Some Alberta honey producers are worried that oilfield sour-gas emissions are harming or killing their valuable bees, despite the petroleum industry making significant reductions in these emissions.
Studies revealing that bees have an extraordinary sense of smell and are extremely sensitive to airborne pollutants suggest the honey producers probably have reasons to be concerned, bee researchers say.
But proving that sour-gas emissions are responsible for problems reported by honey producers – ranging from disoriented bees to mass winter die-offs in hives – would require that a study be done in the province, the experts say.
“The types of effects they (honeybee producers) are talking about are not only possible, but happen probably a lot more than we know,” says Jerry Bromenshenk, a biologist at the University of Montana, Missoula, an internationally known expert on the effects of chemicals on bees.
Studies done 30 years ago in the U.S. found that numbers of honeybees and wasps were greatly reduced in areas with high industrial emissions of sulphur-containing gases, Bromenshenk said in a telephone interview from his office in Missoula.
But proving a direct cause-and-effect link between the low levels of sour-gas emissions normally produced by Alberta’s petroleum industry and anecdotal reports by honey producers would require a well-designed study, Bromenshenk says. “Quite frankly, the research for the most part hasn’t been done.”
Alberta is Canada’s largest honey-producing province, with one-third to 40 per cent of the country’s honey production. Honey and related products are worth about $200 million a year.
The agricultural sector also depends on bees and other insect pollinators to grow about $1 billion worth of pollinated crops. In Alberta, about 50,000 bee colonies are kept just for pollinating hybrid canola.
Honey producers who have been having problems with their bees have grown increasingly worried by a University of Calgary study published this summer. It found that exposing snails to low levels of hydrogen sulphide impaired the snails’ ability to learn and remember.
Hydrogen sulphide gas or H2S, which is poisonous at relatively low concentrations, is a main component of sour natural gas.
“I think the producers are quite concerned,” says Heather Clay, national co-ordinator for the Calgary-based Canadian Honey Council.
Problems reported by producers include bees not finding their way back to their hives and neglecting to feed in lush alfalfa fields and other usual foraging grounds.
Some producers also report a drop in honey production in areas exposed to oilfield sour-gas emissions, and unusually high mortality in hives over winter.
Beekeeper Henry Pirker of Debolt, in the Peace River region about 400 kilometres northwest of Edmonton, kept careful records of his honeybees and nearby sour gas operations until his death last year.
“He definitely saw a correlation between the activities of the honeybees in areas where the sour gas emissions were strongest,” Clay says.
Pirker was also heavily involved in clean-air issues, including being a director for the Clean Air Strategic Alliance, which includes the oil and gas industry, government, environmental groups and other stakeholders.
But other than Pirker’s records, the only ‘evidence’ of a link so far is an increasing number of anecdotal reports by honey producers.
“We are seeing higher losses over the winter, and that is being traced back to the previous season when the bees didn’t collect enough nectar for the winter store,” Clay says.
David Pryce, vice-president of the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), says the industry has made great strides in reducing sour-gas emissions, and is supporting well-done scientific research aimed at determining whether the emissions are having health effects in people and wildlife.
“We’ve been supportive and continue to support the effects-based research around this (issue),” he says.
Through the Clean Air Strategic Alliance, the industry has voluntarily reduced its provincewide flaring of sour-gas emissions by 70 per cent since 1996, Pryce notes.
The industry also cut its sulphur emissions from aging sour-gas processing plants across Alberta by about 25 per cent from 2000 to the end of 2003.
CAPP is helping to fund a three-year, $17-million study in western Canada to determine whether low-level sour-gas emissions from the industry are affecting beef cattle health and productivity. Results of this study are expected next summer.
The Calgary-based industry association has also contributed funding to a Rutgers University study in New Jersey that involves exposing human volunteers in sealed chambers to carefully controlled low levels of hydrogen sulphide. Preliminary results show the gas doesn’t affect the subjects’ ability to perform computer tasks and other memory-related work.
University of Calgary neuroscientist Ken Lukowiak, who led the study that found H2S harmed snails’ memories, says it’s likely – although a study would be needed to prove it – that sour-gas emissions would affect honeybees in a similar way.
“I would expect the same sort of thing,” he says. “I would expect that it (sour gas) would affect the molecules that are necessary for memory formation.”
Lukowiak exposed snails to various low levels of H2S and then tested their memories. Snails can be conditioned or trained to open or close their respiratory orifices, he says.
Lukowiak found that snails exposed to even the lowest levels of H2S did much poorer on the tests than snails that weren’t exposed to the gas – evidence that the snails’ ability to learn and remember was impaired.
University of Montana bee researcher Bromenshenk says his and other research shows that bees have a sense of smell “that is far, far greater than we ever imagined,” and that the insects are affected by a range of airborne pollutants.
Bees can easily smell, while flying along, chemical plumes in which the concentrations of certain chemicals are only five to 15 parts per trillion, Bromenshenk says.
The bee’s sense of smell is at least as sensitive as that of dogs used to sniff out drugs and bombs, he adds. He and his colleagues are training honeybees to locate landmines by literally sniffing out the extremely low levels of vapour that buried explosives give off.
Some researchers also have found convincing evidence that nicotine-based pesticides are affecting the nervous systems of bees, including disrupting their sense of smell, memory and problem-solving ability, he notes.
But Bromenshenk and other experts stress that there are many things, other than sour-gas emissions, that can cause problems for bees.
Robin Owen, a professor of chemical, biological and environmental science at Mount Royal College in Calgary and an internationally known expert on bumblebees, says honeybees in Canada – which aren’t native to the country so must all be imported – have, in the last decade, been afflicted by varroa mites. The blood-sucking mites can kill entire colonies if not eradicated.
Viruses and other diseases also can sweep through hives. And prolonged drought conditions – such as those seen in much of Alberta in the previous three summers – can reduce the bees’ foraging crops and food needed to survive the winter.
Problems caused by sour-gas emissions “is certainly a very interesting hypothesis. But there may be other factors,” Owen says.
The Canadian Honey Council’s Clay says some producers are nevertheless relocating their hives to areas that aren’t exposed to oilfield sour-gas emissions.
The council would welcome a well-designed study that would address the producers’ concerns, she says.
“We’d really like to know,” Clay says. “Bees are like mine canaries. They’re out there in the environment all the time and they’re pretty good monitors if something’s wrong.”
(Mark Lowey can be reached at email@example.com)