We saw the bees creating hope and fostering self-worth, with potential for social enterprise. We knew we had to keep going.”

Sarah studied land and food systems at the University of British Columbia, and began spending time in the Downtown Eastside for a school project on improving food quality in the area. She never fully left. She and her mother (Julia), an experienced beekeeper, soon joined forces to bring Hives for Humanity to life. “I was thinking of ways to engage more people in the green respite of the garden, to create more opportunities for the community to take leadership roles in enhancing that space. At the same time, I was realizing my mum was, firstly, someone I wanted to spend more time with as an adult, and secondly, that she was an experienced beekeeper. I asked her to teach me how to keep bees, in the context of the Downtown Eastside community, and she said yes!” Sarah and Julia never expected that the project in the Folk Garden would mature into the entity it is today. Nor did they think their influence would extend beyond Vancouver. But now, they manage over two hundred colonies and after consulting with community centers in Victoria and Halifax, similar honey bee-based initiatives in at-risk communities are now spanning coast to coast.

Continue reading in American Bee Journal – Oct issue

Insights into the life of a Varroa mite

Sitting at my microscope, the sweat in my eyes was making it hard to focus. Ninety-five degrees Farenheit (35oC) is fine for mites, but not for Canadians. I dumped a tube full of mites on a Petri dish to sort under the lens. Adult males were the first to be gathered – they were easy to recognize, with their tear-dropped, slightly tanned body and spidery legs. They were also the fastest to run away, up and over the sides of my dish. As they made a break for it, I picked up each one with a small, soft paint brush and added them to a labelled tube until I reached fifty, then filled two more.

Some of the mites had beautiful black patterns visible through their oval, translucent exoskeleton, pulsing like a heartbeat within the stillness of its shell. Mesmerized, I recalled seeing something similar in the Cyrtarachne spiders of Singapore. The little pudgy-legged protonymphs were my favorite, though. They were so cute, I almost forgot how destructive they can be. Continue reading “Insights into the life of a Varroa mite”

How Beakerhead showed me the true spirit of SciComm

The tumbling mist obscured my view of the impressive peaks overlooking the Squamish Valley. I had never been to Squamish for anything other than getting my boots up a mountain. Normally, I would be hoping for the sky to clear (I’m not super keen on soggy hiking), but that day, I was indifferent. We weren’t in Squamish to hike: we were there to write.

The science communications (SciComm) writing workshop, organized by Beakerhead at Quest University, was unlike any other I have attended. From May 31st to June 3rd, we were immersed in science storytelling. Continue reading “How Beakerhead showed me the true spirit of SciComm”

A short history of pesticides

Pesticides. A difficult topic to navigate indeed. Precisely what should be done about them (if anything) is a charged debate with many layers, and here I will try to peel some of the most prominent. The tl;dr version: it’s complicated. Continue reading “A short history of pesticides”

The diversity dispute

Could inbreeding be causing the honey bee health challenges we see today? Continue reading “The diversity dispute”

Sylgard synergy

If exposure to pesticides wasn’t enough, there’s now growing evidence that other agrochemicals are also impacting honey bee health. Continue reading “Sylgard synergy”

Points of debate: Exploring pollinator misconceptions

In the “post-truth” era, it is increasingly difficult to discriminate fact from fiction and information surrounding honey bees is no exception. My goal in this piece is to explore some of the most common misconceptions about honey bees and provide some tools that can help mitigate the spread of misinformation. In this article, I’ll be answering some relatively simple questions which have surprisingly complex answers Continue reading “Points of debate: Exploring pollinator misconceptions”

Hygienic behaviour: It’s all about the necromones

Social immunity has ancient roots in insect evolution. Ants urgently carry their dead to refuse piles, termites preferring burials and honey bees dragging their dead and diseased brood out to their doorstep. This serves the same purpose for insects as quarantine did for humans in the smallpox era: in a cramped, crowded place, disease spreads like wildfire unless the infected individuals are removed. Continue reading “Hygienic behaviour: It’s all about the necromones”

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