Monday, July 21, 2014

Queen Bee Margaret Wente versus the facts of life: Dead bees and disappearing butterflies

Margaret Wente dismisses the reported decline in honey bee populations with this un-sourced claim:  In spite of some unusually high local die-offs, the overall bee population doesn’t actually seem to be falling. The United States has more honeybee colonies than it did in 2006”.  

It’s usually “opposite day” in Ms. Wente’s corner of The Globe, but when you have a revelation like this you’d think readers would be told where the information comes from.  Here’s a taste of how the story has been reported up til now (emphasis mine):

Fox News:  A new federal report blames a combination of problems for a mysterious and dramatic disappearance of U.S. honeybees since 2006”.

IPS News:  Since 2006, the U.S. government estimates that 10 million bee hives have succumbed in the United States alone.

“The decline in the US bee population, first observed in 2006, is continuing.

The Guardian:  A report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency on “the disappearance of America's honeybees”, blamed a parasitic mite, viruses, bacteria, poor nutrition and genetics as well as pesticides for the rapid decline of honey bees since 2006.

The Washington Post:  In the United States, domesticated bee populations have reached a 50-year low and keep dwindling”.  “A new U.S. report blames a combination of problems for a mysterious and dramatic disappearance of honeybees across the country since 2006”.

Wired:  Nearly one in three commercial honeybee colonies in the United States died or disappeared last winter, an unsustainable decline that threatens the nation’s food supply….. The losses are in keeping with rates documented since 2006…”.

National Geographic: “The latest data, from the 2012-2013 winter, indicate an average loss of 45.1 percent of hives across all U.S. beekeepers, up 78.2 percent from the previous winter, and a total loss of 31.1 percent of commercial hives, on par with the last six years. (Most keepers now consider a 15 percent loss ‘acceptable.’).”
Time:  Since 2006 an estimated 10 million beehives worth about $200 each have been lost, costing beekeepers some $2 billion”. 
Since 2006, North American migratory beekeepers have seen an annual 30 percent to 90 percent loss in their colonies; non-migratory beekeepers noted an annual loss of over 50 percent.”
A Harvard University report notes “persistent loss of honey bee colonies worldwide since 2006”.

So while there have been annual fluctuations in yearly numbers before and since 2006, the doubling or tripling of honeybee deaths first noted around that time continues more or less, with 2013 rates almost identical to 2006.  More importantly, its cause is not yet fully understood.  But that’s no reason to shrug and say it’s not happening.

To her claims about U.S. bees, Wente adds these similarly vague and un-sourced Canadian numbers:In Canada, the number of bee colonies fell a bit between 2012 and 2013, but was still way up from what it was in 2009… And in Western Canada, where most of the honey comes from canola and most of the canola is treated with neonics, the bees are fine.” 

So here are some actual figures:  The Canadian Association of Professional Apiculturists reports average Canadian colony loss in 2009 at 34.2%.  (Earlier losses were around 10%, Replacement rate 15%).  In 2012/2013 deaths averaged 28.6% - still “double the acceptable level”, CAPA says.  It’s ridiculous to claim, as Wente does, that a small rebound from a 34% loss to an equally unsustainable 29% - “double the acceptable level”, means numbers are “way up”. 

And directly contradicting Wente’s (again un-sourced and unsupported) claim that bees are doing just “fine” in Western Canada, two prairie provinces in fact led the country in bee deaths in both those years.  The CAPA reports show that Manitoba recorded the highest bee colony loss at 46.4% in 2012/2013, and Alberta topped the chart in 2009 at 44%.

Like the U.S. example, Wente provides no sources for her claim that our bees are “fine”. It’s worth remembering that The Ontario Press Council guidelines state that even in opinion, readers have the right to know the origin of statistics on which a writer’s views are based.

It’s sad to see the Globe and Mail’s already ragged reputation continue its own slow death - aided by an apparent sloppiness virus.  While good journalists die off, Wente remains one of the highest paid.  And it’s clear she’s not a very busy bee. Because instead of gathering information from a variety of relevant, expert sources, and providing it to readers (along with the nectar of her opinion), she relies entirely on unsupported, inaccurate figures, and one quote – from her husband.  Instead of experts, Globe readers are treated to the anecdotal assurances (real or fanciful) from Wente and her hobby/beekeeper/hubby.  Unlike professional beekeepers and farmers, they can afford to replace a queen or two without putting a dent in their next vacation to Tuscany or Africa.  

The loss of pollinators is an important global issue with a lot of yet unanswered questions.  So would it really have been too much to expect Ms. Wente to actually interview someone  - an entomologist, or a representative of an association like CAPA - professional bee keepers, whose actual livelihood is on the line (along with sustainable agriculture)?

That is what she’s paid to do.  A salary that affords a country retreat from which to enjoy bees and butterflies is no reason to limit investigation to one’s own backyard.

In the same article, Wente assures us that reports of Monarch Butterfly deaths are just so much meaningless buzz.  She saw one in her own meadow the other day (though she acknowledges there may be a wee bit of a problem with their habitat across the rest of North America).  Also, the loss of the milkweed plant on which the insects breed and feed is the fault of environmentalists’ support for ethanol, she suggests.  Leaving aside the fact that environmentalists don’t promote ethanol, Wente, a regular GMO champion, withholds from readers the well reported links between the disappearance of Monarch milkweed habitat and GMO plantings.  

As The New York Times explains: “farmers have switched in droves to new varieties of crops that are genetically engineered to tolerate the most widely used weed killer in the United States. The resulting use of weed killers has wiped out much of the milkweed that once grew between crop rows and on buffer strips separating fields and roads”.

 Or here:  Genetically engineered corn and soybeans make it easy for farmers to eradicate weeds, including the long-lived and unruly milkweed.  Between 1999 and 2010, the same period in which GMO crops became the norm for farmers, the number of monarch eggs declined by an estimated 81 percent across the Midwest, the researchers say. That's because milkweed -- the host plant for the eggs and caterpillars produced by one of one of the most gaudy and widely recognized of all North American butterflies -- has nearly disappeared from farm fields, they found.  It is one of the clearest examples yet of unintended consequences from the widespread use of genetically modified seeds, said John Pleasants, a monarch researcher from Iowa State in Ames, Iowa”.

Slate:  For monarchs, the most important development was Roundup Ready corn and soybeans. Since the turn of the century, these genetically modified crops have risen to dominance in the Midwest. Designed to withstand dousing from the Monsanto company’s Roundup weed killer, the plants enabled farmers to swiftly kill competing weeds, including milkweed, while leaving their crops untouched. In 2013, 83 percent of all corn and 93 percent of soybeans in the United States were herbicide tolerant, totaling nearly 155 million acres, much of it in the Midwest”.

The Globe and Mail:  The evidence points to the U.S. corn belt, where increased cultivation of genetically modified corn and soybean crops comes with a devastating side effect for milkweed.
When GM crops are planted, fields are sprayed with herbicides to wipe out any wild plants that don`t share the crops’ genetically engineered protection. In the past, herbicides would typically be applied early in the growing season, when milkweed seeds are still underground. With GM crops, the spraying happens later, and any milkweed growing adjacent to the crops is hit hard.
GMO – both corn and soy - are planted in approximately equal amounts in the U.S.  Of that half, 27% of the corn goes to ethanol.   The disappearing Monarchs have nothing to do with the destination of a small portion of one crop, and everything to do with the nature of GMO crops of various kinds and their related pesticide use.  Given Wente’s regular trumpeting of GMO, one is entitled to wonder whether the omission here is intentional or accidental.  Ironically, it was an article promoting GMO (along with a similar lack of ‘busyness’ or work ethic) that got Wente into plagiarism trouble a while ago – see here.  

A few weeks back, Wente stirred up a hornet’s nest with a silly column on why women don’t watch sports, can’t do sports and should just make the popcorn for the guys.  It was the kind of just-for-clicks stuff she churns out pretty regularly.  There too she quotes that all round expert - her husband.

I don’t particularly care how many anecdotal conversations  (real or imaginary) with hubby or girlfriend  Ms. Wente stuffs into those predictable, contrarian gender/lifestyle pieces.  But when writing about serious, real world topics (science, politics, economics), some serious real world investigation is called for.  Imaginary people, friends, and relatives just don’t cut it.   Readers of The Globe and Mail deserve  facts, sources, real expertise and accurate statistics.  With that hefty subscription, one should expect Ms. Wente’s article on the un-explained die off of pollinators and Monarch Butterflies to include just a bit of legwork on her part - slightly farther afield than the comfy confines of her country house and garden.  Until then, there are more than a few readers who would like to see an old queen replaced with one willing to do the job.

Update:  A new report on bee deaths quoting: “More than half of Ontario’s honeybees died last winter”.  58%.  Again – Margaret Wente could not be bothered to interview someone from CAPA, who were releasing a report just as she prepared an article quoting…her husband.


  1. Shared with all of my facebook friends! Good to know someone is keeping tabs on her.

    1. Quite agree- a copy of this should be forwarded to the Globe and Mail!

    2. G&M knows what it is doing. Better to forward this to anyone who still bothers to subscribe to Toronto's national newspaper.