'A bad feeling in the pit of my stomach': Bees vanish from Brock research project

For a few years, Miriam Richards thought her Niagara bee project was going well. Now she's seeing a slow decline, and she fears it's a nationwide trend.

For a few years, Miriam Richards thought her Niagara bee project was going well

"This is very, very frightening," says Miriam Richards of the decline in bee populations. "I try not to think about it." She's been studying bees since 1989, and says panic is creeping in. (Brock University)

Miriam Richards has been studying bees for 28 years, and she's never been quite this panicked.

Living in a world without fantastical creatures, it just sounds to me so barren and depressing.- Miriam Richards, Brock University professor of biological sciences

The Brock University biologist set up a bee research project on an old Niagara landfill in 2003, and for a few years, bee populations seemed to thrive. Now the property is still the same, she said, but the bees are vanishing.

Richards recently published the results of this in the journal Insect Conservation and Diversity. Her greatest fear is that the decline isn't specific to the former landfill habitat anymore. Bees in general are just disappearing.

"Until very recently, I was pretty optimistic," she said. Now, "I try not to think about it. It gives me a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach."

The landfill project started in 2003. The property, a quick walk from Brock University's main campus in St. Catharines, was once the Glenridge Quarry, and then an enormous landfill.

Richards set up 30 traps at the covered landfill so she could compare the findings with bee traps at the Brock campus. That would tell her how long it took bee populations on the former landfill to catch up. Within five years years, she said, bee populations at the quarry matched those at Brock, and as many as 150 species were found there.

For a few years, the project was declared a victory. But since 2007, she said, bee populations have declined. 

There have been three years of drought over the last decade, Richards said. Her worst fear, though, is that there just aren't that many bees left.

The once-empty fields around the quarry are suburbs now, she said. And that's the case nearly everywhere.

"What really worries me is what we're seeing is the effect of shrinking habitat," she said.

Widespread bee deaths have prompted concern about neonicotinoid pesticides, including imidacloprid, which are widely used insecticides in Canada. (Michael McCollum/The Record/Canadian Press)

"How many blows can bee populations take before there's nothing left?"

Scientists say there's overwhelming evidence that bees are in trouble. The Natural Resources Defence Council says bees pollinate at least 30 per cent of food crops and 90 per cent of wild plants, so it has implications on the food supply.

In Ontario, for example, the bee industry lost as much as 58 per cent of its honeybees during winter 2013-14. That led to Ontario phasing in limits on nicotine-based pesticides, called neonicotinoids, which experts say is a major culprit.

Health Canada is studying a ban and the impact of neonicotinoids on the broader ecosystem, but isn't expected to make a decision until December 2018.

For a few years, bee populations at the Glenridge Quarry thrived enough to match bee traps that weren't on a former landfill, says Miriam Richards. But they've declined again. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Richards says bee loss is at a crucial point. She's researched "social bee-haviour" — the study of how bees and other insects socialize — since 1989.

If humans want to help, she said, they should keep messy gardens. Don't manicure every inch of green space in your yard, Richards said. Don't worry about the judgment of neighbours. Let plants become overgrown, and flowers bloom with abandon.

Bee decline has several implications, she said. But "the thing I worry about the most is the loss of a natural, wild world."

"Living in a world without fantastical creatures, it just sounds to me so barren and depressing," she said. "I don't like thinking about it. It makes me a bit panicky when I think about it."


Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She often tweets about Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca